Week of trading barbs on Nile dam drives resolution further away than ever, say experts

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan remain in dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

A satellite image shows the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Blue Nile River. AFP
A satellite image shows the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Blue Nile River. AFP

The Nile dam dispute is further away from resolution than ever after a flurry of uncompromising comments by officials in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia this week, experts say.

The war of words comes less than three months before Addis Ababa is due to press ahead with a second and much larger filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile despite stern warnings by downstream Egypt and Sudan not to do so before a comprehensive agreement is reached.

Egypt, the most populous Arab nation with 100 million people, says Ethiopia’s hydroelectric dam will cut its share of the Nile’s water, on which it depends for more than 90 per cent of its fresh water needs.

Sudan has a similar concern about water as well as fears about the impact on its own power-generating Nile dams and the threat of flooding.

Ethiopia has largely dealt with the dispute as a matter of national sovereignty. It also has claimed total ownership of the Blue Nile, whose source is on its highlands and which contributes more the 80 per cent of the Nile’s water. It refuses to enter a legally binding agreement on the operation and filling of the dam, preferring guidelines instead and refusing proposals for international mediation.

Egypt and Sudan have been campaigning to win the support of the international community as Ethiopia, where a civil war has raged since November, tries to rekindle the patriotic fervour and national unity once inspired by the dam.

“The Biden administration’s new special envoy to the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman has a trouble- shooting brief. The question of GERD is high on his list because there is a growing sense in Washington that it’s becoming a real problem,” said Michael Hanna, a Middle East expert from the New York-based Century Foundation.

“But Ethiopians have created facts on the ground and they are not interested in talking to anyone, at least not now,” he said.

Egypt’s prime minister, Mustafa Madbouli this week laid out the facts about how vital the Nile water is to the mainly desert country where more than 90 per cent of the population live on the banks of the river and in its delta.

“To Egypt, the question of water, and specifically the Nile, goes beyond all considerations and is tantamount to an existential issue linked to the life and very existence of Egyptians,” he said on Tuesday.

Arguing his country’s case, he said Egypt’s share of the Nile water – 55.5 billion cubic metres _ remained unchanged for close to a century while the country’s population grew to more than 100 million. Egypt’s per capita share of water currently stood at 600 cubic metres a year, or 400 cubic metres below the 1,000-cubic-metre threshold of water poverty, he told reporters.

While Mr Madbouli’s comments appeared designed to showcase the extent of Egypt’s water predicament, statements recently made by Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi left no one in doubt that Egypt was prepared to go to great lengths, including military action, to protect its share of water.

He warned on March 30 of “unimaginable instability” in the region if Egypt was denied a single drop of water and that no one should assume that they are beyond the reach of his military.

“Some people don’t seem able to grasp the magnitude of the disaster awaiting Egypt if its water share is cut,” said Hany Raslan, a senior Africa expert with Egypt’s Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

“All that is needed is a surgical strike to stop the second filling not destroying the dam, but time is not on Egypt’s side and the window for action is getting smaller.”

Sudan, for its part, temporarily threw diplomatic prudence to the wind when its irrigation minister accused the African Union of bias “to some extent” towards Ethiopia during its year-long tenure as a sponsor of negotiations between the three nations.

“The African Union did not bother to respond to Sudan’s complaint about the first filling,” the minister, Yasser Abbas, said in an interview this week on Sudan’s state television. The first filling disrupted some of Sudan’s water-treatment plants, leaving tens of thousands of homes without running water for days.

He said legal teams were preparing cases on what he called the GERD’s structural deficiencies and the environmental damage it’s causing with a view to suing the Ethiopian government and the Italian company it has contracted to build the dam.

“It is tough to market the war option to the people of Sudan. There’s a large segment of the population that remains sympathetic towards Ethiopia,” said Rasha Awad, a Sudanese political analyst. She was alluding to the close cultural, social and economic binding the two countries

“Some in the military are in favour of military action to make political gains at home, but the decision to go to war will not be made by the military alone.”

Besides its quarrel with Ethiopia over the GERD, the pair are also locked in a border dispute that has led to a series of deadly clashes in recent months and the massing of troops on their border.

In Ethiopia, comments by officials in recent days have ranged from accusing unnamed parties of scheming against the country to branding as obsolete Nile water-sharing agreements reached by Egypt and Sudan and their former colonial master Britain in the last century.

The Ethiopian officials have also been seeking to rekindle the nationalism and sense of unity evoked by the GERD before the war against separatist rebels in the Tigray region distracted the ethnically and religiously diverse Horn of Africa nation when it broke out in November.

“It has become clear that there is a conspiracy to foil our efforts and undermine our very existence,” Ethiopia’s water minister, Seleshi Bekele, wrote on his Twitter account this week. “We must all persevere and shoulder our responsibilities.”

Last weekend, Ethiopia’s National Security Council called on Ethiopians to rally behind their government in what it called its drive to lift millions out of poverty through the completion of the GERD.

“The top priority of citizens and the government is filling the GERD and finalising the building of the dam,” according to the statement, carried by the state news agency. “We will realise the second filling of the dam by resisting both internal and external pressures.”

Published: April 29, 2021 09:51 PM

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