After Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan failed last week to agree on a mechanism to complete negotiations on the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) the issue was referred back to the African Union (AU) which sponsors the talks.
Commentators are asking what comes next. Should Egypt rely on the AU-sponsored negotiations, ask for another mediator, such as the US or the EU, or refer the case again to the Security Council (SC)?
The latter, Abbas Sharaki, professor at Cairo University’s Institute of African Research and Studies, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Time is tight. We need to refer the case to the SC anew given that there are two new factors: Ethiopia unilaterally took the decision to fill the dam with 4.9 bcm, and it is continuing with the building of the dam to ready it for another filling next summer. We cannot wait any longer,” he said.
“Addis Ababa must stop construction of the dam’s central section until an agreement is reached,” he added.
In May Egypt sent a letter to the SC asking it to “intervene to affirm the importance of the three countries resuming the negotiations with good will… in order to reach a fair and balanced settlement” over the dam. A month later Cairo officially called on the SC to intervene to restart negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in order to settle the dispute in a fair and balanced way.
At Egypt’s request the SC held an open session on the dam. The 15 members of the council expressed their support for the African Union facilitating renewed talks but no further action was taken.
According to Tarek Fahmi, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, the issue can only be referred back to the SC after the AU submits a report stating that AU-sponsored talks have failed. The regional organisation must try to resolve the outstanding differences before referring the issue to another international organisation, this is how it works, explained Fahmi.
“The nine months before the next flood will be decisive. As time passes, Egypt’s options decrease and become more costly,” he said.
Awol Allo, an Ethiopian professor at Keele University in the UK, sees further negotiations between the three countries as the only possible way to address the differences between them.
“It is important to give the AU a chance to exhaust all the possibilities for a negotiated settlement. If this fails, the AU might then ask other countries to play a role in offering guarantees and assuaging the fears and concerns of both Egypt and Ethiopia,” he told the Weekly.
After a virtual meeting of the three countries’ irrigation ministers last week, Egypt’s Irrigation and Water Resources Ministry issued a statement saying it was clear that there was no common ground between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the methodology for completing the next stage of negotiations. Sudan declared that the current round of talks, which started on 27 October, had failed to make any tangible progress on agreeing the role experts should play in deciding the methodology, direction and timetable of negotiations.
During the latest meeting each country was supposed to present proposals for a framework to continue negotiations.
“The three countries reached an understanding to resort to the chairperson of the AU Executive Council, and South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, for consultations on the next steps of the negotiation,” the Ethiopian Irrigation Ministry said in a statement issued a day after the meeting closed.
These latest round of talks was prompted by a call by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the current chair of the AU, to resume negotiations which were halted in August.
US president Donald Trump has described the dispute as “really dangerous”, and warned that “Cairo may blow up that dam” during a call with Sudanese and Israeli leaders about normalising relations with Israel.
The election of a new US president has raised hopes of the possibility of Washington intervening to resolve the current deadlock. It is something Fahmi rules out for the time being.
“The new president will be busy with domestic issues for at least his first 100 days in office. And time is very tight. We need to take action as soon as possible to stop or delay the second filling next summer,” he said.
The possibility of EU mediation was raised late last week in the wake of the visit of the President of the European Council Charles Michel to Cairo. Michel told the media that the EU wished to play a positive role.
“We are aware of the strategic importance of water to Egypt and Sudan… The EU is following up on the latest developments in Ethiopia and is in close contact with the Ethiopian authorities,” he said.
His comments came a day after he met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in Cairo.
The first filling of the controversial dam took place this summer despite the failure to reach a binding agreement. The move angered Cairo and Khartoum, both of whom saw it as a violation of the Declaration of Principles (DoP) signed in Sudan in March 2015. The DoP states that the three countries must first agree guidelines and rules for the operating processes of the dam before filling the reservoir can begin.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly