Egypt’s president delivered another stern warning to Ethiopia over its colossal Nile dam, saying “all options” will be on the table if his country’s share of the river’s water is affected by the dam.
President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s televised comments on Wednesday came one day after Egypt and its ally Sudan blamed Ethiopia for the failure of the latest round of talks on the dam, plunging the negotiating process into deep uncertainty and raising the prospect of hostilities.
The two downstream nations said Ethiopia had rejected their suggestion for a quartet made of the United States, European Union, the United Nations and the African Union to enter the negotiations as mediators.
Egypt and Sudan next proposed that the quartet should operate as “facilitators” rather than mediators. That too was rejected by the Ethiopians during the talks held in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The third proposal, also rejected by the Ethiopians, was made by Egypt, which wanted the African Union to be the chief sponsor of the talks, provided that it is granted the freedom to bring in experts whose counsel could push the process forward. It was hoped that an agreement could be reached within eight weeks.
“I tell our brothers in Ethiopia ‘let us not get to the stage where you withhold a drop of water from Egypt because all options are open. Our cooperation is a better proposition. To build together is so much better than being at odds or at conflict’,” said Mr El Sisi, a general-turned-president, in office since 2014.
Egypt, the most populous Arab nation with 100 million people, is alarmed that Ethiopia’s hydroelectric dam will significantly cut into its vital share of the river’s water, wiping out tens of thousands of jobs and disrupting the delicate food balance.
Egypt depends on the Nile for more than 90 per cent of its fresh water needs.
A fellow downstream nation, Sudan says Ethiopia must share data on the filling and operation of the dam to avoid deadly flooding in its eastern region and the disruption of its own power-generating Nile dams.
The two accuse Ethiopia of employing time-buying tactics until the dam, already 80 per cent complete, is fully operational.
Wednesday’s warning to Ethiopia was the second in as many weeks by the Egyptian leader. Last week, he made a thinly-veiled threat that Egypt could use military force to secure its water share, saying no one should believe they are beyond the reach of his country’s “capabilities.”
“I say it again, Egypt’s water cannot be touched. Touching it is a red line and our reaction if it’s touched will impact on the entire region,” he said.
Sudan and Egypt have in recent months forged close military ties, conducting joint war games and signing a military co-operation agreement amid vows by Egypt’s top brass to help Sudan, also at odds with Ethiopia over a border dispute, defend its territory.
Both seek a legally binding agreement on the filling of the dam's reservoir as well as the handling of persistent drought and future disputes.
Ethiopia, however, insists guidelines should be sufficient. It says it will go ahead in July with a second and much larger filing – 13.5 billion cubic metres, or nearly three times the size of the first filling – regardless of whether an agreement is reached.
Speaking in Kinshasa late on Tuesday at the end of the talks, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry said Ethiopia’s stance in the latest round of talks was “regrettable” and showed once again a lack of political will to reach a deal.
“Egypt has its own institutions and scenarios to deal with this issue in order to protect its water security … the decisive factor in all this is harm. If it’s done, then we will confront it with all the resources available to us, foremost of which are the political ones,” he warned.
Egypt and Sudan believe the international quartet they propose will have the kind of influence the African Union, which has sponsored the talks over the past year without making any progress, does not possess.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, is built on the Blue Nile less than 20 kilometres from the Sudanese border.
When completed, it is expected to generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity. Addis Ababa says the dam is key to the country’s development and will take millions out of poverty.
The Blue Nile, whose source is on Ethiopia’s highlands, thunders down into eastern Sudan and meets with the White Nile in Khartoum before the two travel together through northern Sudan and Egypt all the way to the Mediterranean.
The Blue Nile accounts for more than 80 per cent of the Nile’s water.