By appealing to Ethiopia and making better use of water supplies and conservation, while controlling its population, Egypt can get through this crisis. Threats and sanctions will not resolve this problem.

First: Has the dam started filling?

There are conflicting reports about whether Ethiopia has begun filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the blue Nile.

The BBC said the filling had begun. But Ethiopia’s Water Minister, Seleshi Bekele, denied the reports. He told the Associated Press that satellite images showing the waters behind the dam rising simply reflected heavy rains, resulting in inflow being greater than the outflow. He later tweeted saying it had created “natural pooling.”

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But even if filling has not begun yet, the reality is that Ethiopia will start filling the GERD soon. This is the rainy season – if the water is not captured soon, then another year will be lost. The dam costs at least $4 billion and Ethiopia will have to start replying this debt to the Chinese company building it before too long.

What has Egypt tried so far?

Egypt has tried every avenue to prevent Ethiopia from damming the Nile, and thereby reducing its flow.

  • Historically, Cairo funded Ethiopian opposition movements to try to prevent development taking place, with only limited success.
  • It has insisted that colonial treaties (the most recent dating back to 1959) must be respected, all of which guarantee its share of the Nile will not decrease. This had one flaw: Ethiopia was not a signatory and therefore believes it is not bound by these treaties.
  • Used international negotiations in every possible forum. These have included bilateral discussions with Ethiopian leaders; taking the matter to the UN Security Council and the Arab League and – most recently – the African Union. It even turned to the US and Donald Trump. None of these initiatives have worked.
  • Threatened military action. The trouble with this is that there are few plausible scenarios in which Egyptian forces could seriously damage the dam, even if they managed to get their forces that far.

Nothing has succeeded. The dam is almost complete and filling has begun or is about to begin.

The problem with these approaches is that they all fail to deal with the central issue: the Blue Nile (which provides 85% of the waters that Egypt needs) rises in Ethiopia. Possession – as is often said – is nine-tenths of the law.

The majority of Ethiopians have no access to electricity. Damming the Nile will provide it. It is essential to their livelihoods and development. It is really as simple as that.

Ethiopia is not willing to abandon its people just because a dam threatens Egyptian interests.

So what should Egypt do?

Egypt should adopt a twin-track approach.

First: stop trying to get a binding, multilateral treaty that can force Ethiopia to release water if there is a bad drought in the Ethiopian highlands. Instead, talk to Ethiopia directly, without threats of international sanctions or military actions.

Addis Ababa understands Egypt’s plight. Ethiopians and Egyptians are fellow Africans, even if Cairo frequently forgets this – prefering to see itself as an Arab or Middle Eastern power. Ask Ethiopia to bear in mind the potential suffering of millions of Egyptians, if it ever considers closing the dam in times of need.

Second: tackle the water issue at home.

  • Do not forget that in 1959 (at the time of the last Nile treaty) Egypt was home to some 26 million people. Since then its population has increased fourfold to over 100 million. You can’t live in a desert and expect another nation to provide you with a never-ending supply of water for your ever-increasing population.
  • Stop trying to extend the land you are irrigating by syphoning off the Nile to the Toshka depression and into the Sinai via the El Salam Canal Project to the North Sinai Development project. These are not part of traditional Egyptian agricultural lands.
  • Improve the use of the water that you already have, by improving your agricultural methods and decreasing leaking domestic water supplies. Egypt can also turn to solar-powered desalination to increase its own supplies.

By appealing to Ethiopia and making better use of water supplies and conservation, while controlling its population, Egypt can get through this crisis. Threats and sanctions will not resolve this problem.