Ethiopia's war threat over Nile ratchets up tensions with Egypt

Egypt suggested Ethiopia extend the period of reservoir filling to seven years from its planned two years.
Friday 25/10/2019
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses members of parliament in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, October 22.  (AP)
Unminced words. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses members of parliament in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, October 22.  (AP)

CAIRO - Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed threatened to mobilise millions of troops against Egypt if the regional dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam escalates to war.

Abiy, recently announced as the 2019 Noble Peace Prize recipient, told the Ethiopian parliament on October 22 that, if Ethiopia needed to go to war to defend the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile River, it could mobilise millions of people.

He noted, however, that negotiation could be the only way to resolve the deadlock.

Relations between Egypt and Ethiopia have been strained because of the multibillion-dollar hydroelectric dam, which is designed to hold more than 74 billion cubic metres of water. Ethiopia started constructing the dam in 2011 and expects to have it fully operational by 2022. Ethiopian officials said the project is indispensable for the country’s economic development.

Egypt claims GERD will significantly reduce the flow of Nile water and said it will make downstream areas prone to droughts, destroy farmland, leave millions of farmers jobless and force Egypt to import more food.

"The Egyptian economy will pay dearly because of this dam," said Diaa al-Qosi, a former adviser to the Egyptian Irrigation Ministry. "The Nile River is a crucial lifeline for Egypt."

On September 17, the Egyptian Irrigation Ministry said talks had failed because of Ethiopia's inability to demonstrate flexibility. The declaration of the ministry was after two days of technical negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.

At the centre of the dispute is the period during which Ethiopia plans to fill the dam reservoir and the way it is to be operated.

Egypt suggested Ethiopia extend the period of reservoir filling to seven years. Ethiopian plans are for the reservoir to be filled in two years. Cairo wants Ethiopia to release 40 billion cubic metres of water from the dam annually during the reservoir-filling period. This, Cairo said, would keep the water level behind the High Dam in Egypt at 165 metres, which would allow that dam to keep generating electricity.

Egypt also wants to establish a permanent technical office at the GERD site, where Egyptian engineers would co-run the dam with Ethiopian crews.

However, Ethiopia rejected all the demands.

Abiy's comments sparked more fear in Cairo, analysts said.

"The timing of the Ethiopian prime minister's remarks is very strange," said Akram Badreddine, a professor of political science at Cairo University. "They will necessarily have a negative impact on negotiations with Egypt."

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry expressed shock at Abiy's remarks, issuing a statement that it followed the comments with "concern" and "deep sorrow."

"The Ethiopian prime minister's remarks included negative signals and unacceptable allusions," the Foreign Ministry said. It added that Abiy's remarks violated the content, principles and spirit of laws of the African Union.

Abiy, speaking October 24, said his comments at the Ethiopian parliament had been taken out of context. He promised during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa summit that Ethiopia would protect the interests of downstream countries.

"As the prime minister of Ethiopia, I am committed to my country's declared position of abiding by the negotiation course on the road to a final agreement," Abiy said.

The Egyptian administration has not brandished a military option in dealing with the GERD. Cairo pins its hopes on mediation from influential international partners, including Russia, to help end the deadlock over the dam. The Foreign Ministry said that the United States had invited the Egyptian foreign minister for a meeting in Washington with his Ethiopian and Sudanese counterparts. The Kremlin also said that it is ready to mediate the dispute.

However, results from talks are far from certain, with Ethiopia exhibiting little flexibility and considering suggested amendments to its original dam operation and filling plan as threats to its right to economic development.

Sisi said during his meeting with Abiy that Egypt understands Ethiopia's development needs but development should not come at the cost of Egypt's rights to the Nile.

Egypt receives 55.5 billion cubic metres of water from the Nile annually. With annual freshwater per capita of 570 cubic metres, Egypt is already water-stressed. Specialists said Egypt will experience water scarcity and then absolute water scarcity in the coming years if its water resources remain the same and its population grows as expected.

The GERD and Ethiopia's plan for filling and operating the dam will give Egypt more trouble, analysts said.

What makes Egypt's case worse is that its options are limited, especially if international mediation fails.

"This is a problem that poses threats to peace and security in the Nile basin," Badreddine said. "Egypt also has the right to defend its right to the Nile water by all means."