While the world focuses on the COVID pandemic and China’s shenanigans, a potential conflict has been brewing between Ethiopia and Egypt involving the waters of the Blue Nile.

This month, Ethiopia completed the initial filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a nearly $5 billion hydroelectricity project. The country plans to fill the rest of the dam over the next five years, a prospect that worries downstream Egypt, which depends on the Nile for freshwater.

Egypt is preparing for a fresh round of negotiations on GERD after the African Union demanded that Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia formulate a binding agreement on the dam that includes the issue of future development on the Blue Nile river.

During a call-in on Ahmed Moussa’s TV show “Ala Massoulity” (On My Responsibility) on the privately-owned satellite channel Sada al-Balad, Spokesperson for the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources, Mohamed al-Sebaie, said that the date for the start of the new round of negotiations will be determined soon.

Sebaie indicated that the legal points regarding filling the dam are still disputed. He stressed that water is not a luxury for Egypt but rather an existential issue and a matter of life, and that Egypt will not cede its water rights.

The Nile river, which is the lifeline of Egypt, receives its waters from two main tributaries: The Blue Nile (sourced at Lake Tana in Ethiopia) and the White Nile (sourced at Lake Victoria). The two tributaries merge at Khartoum in Sudan. The Blue Nile supplies about 80% of the water in the Nile during the rainy season.

Once these facts are understood, one can understand why the Ethiopian foreign minister’s recent tweet that “the Nile is ours” would cause an international stir.

Ethiopia’s foreign minister outraged Egyptians on Wednesday with a hubristic tweet claiming “The Nile is Ours”, one week after it took a notable step in completing its controversial upsteam Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam [GERD] project.

Gedu Andargachew tweet read: “Congratulations! It was the Nile River and the river became a lake. It will no longer flow into the river. Ethiopia will have all the development it wants from it. In fact the Nile is ours!”

It comes amid reports that the US is considering sanctions against Ethiopia over its refusal to enter into a final agreement with Sudan and Egypt about the future status of the Nile.

Tensions have increased between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan after Ethiopia – which has rejected signing a binding agreement regarding the use of the Nile’s waters – unilaterally started to fill the reservoir of the GERD last week.

The unregulated filling of the GERD’s reservoir could potentially cut off essential water supplies to Sudan and Egypt, causing drought and famine.

Wherever there is trouble in today’s world, it is wise to consider a connection to China. Looking at the funding background for GERD, reports indicate that the Ethiopians intend to fund the $5 billion for construction themselves with bonds, but have the assistance of the Chinese (who are financing the turbines and associated electrical equipment of the hydropower plants).

This financing is consistent with the fact China has been buying influence in Africa for the past several years. African countries are just waking up to the potential consequences of this fiscal arrangement.

[Zambia’s Minister of Finance Dipak] Patel is among a growing number of African activists and policymakers questioning the deluge of Chinese credit—some $150 billion in 2018, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University—that has fueled a debt crisis aggravated by the new coronavirus. Nigerian lawmakers are reviewing Chinese loans they say were unfavorable. Activists in Kenya are demanding the government disclose the terms of Chinese credit used to build a 470-kilometer (292-mile) railway. And Tanzanian President John Magufuli calls an agreement his predecessor made with Chinese investors, to build a $10 billion port and economic zone, a deal “only a madman would sign.”

While it will be tough for cash-starved African governments to win many concessions, a wave of looming defaults poses the biggest test ever for China’s influence in the region. “This has the potential to produce the most profound change in relations since China became a major economic player on the continent,” says Chris Alden, an international affairs professor at the London School of Economics.

GERD may have started as a great idea to win favor with the Ethiopian people, the regional consequences may mean there is now a second dam that may prove troubling to the Chinese as Egypt prepares to protect its water rights robustly.

Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi reaffirmed the state’s rejection of any unilateral action that may compromise Egypt’s right to Nile water.

El-Sisi made the statement during a phone call with his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa on Saturday as the two heads of state discussed the disputed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

According to Presidency Spokesman Bassam Rady, El-Sisi said Egypt insists on the formulation of a full-fledged legal agreement between the concerned parties regarding the rules of filling and operation of the dam.

 

 
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