Differences remain stark between the positions of Ethiopia and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile.
Zerihun Abebe, a member of Ethiopia’s negotiating team, told media 26 April that completing the dam is not just a matter of development, but more a matter of survival for Ethiopia. Abebe argued that while the dam is framed as a prestigious power project and an exercise in hydro-hegemony in Egyptian narratives, “this is a misrepresentation”.
Earlier in the month Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, declared that construction would be completed despite the challenges of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, saying that “Saving lives is our priority, while second to this we have the GERD”.
Egypt President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Sudan Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who has proposed “joint management” of the dam, sent two separate letters to Abiy Ahmed in mid-April rejecting his proposal for a transitional agreement on an initial July filling of the dam according to Egyptian news outlet Mada Masr.
Mahmoud Abu Zeid, President of the Arab Water Council, meantime, said that the “Ethiopian practices and its building of dams without consulting with neighboring downstream countries conflict with norms and violate international laws”.
Construction of the $4 Billion USD GERD commenced in 2011; upon completion it will produce over 6,000 megawatts of electricity and become Africa's largest hydropower project. Downstream, Egypt is concerned that the dam will affect its annual share of Nile water, causing shortages.
The Egypt-Ethiopia standoff is around timing of filling the reservoir. Egypt has insisted that Ethiopia should fill the dam reservoir over a period of seven years and release 40 billion cubic meters of water every year. However, Ethiopia wants to fill the dam in 3 years and earlier this year rejected Egypt’s proposal, claiming that it does not “respect current and future rights and development plans of Ethiopia over the Nile and complicates the filling of the dam”.
A series of international tours have been conducted by diplomats from the two countries in recent weeks, after the failure of a US-sponsored agreement at the end of February and Addis Ababa’s announcement of its intention to begin filling the dam reservoir in July this year, following a decade of fraught negotiations between the Nile Basin countries.
The US Treasury which, with The World Bank, has acted as a broker between the two countries in recent months, has described the draft agreement as addressing “all issues in a balanced and equitable manner… taking into account the interests of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan”, and warned Ethiopia that “final testing and filling (of the dam) should not take place without an agreement”, prompting accusations of bias by the US in favour of Egypt’s position.
Former US Ambassador to Ethiopia David H Shinn accused the Trump administration in March of “putting its thumb on the scale in favour of Egypt” in the GERD dispute, amid suggestions that the Trump administration may be engaging in a quid-pro-quo for Egyptian and Arab League backing for the US President’s Middle East Israel-Palestine “Deal of the Century”, and concern over a potential Egypt-sponsored armed attack on the dam.
In the United States, an online petition created in April by the Egyptian American Council urging Ethiopia “not to undertake unilateral measures in regard to (GERD)” has attracted more than 112,000 signatures. “Ethiopia has the right to grow but Egypt also has the right to live,” a video promoting the petition said.