The issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is at a very difficult stage with the approach of the second stage of filling its reservoir. The long-term negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan have not resulted in any agreement or even a consensus. Thus, the second filling process is the bottleneck which, if it manages to get through, will mean that Addis Ababa will not accept any agreement now or in the future. At that point, it would have no incentive to continue talking.
Before the first filling of the reservoir last summer, Egypt resorted to the UN Security Council as an international sponsor of the talks, and as a guarantor to control the course of events if the situation worsened and the parties failed to reach an agreement. This was Egypt's only attempt to internationalise the issue, following Ethiopia's insistence on "Africanising" the issue by limiting external involvement to the African Union. Two years later and Ethiopia continues to stick to its guns and is set to abort the negotiations before the eyes and ears of the AU. A month ago, Sudan demanded intervention by the AU, the UN, the US, and the EU, which Addis Ababa refused.
What is the way forward? Before answering that, we need to ask what Ethiopia is counting on in its inflexibility. Observers know that the matter is not related to its military power, strong economy, or even a coherent domestic front and popular support for the government. Ethiopia relies on other parties for support with the dam project, which will share in the subsequent gains or other plans. I am not referring to the rumours about back door support from Israel so that it can control the flow of the River Nile from Ethiopia. Such rumours may be true, but cannot be proven.
The other parties which can save the situation are the countries that are actually participating in the project, whether through direct funding and investment or by involvement in the construction or supply of building materials, turbines, and equipment. They alone can straighten things out and soften Ethiopia's positions on an agreement that takes into account the security and lives of the people living in the countries downstream.
There are no other ways to stop what seems like Ethiopian arrogance and neglect of the right of the Egyptian and Sudanese people to water from the Nile upon which they depend. This has been apparent for years, and Egypt actually followed this "third party" path; it was successful in blocking international funding of the project by using international law and agreements to ensure that Egypt's approval was needed in advance before a bank agreed to provide funding or guarantees for any dams or projects along the Nile.
On 14 May 2014, the World Bank, the EU, Russia, China, and Italy announced that they would not participate in the project. After Cairo signed the Declaration of Principles on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam almost a year later, though, governments and international companies rushed to participate and invest in the project. Through this crucial international participation, the Renaissance Dam became a multinational project, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, in addition to its geostrategic value.
Ethiopia's stubbornness is based on the support it gets from these and other parties. Unless Cairo and Khartoum take immediate, effective, and firm action to obtain a positive, practical, and swift attitude from Addis Ababa, there is no hope or goodwill expected. Ethiopia will not give up what it got for free, without getting anything in return.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 29 March 2021