Egypt-Ethiopia tensions escalate over Nile mega-dam project

Egypt-Ethiopia tensions escalate over Nile mega-dam project
Construction at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, near Guba — a 145-meter-high, 1.8-kilometer-long concrete colossus set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 07 March 2020

Egypt-Ethiopia tensions escalate over Nile mega-dam project

Egypt-Ethiopia tensions escalate over Nile mega-dam project
  • Addis Ababa skipped talks in Washington intended to produce a final agreement
  • Cairo has vowed to defend 'the interests, capabilities and future' of the people

CAIRO: The Grand Renaissance Dam, being built on the Nile river by Ethiopia, has become a matter of great concern in the North African region as tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt mount, with Sudan caught in between.

This follows a series of developments, most notably the refusal of the Ethiopian government to take part in the Feb. 27 to 28 talks in Washington, that were intended to produce a final agreement with Egypt and Sudan on the filling and operation of the dam.

In response to Ethiopia’s stance, Egypt has launched an international diplomatic offensive to shore up its position with regard to its Nile water rights.

The Ethiopian side stands accused of dragging its feet after it skipped the latest round of talks. The decision left the Egyptians angry and the Americans, who had drafted an agreement with the technical input of the World Bank, disappointed.

Egypt relies on the Nile for 90 percent of its water. It contends that having a stable flow of the Nile waters is a matter of survival in a country where water is scarce.


S4.2 billion

Cost of mega-dam on which Ethiopia bets to become a manufacturing power

A 1929 treaty (and a subsequent one signed in 1959) gave Egypt and Sudan rights to nearly all of the Nile’s waters. The document also gives Egypt veto powers over any infrastructure projects by upstream countries that would affect its share of the river’s resources.

Ethiopia launched construction in 2011 on the Blue Nile in the northern Ethiopian highlands, from where 85 percent of the Nile’s waters flow.

One of Egypt’s main worries is that if the water flow diminishes, it could affect Lake Nasser, the reservoir further downriver, behind Egypt’s Aswan Dam.

For more than four years, three-way talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over operating the dam and filling its reservoir had made no progress until the US took up the role of mediator.

According to a US Treasury Department statement, the latest plan builds on the previous seven years of technical studies and consultations between the three countries and provides for the resolution of all outstanding issues concerning the filling and operation of the dam.

The statement expressed appreciation for the Egyptian side, which was described as relying on negotiations as the sole means of resolving the dispute and prepared to acknowledge Ethiopian interests, provided Ethiopia acknowledged its vital interests.

It said: “We also note the concern of downstream populations in Sudan and Egypt due to unfinished work on the safe operation of the GERD, and the need to implement all necessary dam safety measures in accordance with international standards before filling begins.”

Egypt’s position is to make sure the upcoming structure – Africa’s biggest hydroelectric power plant – does not cause significant harm to downstream countries and the final testing and filling of the dam does not take place without an agreement.

Egypt has proposed a longer period – so that the level of the river does not dramatically drop, especially in the initial phase of filling the reservoir. The longer it takes to fill the reservoir, the less impact there will be on the level of the Nile.

For its part, the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a statement reflecting the truth of the country’s position on the project.

It said the countries still had to discuss major issues related to the final agreement, and that Ethiopia was committed to continuing consultations with Egypt and Sudan to reach a final agreement regarding the filling and operation of the dam.

The statement made clear Ethiopia’s intention to start filling the dam as construction proceeded, even without reaching an agreement.

Such a course of action would constitute a violation of international law and article n.5 of the 2015 Declaration of Principles.



Reliance of Egypt on the Nile for its water

Things were not in favor of Egypt as long as Ethiopia was successful in portraying itself as the victim. But today, the shoe is on the other foot.

Ethiopia is in denial regarding the rules of geography and international laws and customs when it claims it has the absolute right to the Blue Nile because it runs through Ethiopian territory.

This is a clear violation of international law that stipulates equitable sharing of downstream benefits on international rivers, including the Nile River. The law gives Egypt a strong bargaining position in diplomatic or legal disputes.

In addition to a phone call between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and US President Donald Trump, the Egyptian diplomatic mission has been in touch with African countries with a view to winning their support.

Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry held a meeting with the ambassadors of African countries in Cairo, where he reviewed the latest developments in the Grand Renaissance Dam issue and highlighted Cairo’s efforts at reaching a fair and equitable agreement that advances the interests of all three parties.

Shoukry further briefed the envoys on Egypt’s efforts and achievements during its one-year presidency of the African Union and its commitment to pursue efforts to promote joint African work.

Egypt has also sought support in the Arab League, by presenting a draft resolution that stresses Cairo and Khartoum’s rights to the Nile waters.

The Arab League has extended full support to the draft resolution and rejected any unilateral measures by Ethiopia. Egypt’s draft resolution welcomed the agreement prepared by the US government as “a fair and equitable agreement that fulfills the interests of the three countries.”

Many in Egypt think it is no longer useful to stay silent in the face of Sudan’s unabashed and inexplicable pro-Ethiopian stance.

Rather the differences with Sudan should be addressed through high-level and honest dialogue, which would make the Sudanese transitional government aware of its responsibilities and extent of the damage it is causing to Egyptian interests.

Sudan’s expression of reservations over the Egyptian draft resolution came as a shock to everyone in attendance at the Arab League meeting.

Some of the attendees said while the strength of Arab support for the resolution was palpable, the Sudanese side, instead of showing enthusiasm, requested that the country’s name not be included in the resolution.

It argued that the resolution did not serve its interests and that the Arab League should not be dragged into the matter. The Sudanese also expressed fears about an Arab-Ethiopian confrontation emanating from the dispute.

Against this tense backdrop, the Ethiopian government has shown no sign of changing its tune. It recently launched the third round of its fund-raising program to complete the construction of the dam and fill the reservoir, even though no international agreement has been reached.

The six-month program, launched by Ethiopia’s President Sahle-Work Zewde, aims to involve citizens in the dam’s construction.

Amid the furor over the dam, it is tempting to forget that the riparian states share a culture with similar features, the same destiny and one river.

They ought to bear in mind that negotiation is the fastest route to reach a solution for any crisis.

Direct communication between Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum is arguably the best guarantee for prevention of any attempt by other parties to take advantage of the tense situation.

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts
Updated 23 January 2021

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts
  • Geir Pederson wants enhanced international diplomacy, and tighter focus on progress in drafting new constitution
  • The fifth session of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee begins in Geneva on Monday

NEW YORK: Geir Pedersen, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, on Friday called for “more serious and cooperative” international diplomacy as part of political efforts to improve the lives of the Syrian people and develop a vision for the future of their country.

Speaking ahead of the fifth session of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which begins on Monday in Geneva, he also urged committee members to focus their efforts and work more effectively to speed up progress on constitutional reform.

Pedersen expressed hope that much-needed international engagement with the peace process is now possible.

“After all, despite the differences, key states are continuing to reaffirm their commitment to Resolution 2254,” he added, referring to the UN Security Council resolution, adopted in 2015, that calls for a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria.

Pedersen, who briefed the Security Council this week on the latest developments, highlighted the fact that five foreign armies are active in Syria and “violations of Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity (have been) going on for years.”

Although the ceasefire agreement reached by Russia and Turkey in the northwest of the country resulted in a de-escalation of hostilities, Pedersen warned that this relative calm remains fragile.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File) 

“All of these issues cannot be sorted out by the Syrians alone,” he said. (They) need an international cooperation (and) a real exchange of views (among all parties).

“If that political will is lacking it would be very, very difficult to move this process forward ... if you leave this to the UN alone, we will not be able to succeed.”

Top on the agenda on Monday will be discussion of the basic principles of the Syrian constitution. Pedersen said he has been meeting with the two co-chairs of the committee on a regular basis, and has also had intensive discussions with the “Middle Third” civil-society group, which includes society activists and experts and other independents from inside and outside of Syria.

His experiences during the past year, he said, lead him to believe there is potential for finding common ground. No single actor or group of actors can impose its will on Syria or settle the conflict alone — they must work together, he added.

The time has now come for the co-chairs of the Constitutional Committee to organize and focus its efforts by establishing “more effective and operational working methods,” Pedersen said, so that they can begin to move forward from preparing constitutional reforms to actually drafting them, and agreeing on clear agendas and discussion topics for future meetings.

“There needs to be more urgency (in) delivering progress in this process,” he added.

As he saluted the work of civil society groups and “all the Syrians who do what they can to improve the situation on the ground and support a political process,” Pedersen singled out women in particular for praise. He has been particularly proactive in seeking input from the Women’s Advisory Board.

“It is a priority for all of us to make sure that we have full participation of Syrian women in the political process,” he said. “(Promoting) their core constitutional rights is central for me, as the facilitator of the work of the Constitutional Committee.”

Asked about plans for large-scale prisoner swaps, Pedersen said that although this is not on the agenda for the talks in Geneva this week, it is always part of his own agenda. The disappointment over the lack of progress on the issue so far means “that we should work even harder” on it, he added.

“This is a file that really has an impact on nearly every Syrian family, and it needs to be addressed,” he said. “(I) have appealed (for) more information on the missing. (We) need to see the early release of women, children, the elderly and the sick, and I think (nothing) should stop that from happening.”

The members of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee are due to arrive in Geneva on Saturday, and Pedersen will consult with the co-chairs over the weekend before the main talks begin on Monday.

Asked whether he expects this latest round of negotiations to be a success for the UN, Pedersen said: “I really do not think this is the question; the question (is) whether it is a success for the Syrian people and (their) aspirations.

“My hope has been that the Constitutional Committee, if it is handled in the correct manner, could start to build trust and (be) a door-opener for a broader political process.

“But the (committee) cannot work in isolation ... we need political will from the different parties to be able to move forward.”

He added: “The (committee) is just one aspect, and it is not the one aspect that will solve the Syrian crisis. If we are to see changes in the situation on the ground, there are other factors that need to be discussed.”