CAIRO, EGYPT – Egypt and Sudan have rejected Ethiopia’s initiative to start without prior agreement the second phase of filling its controversial Nile dam, an operation that risks escalating tension ahead of a Security Council meeting Thursday.
Egypt announced Monday evening that it had been informed by Addis Ababa of the start of the second phase of filling the dam, built by Ethiopia upstream of the Nile. And on Tuesday, Sudan said it received the same notification.
But Ethiopia has not officially confirmed this operation on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which has long been the subject of conflict with Egypt and Sudan who fear for their water resources.
An Ethiopian official only said on condition of anonymity that the operation would take place “in July and August” and that adding water was a natural process especially during the summer rainy season.
Egypt “firmly rejects (this) unilateral measure,” Egyptian Irrigation Minister Abdel Aty said in a statement, denouncing “a violation of the law and international standards that regulate construction projects on shared basins of international rivers.”
In Khartoum, the foreign ministry also denounced a “flagrant violation of international law” and described the Ethiopian initiative as “risk and imminent threat.”
Two days before the Security Council meeting on this issue, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Choukri met his Sudanese counterpart Mariam al-Mahdi in New York.
They expressed in a statement their “strict rejection” of the filling initiative and called on the Security Council to “support their position on a binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam.”
The Security Council meets at the request of Tunisia, a non-permanent member of the Council and representative of the Arab world, on behalf of Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia is opposed to this meeting but is expected to attend.
Tunisia has given its 14 Security Council partners a draft resolution calling for an end to the filling of the reservoir, diplomatic sources learned on Tuesday.
In this draft, obtained by AFP, the Security Council asks “Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to resume their negotiations (…) in order to finalize, within six months, the text of a binding agreement on the filling and management of the GERD.”
The objective is to “guarantee Ethiopia’s capacity to produce hydroelectricity from GERD while avoiding inflicting significant damage to the water security of downstream states,” the text specifies.
This text provides that the Security Council also demands “the three countries to refrain from any declaration or measure likely to jeopardize the negotiation process.”
France, which chaired the Security Council in July, had previously considered that the capacity of the U.N. body to find a solution to the conflict was limited, this file being rather managed by the African Union.
Ethiopia, which said it had operated the first phase of filling in the summer of 2020, had announced that it would proceed to the second phase in July, with or without an agreement. The dam is considered vital to meeting the energy needs of its 110 million people.
The completion of the dam is also a political priority for the Ethiopian prime minister, after months of war in Tigray, says Costantinos Berhutesfa Costantinos, professor at the University of Addis Ababa.
“It is a factor of unity for the Ethiopians in the midst of all these ethnic conflicts and it is therefore important for the country and its leaders to complete the dam on schedule,” he continues.
Egypt lamented that the negotiations have been deadlocked since April and accused Ethiopia of having “taken an uncompromising line,” reducing the chances of reaching an agreement.
Sudan hopes the dam will regulate its annual flooding but fears adverse effects without agreement. Egypt, which is 97% dependent on the river for its water supply, sees it as a threat to its resources.
Costantinos believes that “on the contrary, it will have a positive impact because it will prevent flooding in Sudan and this water will be available to them. It will not be retained permanently.”
The mega-dam, with a total capacity of 74 billion cubic meters of water, has been built since 2011 in northwestern Ethiopia, near the border with Sudan, on the Blue Nile, which joins the White Nile in Khartoum to form the Nile.
With an announced electricity production capacity of nearly 6,500 megawatts, it could become the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa.
The renewed tension created by the filling of the dam between Khartoum and Addis Ababa adds to other thorny issues that have poisoned relations between the two neighboring countries.
The war in Tigray at the end of 2020 in northern Ethiopia prompted some 60,000 people to flee to Sudan, which was already in the throes of economic difficulties. And a decades-old border dispute, linked to Ethiopian farmers who had settled in Sudanese territory, remains potentially active.