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Filling GERD: A race against time

Doaa El-Bey , Wednesday 4 Mar 2020
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The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (photo: Reuters)
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At a recent press briefing on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Addis Ababa on Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Gedu Andargachew said that “Ethiopia has full rights to its own natural resources to extricate citizens out of poverty,” reported ENA.

Ethiopia’s official news agency continued that Andargachew stated that “the country is building the dam in such a way as to not cause a significant harm to the downstream countries.”

Andargachew said Ethiopia would stick with the US-facilitated talks but warned Washington not to rush the process or try to influence the outcome.

A few hours after the Ethiopian press conference, US President Donald Trump told his Egyptian counterpart Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in a phone call that Washington will keep up efforts for a deal between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan over GERD, the Egyptian presidency said.

Al-Sisi told Trump that Cairo will continue “giving this issue the utmost attention in defence of the interests of the Egyptian people, their capabilities and their future.”

On Monday, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri emphasised that “negotiations should not stop because of the unilateral decision of Ethiopia,” Shoukri said during a satellite TV interview following Ethiopia’s no-show at the last round of negotiations in Washington.

Shoukri said Ethiopia’s ownership of the dam does not allow it to unilateral control of the vital Nile artery or to violate international law.

Presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi stated following the phone call between Al-Sisi and Trump that the agreement Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia were scheduled to sign after the 27-28 February round of talks “strikes a balance between the interests of the three states, Ethiopia’s right to development, and Egypt’s right to Nile water.”

Nader Noureddin, professor of agriculture and irrigation at Cairo University, described Addis Ababa’s absence from the last round of talks on the GERD as a major miscalculation, saying it showed Ethiopia’s willingness to fly in the face of international opinion.

Shortly before what was regarded as the decisive and final round of negotiations in Washington, Ethiopia declared that it would not attend because “outstanding issues” still needed to be settled. It had been widely expected the round would conclude with the signing of a final agreement.

“No matter what reservations Ethiopia has it should have come to discuss them. Addis Ababa could have always asked for the signing to be postponed until the differences are settled,” says Noureddin.

Former deputy foreign minister Mohamed Hegazi questioned why Ethiopia opted not to turn up when only three weeks earlier Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had told his parliament that the involvement of the US Department of Treasury and the World Bank in the tripartite negotiations had encouraged the resolution of ongoing disagreements between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.

Egypt has chosen the negotiating track and it will be difficult to switch to an alternative, said Noureddin. He added that if Addis Ababa continues to insist on procrastination and circumvention, Cairo must raise the issue in every available international forum.

Tarek Fahmi, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, expressed concern that Egypt may be left with fewer options after Ethiopia pulled out of the talks.

In the meantime, Fahmi says Egypt has two options: to press for negotiations to continue, which possibly means changing some articles Egypt has already initialed, or to try and work out a new agreement from scratch. The alternative, he says, is to abandon negotiations altogether and refer the case to the UN Security Council, though that would first involve presenting the case to the African Union.

“Both options will take time, a luxury that Egypt does not have,” he said.

At the conclusion of the Washington meeting last Friday, Cairo announced that it had initialed the agreement.

Noureddin criticised Khartoum for not following suit and claiming that to do so would have shown bias. Sudanese officials attended the talks and held separate bilateral meetings with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Suleiman Wahdan, deputy speaker of the Egyptian parliament, said in a statement that Ethiopia’s avoidance of signing the agreement constituted a deliberate attempt to harm downstream countries. He added that Egypt would not stand helpless in the face of “Addis Ababa’s conspiracies” and Cairo was ready to take all necessary measures to preserve Egypt’s historic rights to Nile water.

Mnuchin issued a statement praising Egypt for initialing the agreement and cautioned Ethiopia against testing and filling the dam unilaterally.

“Consistent with the principles set out in the [2015] Declaration of Principles, and in particular the principles of not causing significant harm to downstream countries, final testing and filling should not take place without an agreement,” read the statement.

The statement also reaffirmed US commitment “to act as a mediator until a final agreement is reached.”

Ethiopia expressed its disappointment with the US stand. The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Saturday confirming that it will begin filling the dam without first securing an agreement with Egypt and Sudan.

“Ethiopia notified Egypt, Sudan and the US that it needed more time to deliberate on the process. Ethiopia, as the owner of the GERD, will commence filling in parallel with the construction of the dam and in accordance with the principles of equitable and reasonable utilisation and the causing of no significant harm as provided for under the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles,” read the statement.

Egypt expressed its rejection of the Ethiopian position in a joint statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Water Resources. Issued on Sunday, the statement said Addis Ababa was in violation of Article 5 of the Declaration of Principles which stipulates that all three countries should reach an agreement on the rules for filling and operating the dam before starting the process of filling the reservoir.

“The fair and balanced agreement drafted by the US and World Bank included articles that Ethiopia had agreed. The agreement reached in the recent round of meetings in Washington is fully consistent with international law, represents a fair and balanced compromise and is the product of intensive negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the last four months in Washington,” said the statement.

Fitsum Arega, Ethiopia’s ambassador to the US, tweeted that Ethiopia will not attend meetings or sign any agreement that involve forgoing its rights to Nile water.

When tripartite talks reached deadlock in October the US Department of the Treasury stepped in to act as an observer of negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. It drew a roadmap for the talks which were supposed to conclude by mid-January. The deadline was subsequently pushed to the end of February.

In January the three countries agreed a schedule for the staged filling of the dam and mitigation mechanisms during dry periods and drought but said they needed more time to finalise details of safety measures and a dispute on resolution mechanism.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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