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Egypt weighs next steps after Ethiopia completes second filling of Nile Dam

Ethiopia announced the completion of the second filling phase of the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
View of the construction site of a dam at the Entoto Park, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Sept. 22, 2020.

CAIRO — The state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation announced July 19 the completion of the second-phase filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which it is building on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile River. 

Egypt and Sudan have been locked in a decades long dispute with Ethiopia over the dam, amid its insistence to fill the dam’s reservoir without reaching a binding agreement with its downstream neighbors. 

Former Egyptian Minister of Irrigation Mohammed Nasr Allam told Al-Monitor that Egypt is closely following up on all developments related to the GERD crisis and it is aware of all steps taken in this regard. He said that Ethiopia failed to achieve its goal to generate electricity through the second filling, explaining that it had already failed during the first filling last year due to technical and other problems in the construction of the dam

Allam said that Ethiopia has not stored enough water to protect the dam from any possible military action.

In a bid to appease the Egyptian and Sudanese concerns, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said in a statement July 20, “The second filling of the GERD has been successfully completed during the rainy season with caution. This filling will not harm the downstream countries.”

Speaking about the damages resulting from the GERD, Allam said, “What Ethiopia is doing is an aggression and a clear threat to the Egyptian and Sudanese national securities. The problem is not in filling the dam, but rather in the lack of an agreement that meets the interests of all parties. Ethiopia's intransigent position may cause disasters for downstream countries, as the GERD may negatively affect Sudan’s own dams, cause drinking and irrigation water shortages [Sudan], not to mention the damages that would result if the GERD collapses.”

As for Egypt, Allam noted, the situation is more serious because it is a matter of life or death. “Egypt’s water resources are estimated at 60 billion cubic meters annually, most of which come from the Nile. Meanwhile, Egypt’s total water needs are about 114 billion cubic meters per year. This gap is compensated by rain, groundwater and agricultural wastewater. As the population grows, water consumption increases as well,” he added.

Speaking at a conference launching the Haya Karima (Decent Life) project for the development of Egypt’s countryside July 15, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said, “The water that is retained for the [GERD] filling leads to a decrease in the dam’s reservoir. As a result, Egypt would lose its water reserves needed to face the years of drought. Every drop of water that is seized because of the dam means a shortage of water used for drinking, irrigation and production in Egypt, which leads to the collapse of the entire Egyptian state.”

Speaking about the options available to Egypt, Allam noted, “Cairo is waiting for the position of the international community on the dam crisis. The UN Security Council must adopt the [draft resolution] submitted by Tunisia, which stipulates the need to resume the GERD negotiations on two conditions: The first is setting a timetable to relaunch the negotiations, and the second is the intervention of international experts and observers. Should the international community fail to resume negotiations on these terms and should Ethiopia continue to act unilaterally, Cairo will move to defend its right to life by using military force.”

On July 5, Egypt announced that it had received an official notice from Ethiopia stating that it had started the second filling process of the dam’s reservoir. Sudan also received a similar notification, which was strongly rejected by both Cairo and Khartoum.

Salah Halima, deputy chairman of the Egyptian Council for African Affairs, told Al-Monitor that the second filling was not completed in full, as Ethiopia claimed, which means that Addis Ababa is still promoting false allegations regarding the filling and operation process of the GERD and in dealing with downstream countries.

Halima noted that Ethiopia has failed to fill 13.5 billion cubic meters as it claimed; it filled much less because of the middle corridor’s height that reached 574 meters (1,883 feet) instead of the planned 595 meters (1,952 feet).

Ethiopia sought to complete the second filling to operate two turbines from which electricity can be generated, Halima added.

On July 20, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on the phone with the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the current chair of the African Union (AU), about the need to resolve the GERD crisis, “[Blinken] emphasized the importance of the African Union’s role in reducing conflict and mediating the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam dispute,” the State Department said in a statement. 

Halima stressed that Cairo and Khartoum categorically reject Addis Ababa’s unilateral actions and its efforts to impose a fait accompli, since its actions contravene all relevant international laws and agreements, including the Declaration of Principles. Egypt and Sudan are concerned over the grave consequences the GERD has on the downstream countries, not to mention the lack of fair and equitable exploitation of water, he noted. 

He said, “The current option on the table now is the need to resume the negotiations within the framework of a Security Council resolution [if adopted]. The new round of negotiations would be held under a different approach, but still under the AU sponsorship while giving a greater role for international parties, experts and observers in order to reach a legally binding agreement that serves the interests of all parties.”

Halima added, “Ethiopia must respond to regional and international calls for a change in the negotiation mechanism, and this option is strongly supported by Cairo and Khartoum. But if Ethiopia continues to adopt intransigent positions, Cairo would then resort to the military option to defend its right to life because water is a matter of life or death for Egypt.”

Hani Raslan, head of the Nile Basin Studies Unit at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor that both Egypt and Sudan are counting on the results of the international community’s intervention in resolving the GERD crisis, stressing that the issue for Egypt is “existential.” If the Security Council fails to resolve the crisis peacefully and meet the interests of the three parties while preserving Egypt’s water security, Cairo will resort to defending its water security even if it means using military force, he said. 

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