Sometime this month, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia will resume the chase for an increasingly hard-to-secure deal on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
The talks, sponsored by the African Union under the chairmanship of South Africa, stumbled this week, yet again, as Sudan announced that it will not go back to the negotiating table unless Ethiopia decides to commit that the talks are meant to reach a legally binding and comprehensive deal on the filling and operation of the dam.
Ethiopia, according to earlier accounts by Egyptian and Sudanese sources close to the long and extending talks, has made it a habit of promising to negotiate over one thing but declines to do so just a few days later.
This week, according to an informed Egyptian source, Ethiopia decided to yet again walk back on a commitment to negotiate a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of GERD and decided instead to offer Egyptian and Sudanese delegations a draft set of “guidelines” on the filling of the remainder of the mega 75 billion cubic metre reservoir.
This, the Egyptian source said, is far from being a first. It has been a few months now, he said, that Ethiopia has been saying, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, that it is not going to commit to a legally binding agreement.
“This is not the first draft of guidelines that the Ethiopian delegation has put on the table,” he said.
The dam has been a source of huge diplomatic tension since its construction began in Ethiopia in 2011. Ethiopia sees the hydroelectric project as crucial for its economic growth and a vital source of energy.
But Egypt and Sudan, which are downstream, fear the $4 billion dam will greatly reduce their access to water.
Originally, according to the Egyptian and Sudanese understanding, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in the spring of 2015 signed a Declaration of Principles that was designed to grant Ethiopia the consent of the two downstream states on the construction and operation of GERD, so that Addis Ababa could access financial and technical support for its project, in return for an agreement on the filling and operation of GERD and the water rights of both the riparian states.
Four years later, during which the three countries held numerous rounds of negotiations that had been hosted in their three capitals, no deal was close at hand. Egypt pressed upon the US to intervene.
For four months, starting November 2019, Washington hosted talks for the three countries, with the participation of the World Bank. US President Donald Trump received the delegations and the World Bank representative to push for a deal.
The process produced a draft agreement that Egypt initialed in late February. Sudan would not initial the agreement in view of the decision by Ethiopia to miss a crucial meeting.
A few months later, as it was becoming clear that the US was too immersed in managing the coronavirus crisis and getting ready for the presidential elections this autumn, Sudan took the initiative to propose a draft based on the draft that was concluded in Washington. Khartoum called for video-conference negotiations that had an inconclusive ending as Ethiopia started to show its reluctance to signing a legally binding agreement.
Egypt acted on its plan to pursue the intervention of the UN Security Council (UNSC). Despite strict Ethiopian resistance, Egypt managed, essentially with the support of the US and France, to secure a session. The UNSC meeting called on the three countries to continue to negotiate in good faith.
South Africa, in its capacity as the current chair of the African Union, offered to sponsor the talks. Egypt, despite scepticism over the sponsorship of South Africa for fear it is biased towards Ethiopia, agreed to give the pan-African organisation a chance.
The wish of Cairo and Khartoum was to reach an agreement before the second half of July when Ethiopia was set to start the first filling with over four billion cubic metres upon the beginning of the rainy season. No agreement was reached; the talks stumbled as Ethiopia declined a comprehensive agreement. Scepticism over the chances of a deal increased despite the good offices of several world capitals. Ethiopia announced the first filling was completed due to the natural swelling of the GERD during a heavy rainy season. Egypt and Sudan expressed dismay but the talks resumed last week.
“I guess this is becoming more like talks on talks rather than talks on an agreement,” a Sudanese political source informed on the GERD talks said. “If Ethiopia is not prepared for a legally binding agreement, then what are we actually talking about here?” Speaking from Khartoum on the phone, the source said that it is becoming almost pointless to keep on this path if the three countries and the African Union cannot commit, “once and for all — with no going back”, that the purpose of the negotiations is to secure an agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD.
According to the informed Egyptian source, the situation is probably worse. He said that he is not seeing “any sign that Ethiopia would commit to reaching an agreement and honouring it”.
According to this source, everything that has been done during the past five years in the pursuit of an agreement seems to have been just a waste of time because it does not seem that Ethiopia wants a deal.
This said, neither the Egyptian nor the Sudanese sources excluded the possibility of the resumption of talks.
Late Monday afternoon, Addis Ababa announced that the talks are now scheduled for 17 August upon the request of Sudan. The Egyptian source said that this is the tentative date but that it all depended on the kind of reassurances that would be offered to Egypt and Sudan.
It could happen, they both said — possibly upon a new promise from the president of South Africa that what is at stake is a legally binding deal on the filling and operation.
“A filling and operation legally binding agreement includes mitigation measures, a dispute settlement mechanism and a clear reference that future development issues will be subject to a consequent negotiations process that could produce an agreement,” the Egyptian source said.
Then again, he acknowledged, it could well happen that the talks might resume on those bases but could yet again stumble as it is quite likely that Ethiopia would again suggest something that is not in line with what Sudan or Egypt could compromise on.
The two countries believe that they have gone very far in accommodating Ethiopia and that Ethiopia is now just engaged in an open-ended process of talks while on the ground it is pursuing its interests irrespective of the impact thereof on the two downstream states.
According to the Sudanese source, these endless rounds of talks cannot continue while Ethiopia works its way towards the second filling of close to 20 billion cubic metres by the next wet season.
Egypt and Sudan, he said, would have to coordinate their next move. So far, Sudan has declined to join any of the Egyptian initiatives towards putting pressure on Ethiopia.
In the spring of this year, Sudan declined to join an Egyptian appeal for an Arab League resolution that demanded that Ethiopia refrain from starting the filling prior to an agreement. In late spring Sudan declined to join Egypt in requesting the UNSC intervention. The argument Khartoum has been making is that it is better to try to win rather than antagonise Ethiopia.
Today, the tone in Khartoum is significantly different as there is growing concern over what Ethiopia is really up to and how far its plans would influence Sudan’s water interests — just as Egypt has been entertaining serious concerns over its own water rights.
The fact that the two downstream countries are now almost on the same page might put a bit more pressure on Ethiopia. The question, however, is whether it would be strong enough pressure to get Addis Ababa to start engaging seriously in a negotiations process that would lead to an agreement.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly