Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia are locked in a bitter conflict running over a dam for ten years, Addis Ababa builds on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the River Nile.
In a pre-recorded speech Speaking on the margins of the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 20, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stressed the need to get serious about building dams on international rivers, as there is no agreement with the downstream countries on the filling and working mechanisms, given the risks that could exacerbate climate change, in an indirect reference to the dispute over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Sisi said the fight against building dams on international rivers is part of efforts to adapt to climate change.
Sisi, whose country wants to host the UN climate summit in 2022 on behalf of Africa, said confronting dams built on international rivers is a very important aspect of action to combat climate change and a top priority for developing countries – especially in Africa, which suffers from the most serious consequences of climate change, namely water scarcity, drought, desertification of the land and a threat to food security.
The two downstream countries (Egypt and Sudan) want a legally binding agreement on the interpretation and functioning of the GERD, which includes an effective and binding mechanism for settling future disputes. However, Ethiopia wants a deal that includes: non-binding guidelines.
A series of technical issues have yet to be resolved between the three countries. These include the operation of the dam during drought years, which would reduce the amount of water Addis Ababa would discharge to Egypt and Sudan.
The GERD issue has reached an impasse amid mounting fears of military conflict in the region. Attempts by the African Union (AU) to strike a deal to end the deadlock have repeatedly failed. The last round of talks, held in Kinshasa on April 4-5, failed as each side accused the other of: hindering the talks.
Sisi, meanwhile, warned of a major threat to the security and stability of the region amid stalled negotiations over the GERD and blamed Ethiopia for its intransigence and refusal to handle the negotiations positively.
In a speech to the General Assembly on September 21, Sisi said“You may all be aware of the outcome of a decade-long cycle of negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia as a result of apparent intransigence and unwarranted refusal to participate positively in the negotiation process in its successive stages, and instead to take a unilateral approach and lay the facts on the ground. This warns of a serious threat to the security and stability of the entire region.”
Sisi stressed that “throughout history, the Nile River has always been the main lifeline in Egypt,” and this explains the concerns of Egyptian citizens.
Sisi said that although Egypt recognizes the African brothers’ rights for development, the country does water scarcity problems and is one of the driest. He added: “Egypt is still committed to … a legally binding, balanced and comprehensive agreement on the filling and operation of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to protect the livelihood of 150 million Egyptians and Sudanese and to prevent immeasurable damage to the resources of the two peoples.”
On July 19, Ethiopia announced the completion of the second filling of the dam reservoir with enough water to generate energy. Egypt and Sudan rejected the unilateral step taken without reaching a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam.
The UN Security Council held a meeting on July 8 at the request of Egypt and Sudan in an effort to: settle the dispute. On June 29, 2020, the Security Council had discussed the GERD dispute for the first time, which coincided with the first filling of the dam’s reservoir. When it became clear earlier this year that Addis Ababa intended to move forward with the second filling, the dispute once again received international attention.
On September 15, the Security Council called on the three countries to presidential statement resume constructive negotiations under the umbrella of the AU “to read the text of [a] mutually acceptable and binding agreement on the substance and operation of the GERD within a reasonable timeframe.”
Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict research in the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University and UNESCO chair of international water cooperation, told Al-Monitor: “Big dams like the GERD are double-edged swords in the context of climate risks. The big dams, on the one hand, by flooding the forests to create reservoirs, eliminate carbon sinks. The rotting plants under the reservoirs also produce greenhouse gases. In addition, these large dams destroy habitats, alter a river’s ecosystem and displace large populations.”
“These dams also provide renewable energy, manage flooding and store water for dry years. However, all of these benefits could potentially be achieved with a dam in a transboundary river if it cooperates with other riparian states. If there are no similarities between river basin countries, instead of controlling flooding, these upstream dams could contribute to more flooding and exacerbate the situation of water scarcity in dry years,” Swain added.
Ethiopia argues that the $5 billion dam, with 80% construction completed, is important for the country’s economic development and energy generation. But Egypt views the dam as a serious threat to its water supply from the Nile, on which it depends almost entirely to meet its freshwater needs.
Egypt, which employs more than 6 million people in the agricultural sector, says that every 1 billion cubic meters decreases in its share of Nile water 200,000 families will be deprived of their main source of livelihood because they are directly dependent on agriculture.
Sudan sees what GERD Benefits in organizing Blue Nile water and using the electricity it generates. However, it wants guarantees regarding the safe and convenient operation of the dam to ensure the safety of its own dams, including the Rozendam, the largest in Sudan.
Egypt and Sudan accuse Ethiopia of withholding or provide inaccurate information about the filling and operation of the dam.
Swain believes that the downstream countries are not sufficiently prepared to deal with the consequences of the dam. “Great dams are not built overnight. Egypt and Sudan had at least seven to eight years to prepare for this situation, but they did not.”
He added: “However, the fears of both countries are real. Suppose the dam is not operated in collaboration and Ethiopia wants to use it as an instrument of power; in that case, it could add more water to the floods in Sudan and reduce Egypt’s water supply during the dry years. The three river basins and the international community must work towards fulfilling the Security Council presidential statement of obtaining a mutually agreed binding agreement.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the current chairman of the AU, is making efforts to revive talks between the three countries. Meanwhile, Egypt and Sudan are calling for a international quartet to mediate the discussions between the United Nations, the European Union and the United States, together with the DRC in its capacity as AU President. Ethiopia insists that mediation should be limited to the AU.
Swain concluded: “President Sisi bringing this issue to the World Summit on Climate Change does not surprise anyone. It will bring some gains politically, but will not significantly change the ongoing deadlock in the negotiations with Ethiopia.”