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Egyptian concerns grow amid Ethiopia’s plan to build dozens of dams

Ethiopia announced a plan to build dozens of additional dams at a time when tensions with Egypt and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam are on the rise due to failure to agree on filling and operating the dam.
People wash clothes and bath on the shore of Lake Tana, in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Nov. 11, 2020.

Egypt has recently criticized the statements of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed regarding a plan to build dozens of additional dams in different parts of Ethiopia.

The statements come at a time when tensions are on the rise between Egypt and Ethiopia, in addition to Sudan, over a huge hydroelectric dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile River. Egypt and Sudan fear their water share might be affected by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), while Ethiopia claims the project is important for its development.

In a May 30 speech at the inauguration of the first stage of an expressway project in Ethiopia, Ahmed said that his country will build more than 100 small and middle-sized dams across different parts of the country during the new fiscal year.

He noted that joint work is the only way to resist any forces opposing Ethiopia, without naming these forces.

Ahmed continued that the dams aim at increasing agricultural production three-fold per year, and consequently, ensuring food security. He called on Ethiopians to unite to achieve the developmental programs of the state.

In response, Ahmed Hafez, spokesman for the Egyptian minister of foreign affairs, voiced Egypt’s refusal of Ahmed’s statements, saying in an official statement May 31 that they reveal once again Ethiopia’s bad intentions as it deals with the Nile River and other international rivers shared with neighboring countries as inland rivers under its sovereignty and serving its own interests.

He said, “Ahmed’s statements are a continuation of a regrettable approach that disregards the rules of international law.”

Hafez noted that Egypt has always recognized the right of all Nile Basin countries to build water projects and exploit the resources of the Nile River to achieve development for its people. But these projects and water facilities must be built in coordination, negotiation and agreement with countries that might be affected by them, mainly the downstream countries, he added.

Hafez called on Ethiopia to respect the other riparian states and not harm their interests as per the rules of international law that regulate the use of international rivers.

Paul Sullivan, a professor at the US National Defense University in Washington, told Al-Monitor, “It is clear that Ethiopia wants to have more control over its waters.”

Sullivan said that building more dams during these tense times shows further antagonism and aggression, which is the opposite of what should be done to find a peaceful solution with Egypt and Sudan.

The ongoing attempts of the African Union to mediate a deal that would end the ongoing deadlock in the tripartite negotiations and reach a legal, binding agreement on filling and operating the GERD have so far failed.

The last round of talks in Kinshasa on April 4-5 did not result in an agreement to resume negotiations. Each party accused the other of obstructing the talks.

Ashok Swain, a professor of peace and conflict research and UNESCO chair of international water cooperation, told Al-Monitor, “No international law bars Ethiopia [from] building new dams upstream.”

He said, “Ethiopia can argue that it needs to build the dams to use the Blue Nile water equitably, against Egypt’s and Sudan’s claims over historical use [of the river’s waters].”

Ethiopia is pressuring Egypt and Sudan to include the countries' historical shares of the Nile water in the topics up for negotiation over the GERD.

Meanwhile, it seems Ethiopia attempted to appease Egypt’s concerns about being affected in case additional dams are built. Dina Mufti, spokesman for the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said during a press conference June 3 that his country is committed to the laws of transboundary rivers and asserted that building new dams will not harm neighboring countries, especially the two downstream countries (Egypt and Sudan).

In his statement, Ahmed did not clarify the location of the potential dams and on which rivers they would be built, despite nine large rivers passing through Ethiopia. 

Mufti said, “Ethiopia has many inland rivers that are not transboundary. We do not see a problem with building 10 or 100 dams [on those inland rivers].”

On the timing of Ahmed’s statements, Swain said, “This is pre-election political rhetoric as the elections [in Ethiopia] are scheduled for June 21.”

He added, “While the Ethiopian economy was doing well, the country and its diaspora have [invested a lot] to build the GERD. Building another 100 dams on the upstream needs huge investments. Considering Ethiopia is gradually becoming a pariah state for the West and given that its economy is taking a sharp downward turn and it is engaged in a devastating civil war, the only possible source of funding is China.”

Swain said that given the precarious security situation in the region and the likely strong opposition from the downstream countries, he was not sure how far China would go in funding these dam projects. “These dams are not a reality in the short run, but they bring more mistrust and further complications to negotiation,” he noted.

Ethiopia is planning on filling the GERD during the next rain season in July and August, regardless of whether an agreement with the two downstream countries has been reached. In the past year, Ethiopia went ahead with the first phase of unilaterally filling the dam’s reservoir with a capacity of 4.9 billion cubic meters, which angered Egypt and Sudan.

Egypt and Sudan want a binding legal agreement on the filling and operation of the dam, provided it includes an effective and binding mechanism to settle future disputes. But Ethiopia wants an agreement that includes nonbinding guiding principles.

Swain said, "[Ahmed] is using the tension over the GERD — besides the Tigray war — to polarize the electorates to win the election.”

It seems Ahmed is trying to settle the elections that have been repeatedly postponed in his favor to remain in his position. Meanwhile, the country in East Africa is plagued with racial and political divisions.

In early June, Egyptian media outlets shared an audio recording of Ahmed in which he purportedly said that he would rather die than hand over power.

Ethiopia denied the veracity of the recording, and the Ethiopian News Agency accused Egyptian media of being misleading to stir up the public opinion in Ethiopia due to the disagreement over the GERD issue.

Swain added, “[Ahmed's] insistence on not accepting the United Nations, United States and European Union as negotiators, refusing to sign a legally binding agreement, and, now, boasting about building 100 dams are clear signs of his reluctance to work for a negotiated settlement on the filling process of the GERD.”

On the future of tensions between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, Sullivan said, “The best solution is to cool down all sides involved and come to some peaceful and fair compromise. Barring this, anything might happen.”

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