Egypt and Sudan on Tuesday vilified Ethiopia for going ahead with a second filling of its disputed Nile dam, saying the move constituted a “dangerous escalation”.
Ethiopia informed both countries on Monday it had started the second filling of its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, ignoring opposition by the pair to such a move without the three first reaching a legally-binding agreement.
Separate statements by the Egyptian and Sudanese foreign ministries said the two countries rejected the Ethiopian announcement on the start of the second filling, and that it breached international laws governing the use of transnational rivers and a 2015 declaration of principles by the three nations.
"This step amounts to a dangerous escalation and exposes the ill intent of Ethiopia and its desire to create a fait accompli on the two downstream nations without heed to the negative consequences and harm that could come to them,” said the Egyptian statement, which was issued after a meeting in New York late on Monday night between the foreign ministers of Egypt and Sudan.
The Sudanese statement dismissed the Ethiopian notification on the second filling as "useless" and said: "The unilateral filling for a second consecutive year poses an imminent danger and threat to Sudan."
Ethiopia’s move was expected but took on added significance since it was announced only days before the UN Security Council was scheduled to discuss the dispute at the request of Cairo and Khartoum.
No resolution was expected from Thursday’s council session. Instead, it will most likely yield a statement urging the three nations to return to the negotiating table under the auspices of the African Union. Sudan and Egypt say AU leadership of the negotiations produced no results.
Egypt is alarmed that the dam would significantly reduce its vital share of the Nile waters – it depends on the river for more than 90 per cent of its freshwater needs – thus wiping out hundreds of thousands of jobs and upending its delicate food balance.
It categorised the prospect of a reduced share of the Nile waters an “existential” issue and gave warning of “unimaginable” instability if it was denied a “drop of its water.”
President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has dropped hints of possible military action to settle the dispute, saying in March that anyone assuming to be beyond the reach of Egypt’s military would do so at their own peril. On Saturday, he said Egypt would not be negotiating indefinitely.
“The option of military action is omnipresent,” said leading Africa expert Hany Raslan, of Egypt’s Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “Egypt will not be able to endure the fair accompli Ethiopia wants to impose and that’s why the military option will always be on the table. The alternative will be surrender.”
Sudan is concerned it would be plagued by widespread flooding and disruption of work at its own Nile dams if Ethiopia did not co-ordinate with it the operation of the GERD, dangerously located less than 20 kilometres from its eastern border.
Because of engineering difficulties, the size of the GERD’s second filling was unlikely to be more than 25 per cent of the 13.5 billion cubic metres announced by Addis Ababa months ago. Egypt and Sudan say they oppose the move regardless of the amount of water involved.
The modest amount would likely have little or no effect on Egypt, thanks to its vast reservoir behind the Aswan dam.
But it could trigger a repeat of the problems Sudan suffered from the first filling last year. That filling, which involved about 4 billion cubic metres, disrupted work at water treatment plants, leaving thousands of households without drinking water for days.
A decade of negotiations between the three nations has failed to produce the legally binding agreement sought by Cairo and Khartoum that includes mechanisms to deal with persistent drought and future disputes. Ethiopia insists that guidelines should suffice.
The last round of negotiations, held in the Democratic Republic of Congo, broke down in April.
Ethiopia has mostly dealt with the dispute over its hydroelectric dam as an issue of national sovereignty and occasionally framed it as one pitting sub-Saharan black Africans against the Arabs of the north. It says the GERD, which is 80 per cent complete and will produce 6,000 megawatts of power, will lift millions of its people from poverty.
On Monday, only hours before the announcement on the second filling, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed denied his country intended to harm anyone by building the GERD.
“The only thing that Ethiopia wants is to address the country’s demand for electricity without posing a threat to downstream countries,” he told members of Parliament, the state Ethiopian news agency reported.