World, Africa

Nile: River of discord between Egypt and Ethiopia

Tensions escalate in North Africa, with Egypt seeking the intervention of UNSC against Ethiopia on river water sharing issue

Addis Getachew  | 19.05.2020 - Update : 19.05.2020
Nile: River of discord between Egypt and Ethiopia


Tensions have escalated in the Eastern Nile region, with Egypt taking a complaint to the UN Security Council (UNSC) against Ethiopia's plan to fill a $5billion hydro dam.

The move has riled a cross-section of people in the region, who believed that Egypt should have exhausted to find regional solutions first by approaching the African Union (AU) – a 55-member pan-African body -- before knocking at the doors of the UN.

On May 1, Egypt formally complained to the UNSC, accusing Ethiopia of diverting waters of Nile River to fill its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), in the Benishangul-Gumuz region, 15 km east of the border with Sudan.

The dam is believed to be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa and the seventh-largest in the world.

Although Ethiopia has said that it has prepared its response to the complaint, it, however, assailed Egypt for taking the issue to the UNSC and ignoring the AU.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had sought the intervention of the current chairperson of the AU, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa to mediate between the countries to settle the water issue.

Talks between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt broke down in February when the US, which was mediating produced a document that was interpreted heavily tilted in favor of Cairo.

Ethiopia contributes 85%of the waters of the Nile River, which traverses along 11 countries before it joins the Mediterranean Sea.

In its complaint to the UNSC, Egypt has accused Ethiopia of adopting a policy of obstructionism and prevarication that has undermined the negotiating process.

“Ethiopia’s overall objective was, and remains, the exercise of unfettered control over the Blue Nile, including by filling and operating the GERD without considering the interests of downstream countries, “said the complaint.

It has also blamed Ethiopia for harming the rights of downstream riparian states by trying to secure an unrestrained right to undertake future projects.

Egypt launches diplomatic pressure

“Egyptians as of late have launched a multi-pronged diplomatic pressure on Ethiopia cognizant of an international water law that guarantees the rights of riparian countries to utilize rivers within their respective national boundaries,” Silabat Manaye., an author and a senior reporter with the Addis Ababa based Fana Broadcasting Corporate told Anadolu Agency.

Silabat, who has authored a book on Nile politics said that for years foreign powers have plotted against Ethiopia to prevent it from using waters of Abbay, the local name for the Blue Nile River.

“Ethiopia has 65 million people [out of a total 110 million population] without electricity. I completed my schooling studying without electricity. I resent that, “he said.

Zerihun Abebe, a diplomat who is a member of the Ethiopian negotiating team said he was surprised at the attitude of Egypt for taking the complaint to the UNSC and accusing Ethiopia of “unilateralism”.

He said that Ethiopia had a sovereign right to fill the dam constructed within its borders and through local funding.

“Ethiopia invited both Egypt and Sudan and shared details about the GERD in 2012 and kick-starting a process of trilateral talks. And that was based on Ethiopia’s firm stand on the principle of cooperation, regional partnership and to find a win-win solution, “said the diplomat.

According to Ethiopia’s Water and Energy Minister Seleshi Bekele, his country over many years has shared more than 150 technical documents with Egypt and Sudan. Rejecting the allegation of resorting to unilateralism, he said Ethiopia has been committed to multilateralism both regionally and internationally.

Established in 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) an intergovernmental partnership had been providing a forum for consultation and coordination among 10 countries to settle water sharing issues. The countries included Burundi, DR Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. Eritrea is an observer.

But Egypt left the NBI when it was decided to set up a Nile Commission. A Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) has been already ratified by four countries including Uganda. By the time six countries ratify, it would become an international treaty to govern all activities in the Nile basin. Leaders of the riparian countries will be members of the much-awaited Nile Commission.

Dam to be filled in four to seven years

According to Ethiopia’s Water and Energy Ministry, it is planning to fill the dam in four to seven years to avoid any water shortage to downstream countries.

The first stage of filling the dam with 4.9 billion cubic meters is expected to begin in July to test two turbines. The GERD gas total capacity of accommodating 74 billion cubic meters of water. The second filling stage will add 13 billion cubic meters of water.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) had recommended a series of steps to prevent escalation of tensions in the region.

The ICG Adviser for Ethiopia William Davison described Egypt's attempts to knock the doors of the UNSC to bring pressure on Ethiopia into signing the US-sponsored draft deal.

“This is unlikely to be successful as there's no sign that Ethiopia is willing to reverse its position. Instead of diplomatic escalation, Egypt should return to the trilateral process and encourage Ethiopia to propose fresh drought-mitigation measures, which have been a key sticking point,” he said.

He further recommended that Ethiopia should meet Egypt halfway to consider its request for a third-party arbitration, perhaps to use an African dispute-resolution mechanism instead of the international process. Prime Minister Ahmed should also recommit to negotiate a comprehensive GERD accord with Egypt and Sudan, he said.

The ICG further stated that if the parties are unable to strike a comprehensive agreement, they should focus on closing an initial deal for the first two years of filling. “That would institutionalize cooperation and provide a suitable foundation and more time to finalize an all-encompassing agreement on GERD's filling and operation, “said the ICG advisor.

Both Egypt and Sudan, however, reject the prospect of an initial agreement on the first filling as suggested by the ICG - an idea of the possibility of which Ethiopia's PM consulted with the leaders of the two countries. Ethiopia says it is, however, not obligated to inform Egypt of its filling schedules.

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