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Navigating uncharted water: the Nile hype  

Navigating uncharted water: the Nile hype  

True to the national narrative on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the Egyptian media has always been instrumental in pushing Egypt’s real or assumed concerns over the dam’s impact on the nation and its future.

The initial war of words and heated exchange between the up and downstream Nile riparian countries, especially between Egypt and Ethiopia, placed the Egyptian media at the center of this age-old dispute. Indeed the tempo of the back and forth between the two nations was highly determined by the media activism work on both sides; although more pronounced on the Egyptian side.

The relationship, however, has come a long way since the initial announcement of the project seven years ago. Since then, the three most important riparian nations having a direct connection to the GERD: Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt have taken some important steps including the decision to sit down and talk about their common issues. With commencement of several rounds of the tripartite technical committee meetings between the three countries, there seems to be an open line of communication between upper and downstream countries of the Nile River. They have agreed to overcome their difference in a more diplomatic way, letting experts come-up with technical solutions. In line with this consensus, until recently, the Egyptian media both state-owned and private have not been much distractive towards the goal.

However, recently, the tension over the GERD has once again become contentious where both countries have been in a war of words.

Just a few weeks ago, Ahram Online, an English news website affiliated with Egypt's largest news organization Al-Ahram outlets reported on a statement from President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi claiming that the construction of the dam would not have been possible had it not been for the 2011 Egyptian uprising.

 “The dam on the Nile would never have been built had it not been for the impact of the 2011 uprising,” said El-Sisi.

 “In 2011, we were not ready for the major developments that took place. The country moved... however; platforms had already been set up... I stress that the very pure youths who went into motion wanted the best [interests] of the country,” he said adding, "I have not said this in public before."

This controversial statement from El-Sisi came just a few days before a critical meeting between the Water Ministers of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan was conducted after almost a year of intermission. The Nile tripartite countries did not meet for in the past year, mostly due to the political instability in Sudan.

During the meeting, Egypt came up with a new proposal for the GERD which Ethiopia had outrightly rejected. For instance, Egypt proposed that the water filling process of GERD should make sure that Egypt’s High Aswan Dam water level did not drop below 165 meters. Moreover, Egypt also proposed a minimum annual release of 40 billion cubic meters of water from the GERD. In light of the proposed agreement, Ethiopia took a stand and said it will not go above 35 billion cubic meters.

Ethiopian officials at the time rejected the proposals and accused Egypt of trying to politicize the situation instead of sticking to technical solutions. In fact, during their latest meeting of Water Ministers in Cairo, Ethiopia has refused to discuss the proposal made by Egypt.

In a press conference held a couple of weeks ago, Sileshi Bekele (PhD), Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy, fiercely criticized the Egyptian media for sensationalizing the issue and said that Egypt's plan including the volume of water it wants the Dam to release annually, as inappropriate.

 “The proposal from Egypt was unilaterally decided. It did not consider our previous agreements,” he said.

The Minister also labeled the new move from the Egyptian side as an affront to Ethiopia’s sovereignty. “An Egyptian expert can't control our dam,” Sileshi said describing the Egyptian plan as a potential violation of Ethiopia's sovereignty.

“Egypt, from an operational aspect, asks for the minimum annual release of 40 billion cubic meters of water from the GERD,” he said adding, “This is inappropriate.”

According to the Ethiopian government, the Dam is expected to start generating power by the end of 2020 and become fully operational by 2022.

“This is a technical issue and will be solved technically,” said Sileshi adding, “It is not a political issue.”

The USD 4 billion dam was first announced to the world back in 2011. However, the plan to build the dam was initiated in 2006, under the stewardship of the then Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi. In 2009 and 2010, a site survey was conducted and its design was submitted to the government in the same year.

Also known as Project X and later renamed the Millennium Dam until it was given its current name, the GERD, was kept in extreme secrecy up to its announcement in 2011. In March 2011, the late Meles stressed that Ethiopia needs no external financial support to build a dam on the Nile. Since then, billions were mobilized from the public through different mechanisms.

The GERD is located in the Benshiangul Gumuz Regional State, a place called Guba, 40 Kilometers east of the border with Sudan and 500 Kilometer northwest of the capital, Addis Ababa.

The dam, which is still under construction, has reached around 65 percent completion. Upon the commencement of the project which was contracted to Salini Impregilo and Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC) – a state-owned military-led industrial conglomerate – the Dam’s construction was expected to be finalized within five years. The government has now revised the schedule with the dam now expected to be completed in 2022.

Since its commencement, the relationship between Egypt and Ethiopia has passed through different phases. This relationship took a positive stride with Egypt’s Officials recognizing the plan, in which Ethiopia got the green light from both Egypt and Sudan, to construct a dam on the Nile River.

Moreover, in 2015, the optimism towards the construction of the dam grew when Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed a Declaration of Principles (DoP) on Ethiopia’s GERD in Khartoum, coupled with El-Sisi’s arrival in Addis Ababa for an official visit.

Nevertheless, this phase of goodwill and cooperation seemed to erode and Egypt is shifting towards the opposition’s camp.

Just a week ago, Egypt took the issue on the international stage using the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) as a platform and asked for the intervention of the international community.

In his speech to the UNGA, El-Sisi stressed that Egypt understands the GERD; however, “It is not based on real studies.”

“For Egypt, the water of the Nile is a matter of life. It is an existential matter and this places a great responsibility on the international community to play a constructive role in urging all parties to demonstrate flexibility in order to achieve a mutually satisfactory agreement,” said El-Sisi. 

Responding to the recent rhetoric over the GERD, Ethiopia’s president Sahle-Work Zewde told the same assembly that, “Nile water offers a unique opportunity for trans-boundary cooperation between the sisterly countries of the region,” adding, “It should never be an object of competition and mistrust.”

This, however, could not stop the recent tension between the two countries, leading the US government to issue a statement concerning the matter.

“The United States supports Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan’s in the ongoing negotiations to reach a cooperative, sustainable, and mutually beneficial agreement on filling and operating the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam,” reads the statement from the US Press Secretary.