The Ethiopian Prime Minister announced that his country would begin filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) this July

The battle between Ethiopia and Egypt for the Nile, is it a dead end?

AFP/EDUARDO SOTERAS - General view of the Blue Nile River as it flows through the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) near Guba in Ethiopia.

At a dead end and with no sign of a solution: such is the state of negotiations to resolve the dispute over the construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in the Blue Nile, which confronts Ethiopia and Egypt, two African powers. The Nile, whose watershed covers eleven countries, has two main tributaries: The White Nile, which originates in the Great Lakes region; and the Blue Nile, which begins in Lake Tana in Ethiopia and contributes 85% of its water to the river. The two tributary flows join north of Khartoum and from there the river crosses Sudan and Egypt to its mouth in the Mediterranean Sea.

In the Blue Nile, Ethiopia began in 2011 to build the dam in the Guba district, Benishangul-Gumuz region (west), in order to secure water resources for the country in the Horn of Africa and export electricity to boost its development. The GERD, 70% completed and valued at some $5 billion (4.5 billion euros), will become the largest hydroelectric dam on the continent, capable of generating more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity (equivalent to six nuclear power plants) over a maximum area of 1,874 square kilometers.

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed in 2015 that the construction of the mega-project should not affect the economy, river flow and hydropower security of any of the three riparian states, but since then disagreements have prevailed. Egypt claims its "historic rights" over the Nile and considers the dam a "threat to national security" because it fears it will significantly reduce the flow of the river that irrigates the Arab country and provides it with about 90 per cent of the freshwater that reaches its fields and dams from Ethiopia via Sudan.

Vista general de las obras de construcción de la Gran Presa del Renacimiento Etíope (GERD), cerca de Guba en Etiopía
Broken negotiations

The latest attempt to resolve the dispute through dialogue was the negotiations held in January and February this year in Washington, under the auspices of the United States and the World Bank (WB).  On February 26, Ethiopia announced that it was postponing sine die its participation in the talks with Egypt and Sudan on the GERD, in order to complete its internal consultations. The announcement came one day before the tripartite meeting that was to take place in Washington on 27 and 28 February and was to lead to an agreement.

As a result of another round of negotiations in the US capital, the three countries agreed at the end of January that the dam would be gradually filled. This was one of the issues that caused most disagreement between Ethiopia and Egypt, because Cairo requested that it be done in several years to limit the impact on the flow of the Nile, while Addis Ababa hopes to do so in a shorter period.

However, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a statement on February 28 emphasizing that "final testing and filling shouldn't take place without an agreement" between the three countries, a demand that greatly annoyed Ethiopia, which wants to start filling in July.

United States, controversial observer 

"What Ethiopia opposes is the changing roles of the United States as facilitator or mediator. We only accept the roles of the U.S. and the World Bank as observers and we want them to adhere to that alone," said Ethiopia's Minister of Water Resources, Seleshi Bekele, who said he was still committed to dialogue.

This negotiating attitude has always been seen in Egypt as an Ethiopian obstructionist tactic, as Attia Essawi, an expert from the Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic and Political Studies in Cairo recently recalled in an article describing "the long history of Ethiopian intransigence in the Nile negotiations". Since then, tension between Ethiopia and Egypt has been rising to the point that the Egyptian Foreign Ministry threatened to use "all necessary means" to protect its "interests", in a veiled reference to the possible use of force.

El presidente de Estados Unidos, Donald Trump (C), posa para una foto con la ministra de Relaciones Exteriores de Sudán, Asma Mohamed Abdalla (I), el ministro de Relaciones Exteriores de Egipto, Sameh Shoukry, (2ºI), el ministro de Relaciones Exteriores de Etiopía, Gedu Andargachew (2ºD), y el secretario del Tesoro de Estados Unidos, Steven Mnuchin (D), durante una reunión sobre las negociaciones en curso sobre la Gran Presa del Renacimiento Etíope, en el Despacho Oval de la Casa Blanca

According to William Davison, an expert from the International Crisis Group (ICG), "the positions of the parties have become tougher since the collapse of the talks at the end of February, and the current circumstances seem too heated to allow a comprehensive agreement in the short term". The ICG, however, believes an "interim agreement" governing the first two years of filling the reservoir is possible, during which time Ethiopia would store only enough water to test the turbines.

This laboratory of ideas also considers it "beneficial" to incorporate into the dialogue a broader team of observers that includes the head of state of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, the current rotating president of the African Union, or the European Union (EU) high representative for foreign policy, Josep Borrell. The Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, had already asked Ramaphosa last January "to promote a dialogue between the parties to resolve the issue in a peaceful manner", in view of the perception that the US and the World Bank are favoring Egypt. 

"Ideally, future talks should be organized in an African city rather than in Washington," the ICG also suggests. But also, as Davison points out, "perhaps what is missing is Ethiopia taking steps to try to calm its partners on this issue".

It doesn't seem, at the moment, that this is the will of the Ethiopian government, according to the words spoken by Abiy to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the start of the construction of the dam on the 1st last, when he insisted that his country "will start filling the dam in the next rainy season" in July.

Mapa de África oriental que muestra el Nilo y la Gran Presa del Renacimiento Etíope
The dam, Ethiopia's second priority after the coronavirus

The Prime Minister, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, said that his current priority is to tackle the existential threat of the coronavirus, "but that shouldn't stop us from finishing our dam, which is our livelihood". "Saving lives is our priority, but the second is the GERD," which is "a symbol of sovereignty and national unity," Abiy said.

Since the collapse of the negotiations, Egypt, which has always rejected the GERD because it "will essentially give Ethiopia a button to control the Nile", according to analyst Euan Hall of the NGO The Organisation For World Peace, has launched an international campaign to defend its interests and denounce Ethiopian "stubbornness".

Cairo last month called for the support of the Arab League, which in a resolution expressed its opposition to any "violation of Egypt's historic rights over the waters of the Nile", a reaction that Addis Ababa called "blind support". The 1959 Agreement on the Waters of the Nile, signed by Egypt and Sudan, gives these two countries control over the flow of the river, although Ethiopia doesn't recognize this pact.

With or without observers, negotiations on the filling and operations of the GERD should continue, the director of the East Nile Regional Technical Office (ENTRO), Ethiopian Fekahmed Negash, tells Efe. "If there is an agreement before the time of the planned infill, Fekahmed says, the dam will be refilled accordingly. If no agreement can be reached, Ethiopia has to start the infill, so Egypt will see that the infill and the operation of the hydroelectric dam will have virtually no impact on them".

His compatriot Mehari Taddele Maru, professor at the European University Institute (Florence, Italy), says the dispute "is an African problem and, as such, requires a pan-African solution", hence he urges the African Union to "actively engage" and initiate "consultations" with the concerned sides.

For the moment, the Nile is still on its course, but no one is aware that the dispute will be resolved soon.