The polished diplomatic façade was maintained, but the words of Egyptian and Ethiopian representatives revealed a belligerence that was difficult to camouflage.
The recent meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss Ethiopia’s huge hydroelectric plant, the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd), straddling the Blue Nile, was held by teleconference.
The social distance observed by the participants highlighted the diplomatic chasm.
It is a chasm that threatens to plunge the populations of the two countries into nationalist fervor and mutual distrust.
The Gerd, which lies on the main tributary of the Nile, is upstream of Egypt and has the potential to control the flow of water on which the country depends almost entirely.
A threat of potentially existential proportions has emerged that could encroach on the sole source of livelihood for more than 100 million Egyptians. ”
It will also, when fully operational, be the largest hydroelectric power station in Africa, and is expected to supply electricity to 65 million Ethiopians, who currently do not have a regular supply of electricity.
Construction, started in 2011, is almost complete.
For the Egyptian and Ethiopian representatives at the United Nations meeting, the very existence of their country was at stake.
“A threat of potentially existential proportions has emerged that could encroach on the sole source of livelihood for more than 100 million Egyptians,” said the country’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry.
Using similar language, Ethiopia’s ambassador to the UN, Taye Atske-Selassie, replied: “For Ethiopia, access to and use of its water resources is not a matter of choice, but an existential necessity. “
When to fill the dam
The rhetoric may mask the fact that after almost a decade of discussions, the two countries have managed to agree on many things, but the crucial questions about how and when to fill the dam, and the amount of water that it must release, remain pending.
Years of bilateral and multilateral talks, expert commissions, a declaration of principles agreed between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, the third country affected, have still not resolved these fundamental questions.
And now we are at the point where Ethiopia announces that it will unilaterally start filling the dam in the coming weeks to coincide with the rainy season. It is a process that should take up to seven years.
For Ethiopia, building and filling the dam are not two separate events, one of the country’s negotiators, Zerihun Abebe, told the BBC.
“Egyptians tried to confuse the international community” by suggesting that these are different things, he added, and argued that the 2015 Declaration of Principles allowed Ethiopia to move forward .
But this is not how Egypt sees it.
After the United States and the World Bank got involved at the end of last year but failed to get Ethiopia to sign a document agreed with Egypt in February, the African Union (AU ) has now stated that it will try to find a solution.
If the words of the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs are not outdone, then an agreement is urgent.
Colonial era treaties
“The unilateral filling and functioning of this dam without an agreement that includes the necessary precautions to protect the downstream communities … would exacerbate tensions and could cause crises and conflicts that would further destabilize an already struggling region,” warned M. Shoukry.
For its part, Ethiopia said it wanted to negotiate under the auspices of the AU, rather than the United Nations, but accused Egypt of its “intransigence and insistence on historic rights and current use ”.
These rights, as far as Egypt is concerned, go back at least to 1929, when the British government recognized the “natural and historic right of Egypt to the waters of the Nile”. It also granted Egypt veto rights on all upstream projects.
Then, in 1959, Egypt and Sudan signed an agreement in which the two countries agreed to share the resources of the Nile, with Egypt taking the largest volume. No reference was made to any of the other nine countries in the river basin, including Ethiopia, the source of the Blue Nile.
The tributary, which merges with the White Nile in the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, provides about 80% of the total flow of the river and Ethiopia considers it a “historical injustice” that it is unable to take advantage of this resource natural, Mr. Zerihun told me.
If Ethiopia agrees to allow a specific volume of water to flow into Egypt each year, this “will confirm a colonial privilege of the most downstream country, Egypt.” It’s like neo-colonialism and it’s unacceptable, ”he added.
Essentially, what Ethiopia accuses Egypt of wanting to maintain the guaranteed flow in 1959.
Ethiopia says that in the second year of filling, it will free a minimum of 31 billion cubic meters across the Gerd, but beyond that, it cannot be tied to a specific number.
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Maintaining the flow of a fixed volume of water to Egypt, regardless of the rainfall regime, could mean that the Gerd will cease to function during prolonged droughts.
While Egypt is alarmed by the prospect of not knowing how much water it will receive.
United Nations on the dam
The generation of so much heat after nine years of negotiations may reflect the fact that it is the diplomatic end rather than an insurmountable divide and that things will soon calm down.
But Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed also have internal political considerations and people who have invested heavily in the issue.
In the case of Ethiopia, people literally invested in the dam. The cost of $ 4 billion (£ 3.2 billion) for the project was partially covered by persuading Ethiopians at home and abroad to lend money to the government by buying bonds.
While Mr. Abiy faces political challenges that have begun to support him, Gerd is an issue on which people can rally.
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Some have turned to the TikTok video sharing platform to illustrate the problems with cups and jugs of water. The one that has been widely seen shows a woman with a jug, representing Ethiopia, pouring water into two small cups and saying that her country is in charge.
The Egyptians made their own videos, one of which suggests that the dam is vulnerable to attack.
In general, the Egyptian media supported the government in the talks on the dam, with some media accusing Ethiopia of not cooperating during the crisis.
While the media in both countries may want to raise the stakes, it is the job of diplomats to try to calm things down.
It is not yet clear, however, that those involved in the talks are doing so.