Egypt fumes as Ethiopia plans second filling of Nile dam

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (left) and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (left) and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. 

Photo credit: File

Ethiopian authorities say they are ready to start the second filling of the Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD), despite warnings from Egypt over the Blue Nile project.

The second filling was scheduled for June, and it came nearly two months after talks between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt failed to reach a solution on what to do about Africa’s largest dam.

Ethiopia is determined to march forward with opening GERD, which the Horn state sees as a pathway to providing greater access to electricity in the country and a prosperous future, but which Egypt fears will lead to chronic water shortages downstream. 

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

In this file photo taken on December 26, 2019, a general view of the Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia.

Photo credit: Eduardo Soteras | AFP

Egypt relies on the Nile’s waters for agriculture and has previously indicated that it will do whatever is necessary to protect its rights to it. 

After Ethiopia filled the dam last year, Sudan's Irrigation and Water Resources Ministry raised alarm over declining water levels on the river.

Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt have been locked in talks for nearly a decade over the dam, after Addis Ababa broke ground on the project in 2011. 

Shuttle diplomacy

Now, as the latest tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia mount, Cairo is renewing its shuttle diplomacy with East African countries, seeking to stop Addis.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s visit to Djibouti last week on Thursday is seen as part of Cairo’s new diplomatic attempts to forge more alliances with Ethiopia’s neighbours.

Al-Sisi became the first Egyptian president to visit Djibouti since the tiny Red Sea nation gained independence in 1977. A dispatch from Djibouti indicated that Al-Sissi and Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh agreed that the Ethiopian dam should be filled and operated according to "a fair and binding legal agreement" in order to maintain regional stability and preserve the interests of all parties.

“I stressed Egypt's opposition to any attempt to impose a [different] reality on the ground through unilateral decisions that do not consider the interests and rights of the river's two downstream countries," said the Egyptian president in a joint news conference in Djibouti.

Ethiopia's deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen told local media that "Egypt and Sudan are attempting to exert unnecessary pressure on Ethiopia through different means including the internationalisation and politicisation of technical issues which will only undermine trust among the three countries."

He further reiterated that the second filling of GERD will continue according to schedule.

More dams?

Tension between the two countries reached a higher point on Sunday when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that Ethiopia will build more than 100 small and medium-sized dams in different parts of the country.

“The country is scheduled to build more than 100 small and medium dams in several regions of the country as part of the budget plan for the next Ethiopian year,” he said.

“Working hand in hand is the only way to resist any forces against Ethiopia," he added.

PM Abiy, however, didn't mention if building more dams along the Nile River is part of his ambitious plan.

In response, Egypt on Monday denounced the prime minister's plan to build dams, saying the statement was a continuation of “a regrettable approach” that disregards international law.

Metta-Alem Sinishaw, a senior political analyst and researcher on Ethiopia and the East African region, told Nation.Africa that Ethiopia’s declared intention to build 100 small and medium-size dams across the country was a likely strategy to fight back Egyptian influence.

“It sounds more like a counter-offensive against growing Egyptian military penetration in the Horn that could isolate Ethiopia, especially through military alliances with Sudan and the broader East African region," he said.

'A mockery' 

The perception in Addis Ababa is that the Ethiopian government was only bluffing about putting up more dams.

“Abiy’s remark is a mockery to the more than 100 million Ethiopians,” said Melaku Enshaw, a shoe shiner in Addis Ababa.

“Let alone building 100 dams. We are witnessing how the country is having difficulty completing GERD.”

Students outside Unity University told Nation.Africa that PM Abiy's announcement is only part of his spat with Egypt to leverage bargaining power in the ongoing tripartite negotiations between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

Other players in the country reckon that it is a part of PM Abiy's propaganda tactics in the run-up to national elections due to be held June 21.

The leader of Egypt's main opposition party, Salvation Front, reportedly said recently: "We must destroy the Ethiopian Dam before Ethiopia starts the second filling." He argued that “if we fail to do this, Egypt will face the greatest defeat in history.”

As well as new military cooperation agreements with east African countries, Egypt has also started military exercises.

On Monday, members of the Sudanese and Egyptian armed forces concluded a joint military exercise that took place over six days in Sudan.

Fears of war

There are growing fears that the ongoing row between the two Nile basin countries could lead to a potential war.

Metta-Alem, however, says that a military confrontation between Ethiopia and Egypt is unlikely, even though it may weaken Ethiopia’s own alliances.

“Egypt’s growing military alliance with Ethiopia’s neighbors undermines Ethiopian regional influence. As the Egypt-Sudan regional ambition projects military influence in Kenya, Djibouti, Uganda… etc.  and elsewhere in East Africa.”

“The Ethio-Eritrean partnership will emerge a formidable challenger in the Horn region in which global powers and regional actors will intervene to prevent a full-fledged war that could adversely affect the Red Sea shipping lanes,” he added.

Some are asking whether the water dispute will eventually affect Ethiopia's diplomatic ties with neighbouring countries and how it could affect regional peace and security
“Ethiopia’s relations with its neighbours will be determined by the degree to which Abiy builds internal political harmony since the disintegration of the ethno-nationalist camp," said Metta-Alem.

The growing tension between the Ethiopian-Eritrean convergence and the Egypt-Sudan alliance will also play a significant role, he added, referring to a collaboration between Ethiopian and Eritrean forces in Tigray.  

“Although it is too early to state which direction Ethiopia will lean, increasing pressure from the West and their continued support for the Egyptian side will only push Ethiopia to the edge, (worsen) stability in the Red Sea and increase … Horn proxy confrontations among powers," Metta-Alem stated.