In the latest chapter of Ethiopian intransigence in negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project, the Egyptian ministries of foreign affairs and irrigation released a statement harshly condemning their Ethiopian counterparts for their statement on the last round of negotiations in Washington on 27-28 February. Ethiopia had not even attended that round, with the express purpose of obstructing the negotiating process. Such behaviour is incompatible with Washington’s persistent efforts to bring the concerned parties together and bridge their differences.
Ethiopia actually said it needed more time to think about this vital issue, as though Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa had not already spent a full five years in negotiations covering every detail.
It is patently obvious to the international community that Addis Ababa is set on distorting the facts and spreading falsehoods in order to shirk its obligations under international law and the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles that it had signed on 23 March 2015. Ethiopia even reiterated its commitment to these principles during previous negotiating rounds, including the ones it attended in Washington. Yet now it plans to proceed with the filling of GERD in tandem with the ongoing construction of the dam, regardless of its previous agreements with Egypt and Sudan, and in violation of Article 5 of the Declaration of Principles.
It should be recalled that the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles underscores the need to reach an agreement on the guidelines and rules for the first filling and initial operation of GERD that observe the principle of “avoidance of harm” to downstream nations. The signatories agreed “to take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm in utilising the Blue/Main Nile”.
Egypt has repeatedly insisted on the need for a just and equitable agreement. The US and the World Bank tried to advance such agreement in the course of negotiating rounds Washington sponsored during the four past months, and until recently Ethiopia even seemed to agree to the draft provisions that Washington helped formulate. In its last statement (28 February), the US Treasury Department expressed its appreciation for Egypt’s constructive behaviour in the negotiations and its commitment to a consensual solution that doesn’t cause harm to any party.
Speaking from Washington, Egypt’s foreign minister affirmed that the draft agreement that had been worked out in Washington would resolve all outstanding issues and realise the interest of all three countries if they all continue to work in good faith and Ethiopia adheres to its repeated pledges not to harm the interests of Egypt. This is why Egypt, in its last statement, said: “Ethiopia’s ownership of GERD does not give it the right to violate the principles of international law and Ethiopian commitments to the Declaration of Principles or to infringe on the rights and interests of other countries that share the Nile.”
The Abiy Ahmed government believes that the Nile belongs to Ethiopia alone and that it has the right to act unilaterally. In addition, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry rejected the US Treasury Department statement that stresses that “final testing and filling should not take place without an agreement”.
Ethiopia’s last act of evasiveness and intransigence marks a dangerous turn in the course of the negotiating process because it constitutes a clear violation of international conventions on transborder watercourses and threatens the principle source of life for the Egyptian people.
If the Eastern Nile Basin is pushed over the brink to a protracted conflict, Ethiopia will be solely to blame because of irresponsible behaviour that flies in the face of the spirit of mutual interest and cooperation which Egypt has consistently demonstrated along with development programmes in Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian side’s claim to need more time for “consultations” until “after parliamentary elections” is a feeble pretext and does nothing to justify such irresponsible behaviour. The vital question of Nile waters cannot tolerate such petty manoeuvrings which only serve to escalate the crisis to dangerous thresholds, which Egypt has long been working to avert through its efforts to promote an agreement that realises the interests of all concerned.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly