Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam is seen as it undergoes construction on the river Nile in Guba Woreda, Benishangul Gumuz Region, Ethiopia Image Credit: Reuters

In spite of nine years of negotiations since Ethiopia took advantage of the chaotic Arab Spring to begin construction of the $4.6 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile the concerned parties — Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa — are still far from reaching an agreement on various technical and legal issues. Time is now of the essence to agree a solution to avoid possible all out military conflict.

The largest hydroelectric power plant on the continent of Africa is a source of national pride for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad who hopes to strengthen his nation’s electricity grid and plans to export electricity to neighbouring countries. However, it appears that he has few concerns about the negative impact on the countries downstream.

Indeed, he claims that during this month’s rainy season filling the dam’s reservoir will commence come what may.

The ball is very much in Ethiopia’s court. Egypt has shown patience and flexibility. It is beyond time for Ahmad to do the same else face whatever consequences may arise

- Linda Heard

Why he insists on tempting fate in this fashion is inexplicable. Cairo is occupied defending its western border with Libya from Islamist Syrian mercenaries operating under the Turkish flag and has no appetite to engage in a military conflict but if push comes to shove, President Abdul Fattah Al Sisi could be left with no choice.

There are those who believe the Muslim Brotherhood-supporting Turkish President is egging him on, which may or may not be true. Turkey has been wooing Ethiopia for years with charitable gifts and investments. Likewise Ethiopia’s relationship with Qatar, another of Egypt’s enemies and a staunch Turkish ally is strong.

Upper Egypt is anxious

President Al Sisi cannot stand by watching Egypt’s rich agricultural land return to desert sands or the cities’ taps run dry. He cannot close his eyes to the problem when the Aswan Dam could fail to produce electricity upon which the people of Upper Egypt rely.

More on the issue

Although Egypt plans to build 47 desalination plants over the coming five years, the nation is currently reliant on 95 per cent of Nile water.

Ethiopia’s Deputy Army Chief General Birhanu Jula adopted an aggressive stance warning Cairo to be aware of his nation’s military prowess, adding, “Egyptians and the rest of the world know too well how we conduct war whenever it comes,” he said.

Until now Egypt has been circumspect when it comes to language used but the same cannot be said for Nobel Peace Prize recipient Ahmad who boasted, “If we are going to war we can deploy many millions”.

Cairo, which has unfailingly worked to secure a compromise, views the mega project as an existential threat to its water security potentially imperilling Egypt’s share of the life-giving Nile waters.

But unfortunately the Ethiopian government has proved to be an intransigent and unreliable partner, firstly by tearing up the 1959 Nile Waters agreement signed by all three states involved on the ground that it was a colonial document notwithstanding that all the state signatories were wholly independent at the time.

Sovereignty issues

Secondly, although Addis Ababa agreed to the mediation of the US Treasury Department and the World Bank which produced a draft deal embraced by Egypt and Sudan, it was rejected by Prime Minister Ahmed who claimed it infringed upon his nation’s sovereignty.

Thirdly, although he subsequently agreed not to begin filling the dam before the disagreements were ironed out, it wasn’t long before he made it clear that he had changed his mind.

Out of sheer frustration Egypt and Sudan recently placed the case before the United Nations Security Council which on June 29 opened a session to discuss the matter at Cairo’s request. The case put before the member states by Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was compelling.

“Egypt elected to bring this matter to the attention of the Security Council to forestall further escalation and to ensure that unilateral actions do not undermine efforts to reach an agreement on the GERD or prejudice the riparian rights and interests of downstream states, or, more alarmingly, to endanger the lives of 150 million Egyptian and Sudanese citizens thereby generating greater tension in an unstable region,” he said.

The matter is now before the African Union which has invited observers from the United States and the European Union but according to Egypt Minister for Water Resources and Irrigation Mohammad Sebaei, “after seven days of negotiations everything is the same”. A report on the negotiations is expected on Tuesday.

The ball is very much in Ethiopia’s court. Egypt has shown patience and flexibility. It is beyond time for Ahmad to do the same else face whatever consequences may arise.

— Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.