The Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has announced his intention to reignite trilateral talks between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan regarding the divisive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) currently under construction. In a telephone call to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, previously appointed to facilitate discussions between the deadlocked nations, Hamdok stated he would soon visit Cairo and Addis Ababa to “urge the two parties to resume negotiations on the Renaissance Dam and complete the remaining important outstanding issues”.
The call, which happened last week, was described in a Sudanese government statement on Monday. Hamdok and Mnuchin agreed that “the issue of the Renaissance Dam is very urgent and should continue to be negotiated once the world has overcome the Corona pandemic disaster”.
Hamdok’s pledge comes a month after Ethiopia’s absence from talks in Washington DC to agree on terms over its $4.8 billion hydroelectric dam nearing completion on the Blue Nile, the major tributary of the Nile. Ethiopia and Egypt have been at odds on the dam since construction commenced in 2011.
The three countries signed a Declaration of Principles in 2015, agreeing that Egypt and Sudan should not be negatively impacted by the upstream GERD. The negotiations held in Washington were the latest in an attempt to finalize conditions for the operation of the dam. Ethiopia announced it would not attend the final days of the talks, citing a need for more time to consult relevant stakeholders. It had previously accused the U.S. of overstepping beyond its role as observer.
The GERD is set to be the largest dam in Africa. The massive hydroelectric plant is toted to generate more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity at its peak, although this estimate has been criticized as overoptimistic. Regardless, the energy generated would connect citizens across the country to the grid, something 65% of the population currently lacks, according to the BBC. Surplus electricity could also be sold to surrounding nations, including Sudan, which will benefit from the regulation of the Nile’s flow which causes devastating floods there each year.
Cairo has long been opposed to the GERD as it will essentially give Ethiopia a button to control the Nile. They have also argued that current proposals for timescales to fill the dam are too rapid, leaving the Nile without sufficient water over the next decade. The Nile is of immense importance to the Egyptian people, who rely on its freshwater for drinking, fishing, and agriculture. A portion of the country’s electricity is also generated by Egypt’s own Aswan Dam.
While the completion of the dam is imminent, Egypt is advocating for an extension to the amount of time the dam will be filled, something Ethiopia is currently reluctant to do; facing pressure from stakeholders and the public to achieve its production target. Both countries also have deep-rooted historical sentiments regarding the waters, affirming any outside dictation over its flows is a threat to their sovereignty.
Egypt and Ethiopia likely both fear internal reprisals from discontented civilian populations; each hosts a society anxious their resources and nationalist integrity are at stake; both have seen deadly protests unfold during the last decade. Perhaps more alarming is the very real threat of international conflict between the two nations, with Sudan, caught in the middle. In the early days of the GERD’s development, then-Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, speaking to Reuters, accused Cairo of supporting rebels in Ethiopia to destabilize the country and its plans to build the dam.
Egypt refuted the claim, but potential offensive measures against the dam were discussed in a mistakenly televised government meeting and supposed leaked emails published by WikiLeaks. More recently, Egypt said it would use “all available means” to defend its interests in the Nile after Ethiopia skipped the Washington talks. Ethiopia’s military chief General Adem Mohammad later visited the GERD alongside other top military officials, stating they were prepared to counter and retaliate any attacks on the dam. Each country has also shared pictures of their leaders meeting with senior military staff.
Former World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin, Founding Director of the revived Bibliotheca Alexandria, once said that “the wars of [this] century will be fought over water”. This is not a finality Egypt and Ethiopia need a face. A major confrontation between the two could draw the combined 205 million population and surrounding regions into disastrous conflict.
Moving forward, both parties must agree on terms regarding the GERD, each compromising where it’s attainable. Ethiopia has declared its apprehension in involving the US in future deliberations, but Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has endorsed propositions that African Union Chairperson Cyril Ramaphosa facilitate further negotiations. The International Crisis Group, a war-prevention thinktank, supports this notion and advocates hosting any meetings in an African city.
It would also be valuable to review the agreement established across 1929 and 1959, between Britain and its former North African colonies, that designates dominion of the Nile to Egypt and Sudan. The Nile Waters Agreements also give Egypt the power to veto upstream affairs. However, the Nile’s tributaries pass through Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and aforementioned Ethiopia.
Together these launched the Nile Basin Initiative in 1999 that seeks to adjust claims to the Nile so that everyone gets a share. Egypt has so far been reluctant to concede its water rights, but the opportunity for these nations to flourish rests on the ambition to “develop the river cooperatively, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security”.
Ethiopia is just one country on a mission to prosper, but in doing so, it must not violate the living conditions of Egyptians. In return, Egypt must allow others to benefit from the riches of the Nile that it has enjoyed for millennia.
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