On June 16, Al-Arabiya TV reported that the Egyptian Parliament had given President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi the authority to take measures against Libya and the Renaissance Dam.
— العربية عاجل (@AlArabiya_Brk) June 16, 2020
Thus the Egyptian authorities have once again indicated that they are ready to take extreme measures to solve the problem of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), essentially equating it with a military conflict in which Egypt is indirectly taking part.
Rescue or disaster
On June 14, negotiations resumed between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the commissioning of the giant Blue Nile hydroelectric plant – Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) or Hidase Dam. Ethiopia has been stubbornly implementing the project since 2011, despite Egypt’s concerns.
Ethiopia is planning to build a 74 billion cubic meters reservoir on the Nile. This will enable a country where only 45% of the population has access to electricity once and for all to solve the problem, stimulate its industry and become the largest electricity exporter in Africa.
What for Ethiopia looks like a leap into a bright future, for Egypt looks like a real nightmare. Covering the Blue Nile will reduce the volume of water in Africa’s greatest river. As a result, Egypt would face a water crisis, followed by an economic one. Ethiopia’s filling of the GERD reservoir in the coming years will result in a series of catastrophic droughts in Egypt and Sudan, the destruction of traditional spillage agriculture and the creation of some 1.5 million unemployed in the first year alone.
The situation has no solution in the field of international law. Existing agreements are on Egypt’s side. However, they were signed during colonial times and deprived Ethiopia of control over the waters that flow through its territory. This is why Ethiopia does not recognize them. While Egypt might face the threat of famine, the Ethiopians have faced it more than once and hope to raise their agricultural level through the creation of the reservoir.
Egypt has repeatedly raised the issue of a military solution to the problem. The Ethiopian leadership’s intransigence makes disastrous decisions more and more likely.
Negotiations on the project, which have lasted many years, were suspended in February when Ethiopia rejected the proposal of US negotiators and accused the Donald Trump administration of “incriminating” Egypt. In early March, Foreign Minister of Ethiopia Gedu Andargachev said that filling the dam will begin in July and by the end of the month the reservoir should contain 4.9 billion cubic meters of water, electricity production will begin in February-March 2021.
Later, negotiations resumed with the Sudanese mediation. Last week, Sudanese, Egyptian and Ethiopian water and irrigation ministers resumed negotiations under the supervision of the United States, the European Union and South Africa, which is currently the head of the African Union. Egypt’s water resources Ministry said on Sunday that negotiations had made it clear that disagreements with Ethiopia had not disappeared.
Cairo expressed Ethiopia’s “complete rejection” of technical issues related to drought mitigation measures. Mohamed Al-Sebai of the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation said Ethiopia lacked the political will to compromise. Addis Ababa insists that Egypt and Sudan must renounce their water rights and recognize Ethiopia’s right to use Blue Nile waters unilaterally.
Ethiopia’s Ministry of Water and Energy said on Sunday that progress and understanding of the first phase of filling the reservoir had been achieved during the negotiations. Addis Ababa has rushed to lay the blame for the possible failure of the negotiations in Cairo, accusing it of committing to old and unjust colonial-era agreements that deprive Ethiopia and all the countries of the upper Nile of their natural and legal rights.
So far, no progress has been made in solving the problem.
June 12 is the deputy army chief Gen. Birhanu Jula said his country was ready for war. “Egyptians and the rest of the world know too well how we conduct war whenever it comes,” said the military.
On June 16, Egyptian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew accused Egypt of intransigence. Egypt, in turn, promises to join the UN Security Council.
Another round of negotiations is unlikely to yield any results unless Ethiopia changes its approach. The lack of other instruments of pressure could lead Egypt to war, if not now, then later.
On June 17, Egyptian Minister of water resources Mohamed Abdel Aaty said that there was no significant progress in the talks due to Ethiopian “rigid” behavior.
Isolation of Cairo or Addis Ababa?
However, it is important to understand that Egypt is in fact isolated in this dispute, at least in Africa. Sudan stated that it was guided by national interests but was largely in agreement with the Ethiopian plans.
The new HPP will increase the supply of electricity to Sudan. The total length of the network from GERD to Khartoum will be about 580 km, of which 564 km are in Sudan. A total of $481 million will be invested in infrastructure for GERD energy exports to Sudan.
The countries of the African Union are also interested in the creation of a new HPP, which will increase the supply of electricity to the African market as a whole. Thus, the new transmission lines in Sudan associated with GERD are part of the African Union’s North-South Power Transmission Corridor programme, which aims to interconnect the power grids of Southern Africa (SAPP) and Eastern Africa (EAPP). GERD will be the largest generation center in the corridor from Egypt to Zimbabwe.
In the region, Ethiopia is supported by Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Djibouti and South Sudan.
On the other hand, external powers are urging Ethiopia to make a deal. The US National Security Council urged Ethiopia to reach an agreement.
257 million people in east #Africa are relying on #Ethiopia to show strong leadership, which means striking a fair deal. Technical issues have been resolved – time to get the GERD deal done before filling it with Nile River water!
— NSC (@WHNSC) June 17, 2020
On June 5, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in conversation with his Egyptian counterpart, “affirmed the need to reach an agreement as soon as possible in this regard and stressed rejection to any unilateral decision by Ethiopia unless an agreement that achieves the interest of all parties is reached, in accordance with legal commitments and relevant international law”.
Concentration of efforts
Is a compromise possible? Theoretically, yes. Ethiopia could follow the path of building many small HPPs or pay more attention to nuclear power development. In 2018, Ethiopia signed an agreement with Russia on nuclear energy cooperation. Egypt also sees this area as promising. However, as we have already mentioned, it is important for Ethiopia not just to get electricity, but to assert its control over the Blue Nile. Especially since too much money has already been invested in GERD – this is a national project, which is unlikely to be abandoned by Addis Ababa now.
Can Egypt retreat? To some extent, yes. Some of the water lost could be replenished by groundwater from the Nubian sandstone aquifer, but, as we have written before, this will not solve the problem, especially given the population growth in both Egypt and Ethiopia.
Whether Egypt is planning a diplomatic offensive or a military strike, the growing situation with GERD requires the country to concentrate heavily on this very direction. In this perspective, Cairo could be interested in proposals to stabilize the situation in another area where Egypt is also involved – Libya.
In this context, the recent Cairo Declaration issued by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the LNA commander Khalifa Haftar and the Speaker of the House of Representatives of Libya (Hor) Aguila Saleh should be considered. However, unilateral actions are unlikely to be supported by other external players. Turkey had already rejected it, but Egypt’s very interest in launching diplomatic initiatives was noteworthy.
In such a case, the negotiation format of Cairo-Moscow-Ankara (taking into account Russia’s strong ties with both Turkey and Egypt) could prove useful, securing Egypt’s interests in the west and giving it more opportunities in the south.