Challenges of Water Sharing in the Nile Basin: Critical Moments Approaching

Viktor Mikhin
SUD3411Egypt and Sudan are supposed to adhere to a binding agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), even amidst reports that Addis Ababa, for a second year, will fill its reservoir with less water than had previously been planned, several international experts say.

Just three weeks before the second planned year for filling the dam’s reservoir with water, Ethiopia’s Minister of Water, Irrigation, and Energy stated that the construction of the GERD’s body had not yet reached the height previously planned that is required to completely fill it by the second year.  The current height of the GERD is 565 meters, and construction work is in progress to reach 573 meters within the next 20 days, stated the Ethiopian news company Fana Broadcasting Corporate (FBC), citing Seleshi Bekele Awulachew, the Minister of Water, Irrigation, and Energy.  Officials in Addis Ababa have repeatedly stated that they will unilaterally fill the GERD’s reservoir, which has a capacity of 74 billion cubic meters, with 13.5 billion cubic meters of water in July and August to increase the accumulated water volume up to 18.4 billion cubic meters – in comparison with the 4.9 billion cubic meters delivered in 2020.

Egypt and Sudan, for their part, insist on signing a comprehensive, legally binding agreement with Ethiopia on the GERD. However, Addis Ababa has rejected that, but desires instead simple guidelines – ones that can be changed at any time, at Ethiopia’s discretion. While Addis Ababa affirms that the GERD issue is a matter of Ethiopian national sovereignty, Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry has made it clear that “there is no sovereignty when it comes to an international river”. One senior diplomatic official also stressed that Egypt will not tolerate any harm inflicted by rash behavior, and will steadfastly defend its right to have water.

Ethiopia previously rejected that downstream countries enjoyed water rights under “colonial-era agreements”, and Foreign Ministry spokesperson Dina Mufti stated that it was “unacceptable” for Egypt and Sudan to use the historic Nile water sharing agreements as a reference point during negotiations on the GERD, which ultimately became deadlocked starting in April this year.

Sudan responded by threatening that disavowing these agreements would mean “compromising the sovereignty” of the Benishangul-Gumuz region, where Addis Ababa is building the controversial dam, and called on Ethiopian leadership to abide by the international agreements it signed as an “independent state.”  The Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty was signed in 1902 between the United Kingdom, which represented Egypt and Sudan, and Ethiopia, represented by Emperor Menelik II of Abyssinia. Although the agreement prohibited Ethiopia from building any hydraulic engineering facilities spanning the Blue Nile that could affect the natural course of the river, it granted Ethiopia sovereignty over the then Sudanese region of Benishangul. The claim put forth by the Ethiopians is that the relevant agreements are “an insignificant colonial legacy that is a clear misrepresentation of historical evidence that Ethiopia was an independent, sovereign state, and a member of the international community, at the time of these agreements, while Sudan was subject to bilateral colonialism (by both the Ottomans and the British),” the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

The facts show that while Egypt and Sudan are struggling to push for the GERD negotiations to take place ahead of the flood season, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed decided to deliver the provocative announcement that Addis Ababa plans to build 100 more dams across country. Cairo described Abiy Ahmed’s statement as the continuation of a “regrettable approach” that ignores international law. “Ethiopia believes that the Nile and other international rivers that it shares with neighboring states fall under its sovereignty, and can be exploited however it wants,” the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs Demeke Mekonnen stated on May 20 that the second round of filling the GERD’s reservoir, which is scheduled for July and August, would be “on schedule” – either with or without any agreement. He accused Egypt and Sudan of “trying to put unnecessary pressure” on Ethiopia, and in no small measure by “internationalizing and politicizing” the engineering issues surrounding both the dam and many other controversial issues.

In an attempt to pressure on Addis Ababa to take a more constructive approach, Egypt and Sudan have held joint field training exercises. Egyptian land, naval, and air forces, including special operations and airborne forces, took part in the Nile Guardians exercise in Sudan.  Hani Raslan, an Africa and Nile expert at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, says that the Ethiopian threats to Sudan, whether due to GERD or the Al-Fashaqa border area dispute, lie at the heart of these field training exercises. The exercises definitely send an important signal: Sudan’s national security is an integral part of Egypt’s national security, and the opposite is also true. Incidentally, similar exercises were held in April after the failure of trilateral talks that had been organized by the African Union (AU) in Kinsasha, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is quite obvious that – provided that the negotiations on the GERD have not been wrapped up – Egypt and Sudan may resort to a military solution for this very complex and confusing problem.

Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Ati confirmed that “we still have hopes of reaching an agreement, because other solutions would be difficult, and we do not want difficult solutions”.  While Abdel-Ati reiterated that Egypt has pursued a policy of cooperation in the Nile Basin for over 10 years, Ethiopia has consistently been an obstacle in this respect, Hani Raslan, an Africa and Nile expert at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Ahram Weekly. The minister and the expert underscored that Egypt is not a hostile country, and is not looking for war, but if this does occur then it will be the result of Ethiopia’s intransigence. The persistent desire on the part of Ethiopia, according to Cairo, to push the situation to the edge of a precipice is fraught with instability and the potential for subsequent hostilities in the region.

Ethiopia is trying to win the maximum number of concessions from Egypt and Sudan, many international experts say. The Ethiopian leadership also wants to buy some time ahead of the elections on June 21. Over the course of a decade of negotiations, Egypt has proposed 15 alternative scenarios, each of which guarantees that the GERD will continue to generate at least 80% of its planned electricity – even during the worst droughts – but Ethiopia has rejected them all.  “Ethiopia does not want an agreement. If that were not true, then Addis Ababa would have signed the agreement last year,” believes the Egyptian minister of water resources and irrigation.

In April Mohammed Ghanem, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, stated that Egypt was not opposed to the process of filling the GERD’s 74 billion cubic meter GERD reservoir, but wants it to be flexible, while Addis Ababa continues to insist on a fixed schedule, regardless of whether there is plenty of rain or a drought.  By virtue of this, one question arises: does Ethiopia intend to complete the second round of filling the GERD with 13.5 billion cubic meters in July and August, stopping the flow of the Blue Nile for two months and which, according to experts, will cause the river to dry up, disrupt water and electricity deliveries to Sudan, and inflict harm on Egypt? Or will it take advantage of five long months of flooding, which lasts up to November, and split the amount of water in such a way that harm to the two downstream countries is minimized?

The GERD problem is such an important for Egypt that its President, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, has to deal with this issue on a regular basis. He has repeatedly stated that any threat to Egypt’s share of water is “line in the sand”, and that there will be serious regional implications if Egypt’s water supply is affected by the Ethiopian dam. “I say again that no one can take one drop of Egyptian water, and if this happens, the region will become unimaginably unstable,” the president stated harshly.  Egypt’s 100 million people are more than 95 percent dependent on the world’s longest river, the Nile. He fears that a massive $4.8 billion hydroelectric power project will significantly reduce his country’s water supply, which at the current 560 m3 per person per year is already well below the international threshold that defines water scarcity.

At the same time, the Egyptian president, in a futile attempt to have a positive influence on Ethiopia, held a special telephone conversation devoted to this topic with US President Joe Biden. But Washington was constrained by the fact that on May 14, the US State Department issued a statement in which it demagogically called for resuming the negotiations mediated by the African Union (AU) in accordance with the 2015 Declaration of Principles, and the outcome of the July 2020 AU GERD summit, drily stating that the United States “was committed to providing political and technical support to facilitate a successful outcome”. This turned out to be quite obvious and unsurprising, since this was not about the sale of American military rubbish, but about the art of diplomacy and negotiation, something about which the current Washington administration has only second-hand knowledge.

In this regard, it could be said that a tragedy will unfold in how the waters of the great African Nile River will be distributed, and literally right before the world’s eyes. Will this occur following a bloody massacre, or will reason prevail? Whether the three countries – Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan – will be able to reach an agreement with each other, and whether the world community will come to help them, will become apparent in the near future.