[Tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia have been escalating steadily on account of the latter’s construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Egypt, which is almost entirely dependent on the Nile River for its water supply, maintains that GERD threatens its water security, while Ethiopia insists it is implementing a legitimate infrastructure project vital to the country’s development. In late June 2021, Egypt requested a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to consider the crisis. Mouin Rabbani, Editor of Quick Thoughts and Jadaliyya Co-Editor, interviewed the award-winning Egyptian investigative journalist Mohamed Abo-Elgheit to get a better understanding of Egypt’s position on this issue.]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): What are Egypt’s main concerns with respect to the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)?
Mohamed Abo-Elgheit (MAE): The Nile River supplies ninety-seven percent of Egypt’s freshwater supply. So for Egypt the Nile literally equals life. It’s not only a matter of national security, but of life or death.
Even with its existing allocation of Nile waters, Egypt is already below the water poverty line. Pursuant to the 1959 Egyptian-Sudanese Nile Waters Agreement, Egypt’s share of the Nile’s waters was determined at fifty-five billion cubic meters per year. At that time its population stood at twenty-two million. Today it exceeds 100 million people utilizing the same water allocation. This is the critical context in which the Egyptian position on the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) should be understood.
Ethiopia’s official position is that GERD is being built to generate electricity and promote economic development. It does not have problems with its water supply and in fact enjoys a considerable surplus, with about 900 billion cubic meters of rainfall per year, in addition to twelve rivers that provide it with an additional 122 billion cubic meters of water per year.
Relations were deteriorating even as Egyptian-Ethiopian negotiations produced a 2015 agreement on principles also endorsed by Sudan, and took a further turn for the worse after Ethiopia effectively blocked the implementation of that agreement’s key provisions. Ethiopian officials have repeatedly indicated that they do not recognize Egypt and Sudan’s existing allocation of Nile waters and are seeking a new agreement. Egypt and Sudan for their part insist that what is being negotiated is an agreement about GERD, and that these discussions cannot be used to change the status quo concerning water quotas.
This is the essence of the current crisis, which is political and strategic in nature, rather than about technical and legal details.
If we turn to the legal aspects, the problem is that there is no existing agreement that is accepted as a point of reference by both sides. Addis Ababa maintains that existing agreements about the allocation of Nile waters were made during the colonial period at a time of Ethiopian weakness, and thus grant it a smaller share than it is entitled to.
The main agreement regulating these issues is the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement, which was concluded between Great Britain, the colonial power ruling several Nile Basin countries, and the Egyptian government. The 1929 agreement granted Cairo forty-eight billion cubic meters per year, as well the right to veto any construction by riparian states that negatively affects its interests. In the 1959 Egyptian-Sudanese Agreement for the Full Utilization of the Nile Waters, the two countries agreed to alter their respective shares as a result of Egypt’s construction of the Aswan High Dam, which led to the availability of an additional 22 billion cubic meters per year. Egypt’s allocation was fixed at 55.5 billion cubic meters per year, and Sudan’s raised to 18.5 billion cubic meters.
Egypt’s position is that international agreements are, like borders, inherited by successor states. Thus the agreements reached when Egypt was a British protectorate remain valid. Cairo additionally insists that if the 1929 and 1959 agreements are to be superseded the oldest agreement still in force dates from 1902, and this was signed by Emperor Menelik II on behalf of an independent Ethiopia. Similarly, in 1993 Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak signed an agreement in which Addis Ababa pledged to consult with Cairo about any projects it undertakes on the Nile.
Ethiopia wants to replace the existing agreements with an entirely new Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), what is known as the Entebbe Agreement signed by six Nile Basin countries in 2010-2011. The CFA, which was rejected by both Egypt and Sudan, stipulates the abolition of historical quotas and replaces them with the concept of "equitable distribution".
It is in this context important to note that historically Sudan has not demanded half the Nile’s waters, for the obvious reason that population and resources are decisive factors in determining water needs. Sudan, as it happens, has a water surplus derived from rivers and rainfall. The same principle applies to Ethiopia, which seems to be taking the position that it owns the water originating on its territory and has the right to sell it to the highest bidder. Recently, in fact, Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dina Al-Mufti, responding to a question from Al Jazeera, stated that, "Yes, we can sell the surplus water."
The essence of the current crisis, and that which most threatens Egypt, is that Ethiopia does not accept dealing with the Nile as a cross-border resource that is not owned by any country, and instead treats it as its own. As Ethiopian foreign minister Gedu Andargachew stated last year, "The water is our water, and the land is our land.”
MR: How has Egypt attempted to have its concerns addressed, and to what extent have its efforts proven successful?
MAE: Initially, Ethiopia carried out a propaganda campaign that achieved a degree of success. It focused on portraying Egypt as a colonialist state that seeks to prevent Ethiopia’s development and wants to keep its people mired in poverty. Such efforts managed to achieve the support of some African-American members of the US Congress, even though Egypt was under European colonial domination for far longer than Ethiopia.
It cannot be denied that Egypt's role in Africa, which during the Nasser era helped many countries achieve their liberation from colonialism, declined sharply in recent decades and was neglected during the reign of Husni Mubarak.
After Mubarak’s ouster Egyptian diplomacy finally swung into action. In March 2015 this resulted in an Agreement on Declaration of Principles between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan. In this agreement, Egypt explicitly consented to the construction of GERD for the purpose of generating electricity, and did not object to the size of the reservoir being increased from those specified in the initial plans. Ethiopia in turn committed to cooperating with international experts to achieve the following objectives within 15 months:
- An environmental impact assessment, which is considered crucial because silt required for agriculture will accumulate in GERD, and GERD will also change the proportion of minerals and gasses in the water.
- A structural safety audit, to ensure that GERD can withstand earthquakes, changes in climate, and other eventualities.
- A legal agreement on the technical aspects of filling and operating the GERD reservoir, meaning an agreement on the rate at which GERD will be filled, on how the resulting reduction in Nile river flow can be fairly distributed among the three countries, and measurement criteria for linking water levels in the three dam reservoirs: GERD in Ethiopia, the Roseires Dam in Sudan, and the Aswan High Dam in Egypt.
As of 2021, none of these commitments have been realized. Neither the environmental impact assessment nor structural safety audit were conducted because the parties failed to reach consensus on their terms of reference and the composition of expert teams.
Despite the failure of the 2015 agreement Egypt continued pursuing negotiations. Political changes in the region, which saw Abiy Ahmed assume the leadership of Ethiopia in 2018 and Omar al-Bashir deposed from power in Sudan in 2019, initially gave Cairo hope that the equation could be changed. In fact, the negotiations completely collapsed.
Faced with a growing crisis, the international community finally intervened in 2019. Negotiations were held in Washington, DC, with observers from the World Bank and the US Treasury Department. The parties reached agreement on technical details concerning the timespan for the filling of the dam and the mechanisms of its operation. The US Treasury Department was assigned to draft the agreement’s wording, but in February 2020 the Ethiopian delegation suddenly withdrew even though it had agreed to everything drafted prior to its departure. In a bid to demonstrate Egyptian goodwill and highlight Ethiopian intransigence, Cairo unilaterally signed the Washington agreement.
Ethiopia went ahead and carried out the first filling of the dam without reaching agreement with Egypt or Sudan. Although this was harshly condemned by Egypt, Cairo also hoped that this unilateral action would satisfy Ethiopian national pride and thereafter result in more flexibility from Addis Ababa. Unfortunately, the opposite happened, and Ethiopia categorically rejected a Sudanese proposal, supported by Egypt, to form an international quartet consisting of the United Nations, European Union, and the United States acting under African Union leadership.
Effectively, Ethiopia rejects any agreement that specifies any monitoring mechanism or international arbitration to address disagreements. It also rejects the concept of establishing a joint coordination mechanism, pursuant to which the three dams would technically operate as components of a single unit with respect to the management and regulation of their water levels. Each of the three governments would have an identical role with respect to the dams located in the sovereign territory of the other two states, thus addressing Ethiopian concerns that only it was being required to permit foreign involvement in the operation of its dam. In practice, Addis Ababa has refused to accept any binding joint obligations. This in turn has strengthened Egypt’s position that this is not a technical or legal but rather an essentially political dispute.
MR: How have Egyptian-Sudanese relations affected Cairo’s efforts to resolve its dispute with Ethiopia about GERD?
MAE: Initially Sudan did not support the Egyptian position on GERD. Like Ethiopia, Sudan does not have a water deficit. It does however have an energy deficit and was very tempted by the potential benefits of importing power generated by GERD from Ethiopia, particularly since the dam is located close to the Ethiopian-Sudanese border. This Sudanese position may also have reflected the historically poor relations between the Bashir regime in Khartoum and Cairo.
During the 2019 Sudanese uprising, Abiy Ahmed supported change in Sudan. He helped broker a power-sharing agreement between its military and the civilian opposition, which made him popular among the Sudanese.
But Sudan came to the gradual realization that the GERD negotiations were not moving in the right direction. Ethiopia’s conduct in these talks, as if it owns the Nile, ultimately produced a change in Khartoum’s position. The Ethiopian delegation’s February 2020 withdrawal from the Washington talks was the decisive moment of transformation.
Since then, the Sudanese and Egyptian positions have largely coincided, and Sudan took the matter to the United Nations Security Council. This initiative served Egypt well because it dispelled the impression that only Cairo was seeking the intervention of a party other than the African Union.
There was additionally a change in popular Sudanese attitudes towards Ethiopia evident on social media sites. When in July 2020 Ethiopia unilaterally carried out the first filling process of GERD, the consequences for Sudan were immediate; Khartoum suffered a three-day water shortage and was then engulfed by a flood. Bear in mind that these were the effects of filling GERD with a limited quantity of 4.9 billion cubic meters. The second filling process, which will deposit a further 13.5 billion cubic meters, raises more serious concerns for Sudan. Sudan’s realization that it will be deprived of its existing share of Nile waters has helped to further close ranks with Egypt.
In early June of this year Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s Minister of Water, Irrigation, and Electricity, stated that GERD will this year reach a height of 573 meters. If confirmed, this represents a significant reduction from the 595 meters previously planned, and would make it impossible to store 13.5 billion cubic meters of water at the end of the second filling as previously announced. Only 4-5 billion cubic meters could be added.
The stated reasons for this decision are the weather conditions, but it may be that the deteriorating situation within Ethiopia has affected its capabilities, or perhaps that Ethiopia is signaling that it will, for now, avoid inflicting serious damage in order to deflect international pressure.
Addis Ababa also recently proposed an interim agreement, to Sudan alone, concerning the second filling. Sudan responded that it would only accept terms that include the signature of a final agreement within four months, endorsement of the agreement by the African Union and other partner countries, and international guarantees. Due to the combination of Sudanese-Egyptian coordination and Ethiopia’s rejection of the Sudanese conditions, the proposal was shelved.
As for South Sudan it has not taken a position in favor of any party, and called for the issue to be resolved by the three countries on the basis of dialogue and agreement. In practice relations between Egypt and South Sudan are for historical reasons among the best in Africa. Prior to independence Cairo supported the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and allowed it to operate in Egypt, and was also one of the first countries to recognize and support South Sudan.
MR: Has the current conflict between Addis Ababa and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and growing instability within Ethiopia more generally, had an impact on GERD, and how have these conflicts affected Egyptian-Ethiopian tensions?
MAE: In my view, Ethiopian intransigence with respect to GERD is essentially a function of its domestic politics. The more severe its internal crisis, the greater the external hardening. In this context, the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray province is directly related to the escalation in Ethiopian statements and positions regarding the GERD negotiations.
There is also growing populist discourse in Ethiopia, for example denouncing Egypt as the cause of the country’s underdevelopment and emphasizing that it has in its history defeated the Egyptian military on two occasions. The problem with this kind of politics is that it becomes an alternative to resolving real issues. In the Ethiopian case, the government is seeking to diminish the various tensions between its constituent groups and the state by uniting them in support of a national project, GERD, and against a common enemy, Egypt. This unfortunately only complicates the issue, because it makes it more difficult for the Ethiopian government to deliver the concessions necessary to conclude an agreement. Abiy Ahmed will not allow TPLF propaganda to claim that he has compromised Ethiopian national dignity.
MR: What is your prognosis with respect to this crisis?
MAE: The African solution has reached a dead end. The current Ethiopian government is not going to back down from its positions in response to African mediation.
What may change the equation is international intervention, spurred by Egyptian efforts to draw the world's attention to the long-term severity of this crisis. Egypt, which is inhabited by 100 million people, sits across the Mediterranean from southern Europe, borders Israel, and contains the Suez Canal. Presumably, the world can ill-afford to ignore a grave threat to its stability.
The situation is still ripe for a political solution. The draft Washington agreement is still there. The UN Security Council is however an unlikely participant, because China does not want to establish a precedent for international involvement in cross-border river disputes. It is however possible to arrange an international role in other ways, whether overtly through the international quartet formula proposed by Sudan, or informally through contacts that do not rely on diplomatic channels.
The situation has gone far beyond one that can be addressed with international statements and appeals, and requires concrete proposals. For example, an international fund could be established to finance electricity projects in Ethiopia, as well as projects on the riverbed that would reduce water loss and increase the share available to all three countries.
If there is no political resolution, which I don’t think can be achieved without international support, the prospect for military escalation increases.
Specifically, Egypt may start with a policy of brinkmanship to send a final warning to both Ethiopia and the world. This could take the form of, for example, preventing Ethiopian ships from passing through the Suez Canal, or even symbolic bombing of uninhabited Ethiopian territory.
Separately, in early May Sudanese Foreign Minister Mariam Sadiq Al-Mahdi stated that Ethiopia’s position of not recognizing prior agreements undermines Ethiopia’s sovereignty, because the Benishangul-Gumuz region had been transferred from Sudan to Ethiopia under the 1902 treaty. This is an important point, because while Ethiopia’s assumption is that once GERD is filled beyond a certain level it cannot be bombed without exposing Sudan to severe flooding, Khartoum is now hinting that a ground invasion remains a theoretical possibility.
If on the other hand Cairo’s brinksmanship fails to produce a result, it might itself feel compelled to attack the dam. Should this ever transpire it would produce a highly complex situation. The Ethiopian people would respond with tremendous enmity against Egypt, and it will become the goal of every Ethiopian ruler to build dams. Egypt also would need to take into account the African and international response to such measures. In my view, this nightmare scenario is not realistic unless the Egyptians find themselves facing an even bigger nightmare: thirst.