The dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which has been on for 10 years between Egypt and Ethiopia over the waters of the River Nile approached crisis point last week. Sudan, also a party to the dispute, has been more restrained in voicing its grievances. But the Blue Nile, the main apple of discord, which has its head waters inside Ethiopia, intersects the White Nile, the second tributary of the Nile, in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. And it is from there, the world’s longest river rolls down to Egypt.
Egyptians never hid their aversion to the dam and had expressed publicly as well as privately how much they wished it was never built. At this stage, in any case, they are already resigned to the inevitable. They would have aborted the construction had they not been distracted in 2011 by the political turmoil, the Arab Springs. So, after a decade of negotiations, the sticking point is the filling of the dam.
Although hydroelectric power stations do not consume water, the Egyptians are essentially uncertain about the speed with which the Ethiopians fill the dam, which undoubtedly would affect the flow of the river downstream. The Ethiopians say they could fill the dam in two years if they wished, but in deference to the anxiety of Egypt and Sudan, they have offered to do so between four and seven years. The Egyptians at first suggested between 12 and 21 years. They later settled for 10 years. It is hoped that the matter will be amicably resolved at the special summit of the African Union (AU) to be convened by its current leader and President of South Africa, Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa. We do not believe that military conflict is an option to settle the dispute.
To emphasise how dependent Egypt is on the Nile, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told the Security Council: “We in Egypt populate the most of the Nile basin riparian states and one of the most water impoverished nations on earth. This harsh reality compels us to inhabit no more than seven per cent of our territory along a slender strip of green and fertile delta teeming with millions of souls whose annual share of water is no more than 560 cubic meters which places Egypt well below the threshold of water scarcity. Survival is not a question of choice but an imperative of nature.”
The Ethiopians, on their part, asserted to the Security Council that though Ethiopia is the “source of 86 per cent of the Nile Waters, Egypt through colonial-based treaties to which Ethiopia is not a party, saw to it that it received the lion’s share of Nile waters and introduced the self-claimed notion of historic rights and current use leaving nothing to the remaining nine riparian countries (South Sudan, Kenya, Djibouti, Eritrea, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.)”
A landlocked country, Ethiopia does not have a significant amount of ground water, and “famine is a constant threat to about eight million. Another 65 million, nearly 65 per cent of Ethiopia’s population have no access to power.” Ethiopia is funding the dam “solely through the direct contributions of all Ethiopians.” The three countries made their submissions at the Security Council on June 29.
South African President Ramaphosa, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubcar Keita, Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, held a virtual summit last week where they placed the dispute in its African context. These three countries, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, the summiteers recalled are among the founding members of the Organisation of African Unity. The GERD, African leaders declared, is a vital project of enormous potential for the entire continent. Later in the week we hope African leaders would have arrived at a settlement.
The GERD is placed as the largest dam in Africa and the seventh largest in the world. Its cost is $4.6 billion. In contrast, Nigeria’s Mambilla Hydroelectric Power Project will cost $5.7 billion and will deliver less than 50 per cent of GERD.
For years, the River Nile has sustained and turned Egypt into a great power in history and at some points, the only reference point in Africa. The dam would not cause a dramatic change in the river flow. The years of below average rainfall and drought have been the cause of Egypt’s anxiety. The answer is a joint Egypt-Ethiopia commission on River Nile, which should meet twice a year and weigh the rainfall situation. According to African leaders, the dam is a great African asset, which could contribute to the continent’s development in various fields. Egypt should be asked to calm down its fears. African leaders must insist on a win-win settlement soonest.