As Ethiopia celebrated rains which began filling a controversial dam on a tributary of the River Nile, Egypt was fuming. The North African nation had long been opposed to any development on the Nile upstream that could reduce the amount of water it receives from the river and has regarded the Ethiopian project as an existential threat. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd), which has been in construction since 2011, is now holding back water - and contains 4.9 billion cubic metres (bcm) of the Blue Nile's water after this season's rains. This is despite Egypt's insistence that no filling should take place without a legally binding agreement about how the process will be managed. In another four to six years the reservoir, which sits behind what will be Africa's largest hydroelectric plant when it comes into operation, is expected to reach 74bcm. Egypt and Ethiopia, along with Sudan through which the Blue Nile also flows, have been negotiating for the best part of a decade, but all the while the dam has been built. They signed a declaration of principles in 2015 which spoke about the "spirit of co-operation", but Egypt feels that has been missing. In the past year, it has invested time and political capital by lobbying at the highest international level and seeking help from the US and the UN, but to no avail. Egypt appears to have lost that battle. It has failed to force Ethiopia to abide by what it saw as long-standing international convention requiring upstream countries to consult the downstream states before embarking on projects of this magnitude. At this point it is hard to imagine what else Egypt could possibly do today other than acquiesce and do as much damage limitation as possible. However, a military option has never been explicitly ruled out. The Egyptian leadership has repeatedly said it remains committed to resolution through negotiation. But it usually adds the caveat that "all options remain on the table" - a phrase that often alludes to possible conflict. The government has repeatedly described the issue of the Gerd project as a matter of life and death. This will be especially true if there is a substantial reduction of the amount of the water that reaches Egypt as a result of the dam. Alastair Leithead and his team travelled in 2018 from the Blue Nile's source to the sea - through Ethiopia and Sudan into Egypt. But now, with the filling a reality the Egyptian government has tried to put a brave face on things. Officially, it said that Egypt remained committed to the current diplomatic process which is being handled by the African Union, and repeated its old mantra that it will not accept unilateral action from Ethiopia. It has also insisted that any future agreement must endorse what it sees as its established Nile rights to 55bcm of water from the river. On average 49bcm of water flows through the Blue Nile tributary a year and Ethiopia has consistently refused to concede to giving Egypt a commitment to a specific amount that it will allow to flow through the dam. It sees Egypt's demands as a legacy of agreements that were made without its involvement. Egypt's official response betrayed powerlessness rather than resolve. The stakes have never been higher for the country. Describing the Gerd as an existential threat is not hyperbole. Egypt is an arid country and is seen as very water poor. The World Bank classifies water scarcity as when there is less than 1,000 cubic metres of fresh water per person a year. In Egypt, the figure is 550 cubic metre per person annually, according to the government. Just take a look at the map, where 90% of its 100 million population are squeezed into the narrow Nile valley, 6% of the country's total area, beset by vast deserts on both sides. The Nile provides Egyptians with their primary source of water, for both drinking and agriculture. Its current annual share of the Nile waters, the now endangered 55bcm, already falls far short of its needs. This explains that while on an official level Egypt has so far exercised verbal restraint, the media and commentators have not held back. To them, Ethiopia had used the drawn out negotiations to blindside the Egyptians while creating facts on the ground to exercise total control over the river. A triumphalist tweet celebrating the first year's filling of the Gerd by Ethiopia Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew - which read in part "the river becam...
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