Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam. Picture: REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI
Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam. Picture: REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI

Egypt and Sudan condemned Ethiopia’s start of the second phase of filling a controversial Nile dam, warning the move violates existing agreements and threatens security in the region.

The comments from the Egyptian foreign ministry came after the two countries said they’d been informed by Ethiopia that it resumed filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) — a project the two North African nations fear will curtail their access to a vital source of fresh water. Egypt is taking its case to the UN Security Council this week.

The step “represents a dangerous escalation that reveals Ethiopia’s bad faith”, Egypt’s foreign ministry said. The move violates international laws and norms and existing agreements on sharing Nile water, it said.

Ethiopia argues the GERD project, which includes a 6,000MW power plant, is key to its long-term development goals, and has sought to downplay concerns by Egypt and Sudan that the project will impact their access to water. It’s also remained largely intransigent in the face of efforts to involve outside help, rejecting a recent Egyptian-Sudanese proposal to add the UN, the US and the EU as mediators.

Ethiopia’s stand has left Egypt struggling to find an effective response and outside support has become critical for the country.

“Diplomatically, Egypt can denounce the move and try again to raise the issue at the UN Security Council, but it is unlikely to produce anything” without US support for a UN role, said Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa project director at the International Crisis Group.

A military response, at the same time, would be logistically untenable and politically “disastrous”, he said. “It would isolate Egypt and make Cairo lose any possibility of influencing the GERD, now and in the future.”

That’s left Egypt with little choice but to follow the same course it’s being on from day one, which is to complain and denounce.

Sudan’s chief negotiator on the dam, Mustafa Hussein, confirmed Ethiopia had notified his government that the filling had commenced. “They sent a nonsense letter,” Hussein said by phone.

Calls to Ethiopian water minister Seleshi Bekele and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s spokesperson, Billene Seyoum, weren’t answered when Bloomberg sought comment.

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry sent a letter to the Security Council protesting what it said was “meddling” by the Arab League in the dam issue. The Arab League has “a reputation for its unfettered and unconditional support to any claim Egypt has presented on the issue of the Nile”, the statement said. The Arab League had previously supported Egypt’s claims and calls for UN involvement.

Both Egypt and Sudan rely heavily on the Nile for fresh water. Cairo has been particularly bellicose in its objections, with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi warning earlier in 2021 that any attempt to take “a drop of Egypt’s water” would have destabilising effects on the region.

“Egypt showed flexibility in negotiating, which was met with great intransigence on the Ethiopian side, given that Ethiopia does not have the political will to reach an agreement,” the Egyptian statement said. It added that the UN was ready to work to support AU-backed negotiations, if the three countries requested the help.

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