Ethiopia vows to fill dam despite Egyptian threats

Friday March 20 2020

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 145-metre-high, 1.8-kilometre-long concrete colossus is set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa. PHOTO | EDUARDO SOTERAS | AFP


The water filling strategy for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) remains the most contentious issue yet to be resolved in the talks between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.

Addis Ababa says it will begin filling GERD in July with or without an agreement. However, Cairo has warned against any water filling before reaching a final deal between the three parties.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Ethiopia's foreign minister Gedu Andargachew dismissed Cairo's warning.

"No one will prevent us from filling the dam," he said. "We will begin filling the dam as scheduled in July."

Ethiopia seeks to fill the dam in seven years. For Egypt, if the dam is filled slowly, it will minimise the reduction of the flow of Nile waters downstream—Egypt depends on the Nile.

Cairo also wants Ethiopia to commit to an annual minimum release from the dam to ensure sufficient water supply to Egypt.


"Ethiopia can fill the dam in three years but since we understand Egypt's concerns, we have agreed to fill it in seven years," Minister Gedu said.

The minister added that "though the GERD is a sovereign project, Ethiopia opened dialogue with Egypt, but the other party [Egypt] did not appreciate that."

He further argued that Egypt should have contributed to financing the dam because it will benefit from it.


The latest tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt originated from talks that had been organised by the US government and the World Bank, bringing together Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt to discuss how to fill up the dam, while ensuring sufficient water flows to Cairo.

Ethiopia skipped the latest round of talks held in Washington on February 26, saying it needed more time for consultations at home. However, Cairo signed a draft document, indicating negotiations had been completed.

When Ethiopia skipped the talks, Cairo accused Ethiopia of "deliberately" hindering the path of negotiations and vowed to use all available means to defend the interests of its people.

The Ethiopia foreign minister held Egypt accountable for the failure of the negotiations.

"Egypt bears the full responsibility of hampering negotiations and involving external parties in the negotiations," Mr Gedu said.

Ethiopia pulled out of the talks over what it said was the US and the World Bank overstepping their roles and favouring Cairo's interest.

US pressure

According to the minister, bringing the US on board as an observer was done at Egypt's request.

"Ethiopia agreed hoping to reach a solution, but the US started to play a mediator role instead of an observer," Mr Gedu said.

The foreign minister accused the United States of putting pressure on Ethiopia into signing a deal with Egypt and Sudan before resolving outstanding issues.

He said Ethiopian negotiators were pressured by the US to quickly reach an agreement and sign a deal that favours Cairo.

"Any pressure from the US is unacceptable," Mr Gedu said, adding that Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan should resolve their differences without outside pressure.

"If the US wants to resume its role as just a neutral supervisor, we welcome this. However, Ethiopia will not accept any pressure."
Arab League

Recently, the Arab League (AL) member states, with the exception of Sudan, issued a resolution that rejected any form of "infringement against Egypt's historical rights to the water resources of the River Nile".

Addis Ababa reacted immediately, accusing the Arab League of endorsing incomplete negotiations. Egypt rejected the Addis Ababa view.

Sudan on its side refused to endorse resolution saying it doesn't serve Khartoum's interests and further cautioned it might lead to Arab-Ethiopian confrontations.
Mr Gedu argued that the Arab League should not have issued such a resolution, especially as it is a regional institution.

"The Arab League should work on promoting peace. It should have issued a statement urging the countries [Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt] to resume negotiations instead of taking a blind side that could create crises," he said.

"It should work on promoting peace among the member states and the Middle East, especially in light of the current crises facing many countries like Syria, Libya and Yemen."

Sudan's position

The minister strongly praised Sudan for its stand.

"Sudan believes in equitable use of the Nile water resources however, Egypt insists on maintaining status quo on its share of the Nile water resources," Mr Gedu said.

He added that Sudan at first had concerns regarding the dam and Ethiopia considered these concerns and dealt with them.

Egypt fears that construction of Ethiopia's mega power plant project will eventually diminish its historic water share from the Nile however, Sudan eyes future benefits from it.
Way forward
As fresh tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt mounts to its most perilous point, the International Crisis Group (ICG) warns of a potential risk of moving further toward confrontation unless the Nile water dispute is careful managed.

Escalations of tensions between the two countries were more visible when photos were released of Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed meeting with their respective senior generals.

Nationalistic rhetoric on social media has sharpened in both countries.

Crisis group said Ethiopia's top military official, General Adem Mohammed, said on a recent visit to the GERD project site that the country's armed forces are prepared to repel attacks against the dam.

"All sides need to tone down the rhetoric and focus on negotiations rather than aggressive diplomacy," William Davison, Crisis Group's senior analyst on Ethiopia, told The EastAfrican.

To lower tensions, Crisis Group's new report released Monday said parties should strike an interim agreement governing the first two years of filling the dam, during which Ethiopia would store only enough water to test the turbines.

The Group also said in order both to mount an urgent push to reach an interim agreement and set the stage for successful broader talks, the right outside actors will have to be involved.

"The US and World Bank have done laudable work driving negotiations forward in recent months, but they have also created strong Ethiopian perceptions that they favour Cairo. Given these concerns, bringing an expanded team of observers into the talks would be beneficial," the report said.