GERD: how to avoid catastrophe for Europe, the Middle East and Africa

GERD: how to avoid catastrophe for Europe, the Middle East and Africa

On July 5, Egypt announced that it had suspended participation in negotiations with Ethiopia on the Hidase – Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) hydroelectric power plant and that additional internal consultations would be held.

The text of the agreement proposed by the Ethiopian side was the main reason for the collapse in negotiations: according to the Egyptian Ministry of Water Supply, there was no mention of the rules of operation of the hydropower plant or legal obligations on the part of Ethiopia, which the Egyptians have long insisted on.

The $4 billion Blue Nile Dam could help Ethiopia make a breakthrough in economic development. At the same time, the Egyptians fear that it will deprive them of a significant part of the Nile’s water resources, on which all Egyptian life depends.

“Egypt and Sudan demanded meetings be suspended for internal consultations on the Ethiopian proposal, which contravenes what was agreed upon during the African Union summit,” said the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources.

Sudan also spoke out in the same vein, threatening to stop discussing the conditions for filling the dam.

“We stress the seriousness of the risks that the dam represents for Sudan and its people, including environmental and social risks, and for the safety of millions of residents along the banks of the Blue Nile,” the Sudanese Ministry of Water Resources said.

In July, satellite images demonstrated the process of filling the GERD dam, although Ethiopia has not reached an agreement with Egypt and Sudan on this issue. The process of filling the reservoir was confirmed by Minister of Water Resources, Irrigation and Energy of Ethiopia Celeshi Bekele.

Sudan joins Egypt

In Egypt, there are concerns that the hydropower plant will reduce the Nile’s water resources, on which 100 million Egyptians depend. Cairo also insists that the new Ethiopian reservoir will be filled at a slower rate than planned to reduce the country’s water resources.

Ethiopia’s reservoir capacity is 74 billion cubic meters, while the annual average flow of the Blue Nile is 49 billion cubic meters.

Previously, it seemed that Ethiopia had pulled Sudan to its side in the Hidase dispute. In particular, Sudan was promised some of the electricity from Ethiopia’s hydroelectric power plants. However, recent statements by the Sudan indicate a shift in position towards a more Egypt-friendly one.

This is most likely due to Ethiopia’s unilateral actions. Under these circumstances, the Sudan is not sure whether Addis Ababa will hold back its commitments if it already prefers to act as it pleases without agreeing on the dam issues with Khartoum and Cairo.

Such behaviour plays to the detriment of Ethiopia itself, which is why Sudan is concerned about how the Nile’s resources will be spent.

Another factor that significantly brings Egypt and the Sudan closer together is differing positions of countries on international treaties governing the Nile. Egyptians and Sudanese insist on compliance with the 1929 and 1959 agreements, according to which the two countries account for a quota of about of 90% of the Nile’s water resources. Ethiopia claims the injustice of the documents of colonial era and agreements where it did not take place.

Addis Ababa relies on an agreement signed in Entebbe in 2010 between Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, which sets other Nile quotas for each country.

Egypt and Sudan find the Entebbe Treaty illegitimate. Each of the parties to the dispute thus operates with agreements that are advantageous to it.

The reasons for an impasse

The water dispute has another aspect. Both Egypt and Ethiopia claim leadership positions in Africa, which in each country is supported by historical ambitions and memories of ancient grandeur. This overlaps with the confrontation between the US and China.

Until recently, Cairo had relied on Washington to help in its dispute with Addis Ababa. On the other hand, China is Ethiopia’s largest partner and investor. In particular, it is Beijing that finances the modernization of the railway, which connects the landlocked country with the ports of neighboring Djibouti.

Initially, the signing of the agreement was planned for February in Washington, but representatives of Ethiopia did not come to the meeting then. The US has demonstrated that it is unable to reach a mutually acceptable agreement.

Now the negotiations are conducted under the auspices of the African Union, while the US and IMF did  not leave the process entirely. The current Chairman of the African Union – South Africa calls on the parties to return to the table of coups “to continue to be guided by the spirit of Pan-African solidarity and fraternity”. However, as time passes, there is less and less chance of an agreement being reached.

Estimates of the upcoming contract for the future and functioning of GERD seem to be overly optimistic.

The negotiation tactics taken by the Ethiopian leadership must be judged thoughtfully – when Addis Ababa returns to unilateral demands instead of agreed documents in the negotiation process.

As a result, the negotiations have no effect but one – they allow the Ethiopian side to quietly finish the GERD and start its work without fear of a military strike from Egypt. The Egyptians are busy at this time, as they see it as a diplomatic solution. But what if the Ethiopians are not willing to reach any agreement, but are negotiating just to buy time? So far, that’s the only reasonable explanation for their tactics.

The danger to the region

The lack of agreements on the distribution of Nile water threatens a significant deterioration in relations, even before the hostilities between Egypt and Ethiopia. The water war is not excluded. Egypt’s determination, threatened by economic loss and social instability, cannot be underestimated.

In this case, a new hotspot will emerge in Africa, which could mean new flows of migrants pushing both other countries on the African continent and Europe. Meanwhile, both Ethiopia and Egypt are at risk of an upsurge in terrorist activity.

Whichever country is in trouble, the beneficiaries will be terrorists.

Near Ethiopia, in Somalia, Al-Shabaab, an Islamist ally of Al-Qaeda in East Africa, is operating quite successfully. Until 2016, the Ethiopian military fought Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and now the armed units of the African Union, which will leave the country next year.

Once again the US pretending to combat terrorism in Somalia has not produce tangible results. More over, drone strikes and disproportional killings of civilians by the US troops cause anger and add fuel to the fire of terrorist rebellion.

The coming exit of AU troops combined with the US dubious role in the region will enable terrorists to extend their activities. There is also an Islamic State in Somalia. At the same time, radical Islamists in Ethiopia have a solid base in the face of the 25 million Oromo people, and half of them are Muslims. Oromo themselves, despite that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed comes from their people, feel themselves disadvantaged in Ethiopia.

There’s also a high level of terrorist threat in Egypt. The armed conflict in the Sinai Peninsula between the Egyptian government and the Islamists began after the 2011 Revolution and continues to this day. Islamists periodically organize terrorist acts and attacks on Egyptian armed forces and police.

There is a high level of support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis opposing them in Egypt. Both, however, provide a breeding ground for extremists.

The current situation around GERD challenges the world to choose who will fall first. If an economic and social catastrophe were to occur in Egypt, due to Ethiopia’s unilateral actions, it would have terrible geopolitical consequences for the Middle East and Europe: the largest country in the Arab world could fall under the control of radicals.

Another possible scenario is civil war, with consequences much more serious than what happened in Libya and Syria.

If Egypt is forced to transfer the conflict to Ethiopia, catastrophe will engulf Africa. Both options are ultimately troubling, given the globalization of terror. Therefore, not only the fate of the Nile is at stake, but also the regions that have nothing to do with the great river.

An integrated approach

The GERD problem requires a comprehensive solution – not only in the field of water management and economy, but also in the field of security, a common strategy to combat terror and radicalization, assessment of the consequences of a particular solution. Both Egypt and Ethiopia should probably resort to international assistance, especially in the sphere of anti-terror.

Many nations can offer their services in this area. Russia is actively developing this approach in Africa, but Turkey could also contribute to the process of radicalization of African Islam and bringing stability to Somalia through support of the federal government of the country.

One way or another, hasty unilateral actions can only lead to grave consequences for the future generations.

United World International

Independent analytical center where political scientists and experts in international relations from various countries exchange their opinions and views.

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March 2024