Renaissance Dam crisis in danger of exploding
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) crisis has escalated significantly recently. During a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Doha last week, Egypt called on Arab nations to adopt a serious position on the project in international forums. Meanwhile, Ethiopian authorities continued their policy of evasion.
At times, Ethiopia has said that the second phase of filling of the dam’s reservoir might fail, which would secure the water rights of downstream countries Egypt and Sudan; at others, it has said it plans to build dozens of dams.
Negotiations between the three countries have failed to find a solution. Rather, they continue on a winding path with no clear end in sight. The ideal solution would satisfy the desire of Addis Ababa for the development of Ethopia, while also affirming the historical access rights of Cairo and Khartoum to the waters of the Nile, which will undoubtedly be affected if the Ethiopian government unilaterally decides to continue with the second phase of filling.
Cairo has made some significant concessions but Ethiopia continues to be intransigent, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said recently. He stressed the right of the Ethiopian people to develop their country, but said it must not harm downstream nations. He pointed out that Egypt has been trying for 10 years to reach an agreement on Nile waters that takes into account co-ownership rights.
By making concessions, Cairo’s intention is to show flexibility and provide an opportunity for the people of Ethiopia to improve their standard of living. Shoukry noted, however, that so far there has been no political will on the part of Addis Ababa to sign an agreement on the issue that was drafted in Washington last year. He added that Ethiopia continues to repudiate all agreements established through mediation by the US, the African Union and Europe.
During the meeting of Arab League foreign ministers, he said that the negotiations cannot continue indefinitely and hinted that the time available to reach a diplomatic solution is running out, despite Egypt’s clear desire for a mutually acceptable agreement.
The anger among the Egyptian people over the dam is understandable, since for them the Nile represents life, sustenance and shelter. It is the key artery that has provided them with food and tranquility since the times of the pharaohs. Outrage grew in the past few days, when it was suggested that Addis Ababa wants to sell water to Egypt.
However, Alaa Al-Zawahiri, a member of the GERD technical committee, denied that Ethiopia had raised the idea of selling water. He said that Cairo had offered to compensate Ethiopia by building a unified power network between the two countries to fill any deficit in the event of an electricity shortage.
The anger among the Egyptian people is understandable, since for them the Nile represents life, sustenance and shelter.
The idea of selling water is unacceptable, Al-Zawahiri added, stressing that Ethiopia could not impose this on Egypt in any way. He said that the negotiating committee had set a number of principles, including that: The dam will not compromise or diminish water quotas; the damage will be minimal; and Ethiopia cannot use the dam as a political tool to impose its will.
The possibility of reaching a binding legal agreement on the dam is currently less than 50 percent, Al-Zawahiri conceded. He added that, while there could still be a breakthrough, the issue is no longer confined to negotiations between the three countries affected by it, but has become an international matter as a result of recent developments.
The crisis has escalated into a legal and diplomatic conflict at the highest levels, with many other nations intervening, leading to Egyptian negotiators holding more than 50 meetings with international decision-makers to present their case.
The international interventions are increasing because many countries and institutions fear the situation is about to explode. They believe there is no way to defuse the crisis except by reaching an agreement that satisfies all parties — preserving Ethiopia’s development rights while guaranteeing water security for Egypt and Sudan. The latter is “an integral part of Arab national security,” as affirmed by the Arab foreign ministers who met in Doha last week.
However, the Ethiopian authorities continue to reject diplomatic solutions, as if they do not care whether the crisis rapidly deteriorates. The country’s foreign ministry rejected the Arab League’s position on the dam, saying that the organization had missed an opportunity to play a constructive role in resolving the dispute. Cooperation and dialogue are the way to achieve water security for all Nile Basin countries, it added.
Addis Ababa has grown increasingly stubborn, insisting that the second phase of filling the dam’s reservoir, which began in May, will continue as scheduled in the months ahead.
This came after Ethiopia set impossible conditions during recent negotiations. In an attempt to appease Sudan, Addis Ababa made an offer to Khartoum that included the exchange of information and data about the dam, including storage capacity and the dispersal of water. This offer was rejected because Egypt and Sudan have stipulated that there must be an overall agreement reached first before any arrangement is agreed about the exchange of data and information. Other impossible conditions set by Ethiopia related to the sharing of water and future projects, which Cairo and Khartoum will not accept.
Addis Ababa is trying to exploit this crisis. The aim of its negotiations is to win permission to act unilaterally in building dams and implementing other projects on the river without any coordination with downstream countries and in violation of international river-management laws. Perhaps the Ethiopian authorities realize that Egypt and Sudan will not accept or negotiate these conditions or link them to the central issue of the dam, but insist on setting them as an obstacle to an agreement.
To reiterate, there is no solution that will satisfy Egypt and Sudan unless it includes a binding agreement that guarantees their water rights. In the absence of this, there is — as many close to the negotiations have stated — uncertainty and concern about what might happen next. We can only hope that there will be a diplomatic breakthrough before it is too late.
Many believe the crisis is more likely to explode. But there is still a chance for a peaceful resolution if the international pressure on Ethiopia increases, especially from countries that have been generally supportive of the construction of the dam or helped to fund it.
Like many others, I hope we do not reach the point where the chance of a diplomatic solution has been squandered — but if nothing changes, there can be no guarantees.
• Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide. Twitter: @ALMenawy