Ethiopia, Egypt disagreement frustrates African search for Nile solution

Thursday April 08 2021
Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Ethiopia.

A stalemate over the Nile waters has made it difficult to resolve a simmering dispute over the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Ethiopia. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


The stalemate between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile waters has made it difficult to resolve a simmering dispute over a dam built by Addis Ababa.

Both countries have stuck to their “legal rights” in utilising the water; with Ethiopia citing sovereign right of utilising a river that originates from its soil and Egypt arguing that the flow of the Nile is its natural rightful source of water.

This week, the three countries in the dispute – Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan – failed to reach a solution again, after talks in Kinshasa mediated by DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi ended without progress.

Tshisekedi had said the meeting would be an “important step” for a lasting solution. But added that this would only happen “if all of us, together, can give to it, the courage to overcome obstacles.” 

However, each country blamed the other for lack of compromise.

Egypt and Sudan seemed to gang up against Ethiopia, accusing Addis Ababa of refusing to compromise.


Mariam Asadiq, the Sudanese Foreign Minister, said Khartoum will only agree to a deal that addresses interests of the three countries “and the 250 million people living here.”

Addis Ababa accused Sudan and Egypt of demanding to have observers to take the role of parties, something Ethiopia fears could erode the role of the African Union.

“Both countries attempted to obstruct the process,” said Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s Water, Irrigation and Energy Minister.

“Ethiopia cannot enter an agreement that will forestall its current and future legitimate rights over the utilisation of the Nile,” Dr Seleshi said, accusing Sudan and Egypt of being “rigid.”

Diplomats associated with a mediation programme at the African Union say the lack of compromise has stalled the discussions on the agreement. Talks did not begin this week.

The African Union had picked up the role of mediator to help Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agree on an amicable way of filling the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) being built on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.

But Egypt and Ethiopia have exchanged harsh words, lately.

On Tuesday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi told the media there could be “regional consequences” if Egypt’s water rights are violated.

Al-Sissi warned of “instability that no one can imagine” if the dam was filled without a proper agreement between the three countries.

“No one can take a single drop of water from Egypt, and whoever wants to try it, let him try,” he said. “No one imagines that it will be far from our capabilities. I repeat that the waters of Egypt are untouchable, and touching them is a red line.”

In public, both countries vow to negotiate for an amicable solution. But they have refused to budge on their respective definition of “rights.”

Sissi said he was serious about achieving a win-win deal, admitting the river cannot grant all benefits to one country. Yet his country is nervous about the dam’s potential to reduce the volume of water downstream.

Last month, Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Dina Mufti said Addis Ababa’s project will not harm riparian countries, arguing that both countries should be searching for a peaceful solution.

“Ethiopia has no interest in harming lower Nile Basin countries and has always been committed to resolving issues through negotiations,” Mufti told a press conference.

“Ethiopia has legal and sovereign right to use the Nile water for development fairly and [utilise it] equitably.”

Ethiopia’s running argument has been that any negotiations on the Nile must ensure “the rights of the current and future generations of its people to use their water resources.”

Ethiopia began constructing GERD in April 2011, after pooling funds from Ethiopians. At a cost of $4.9 billion, the GERD could be Africa’s biggest hydropower plant, capable of producing up to 6400MW of power when fully functional.

That would be enough to power every Ethiopian home, and export more to neighbouring countries. Ethiopia argues that the dam is purely for electricity generation and says the facility could in fact control flooding in downstream countries.

The three countries must, however, reach an agreement to determine how the dam will be filled, in varying flooding or drought seasons, how they can resolve their disputes on the Nile in future and the volume permitted to reach riparian countries at any given time.

But they have been deadlocked for more than a year.

AU Chairman Tshisekedi is expected convene another session in April. All the three countries accept AU mediation, with conditions. Diplomats involved in arranging the mediation say the stances are more political than about water scarcity.

“The truth is, there is more water than any of these countries can use. There is constant flooding downstream from the dam, so it is clear that the dam is not the issue,” a diplomat told The EastAfrican, saying the parties are particularly deadlocked because Ethiopia sees the Nile as its natural resource.

“What is needed is a mature conversation between the three parties to resolve whatever misgivings they may have.”

After several rounds of negotiations, the three countries failed to agree on the role of experts. Ethiopia wanted the experts to provide scientific guidance, rather than sit in sessions. Addis Ababa argues it has been flexible already, agreeing to fill the dam reservoir in seven years as opposed to the original two.

When Ethiopia made the initial filling last year, without an agreement, Khartoum claimed the volume of water reaching its soil had reduced by as much as 90 million cubic metres per day.

Sudan worries the dam could make it harder to control its flooding and make it difficult to safely run its own dams on the Nile. However, while Khartoum suggested the internationalisation of the dispute by including the UN, EU and the US; Ethiopia rejected the proposal.

In early March, Sissi visited Khartoum where he and the hosts said they would reject Ethiopia’s “control of the Blue Nile through unilateral measures.”