The latest round of negotiations on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has failed. The talks, which started on 18 August and ended earlier this week, were attended by representatives from the African Union (AU), which sponsored the talks, the European Union (EU), and the United States (US).
“The failure to reach a consensual preliminary formula is a clear indication of the lack of political will in Addis Ababa to reach an agreement and resolve differences over the dam,” says Mohamed Hegazi, a former deputy to Egypt’s foreign minister.
Hegazi thinks it is high time alternative options were considered, including the US president’s suggestion that a four-way summit be convened in Washington, attended by the heads of state of Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and the US.
Egypt said the latest round of talks had ended in failure after the three countries could not reach a consensual unified agreement on the filling and operation of GERD. “Instead of presenting a unified agreement to the AU each state sent an individual letter to the South African president outlining its vision of the next stage of negotiations, a clear sign that contentious technical and legal points remain unresolved,” said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Sudanese Ministry of Irrigation blamed the failure to reach an agreement on the absence of political will, and said the negotiations had ended without a date being set for the resumption of talks. Despite this, the Ethiopian ministry of water, irrigation and energy announced that the next round of negotiations is expected to convene on 14 September, though the date has been confirmed by neither Cairo nor Khartoum.
That Addis Ababa clearly considers setting dates for one round of talks after another is a positive step despite never coming close to an agreement may compel Egypt and Sudan to refer the problem to the UN Security Council (UNSC) on the grounds that Ethiopia’s intransigence and its insistence on storing water in the absence of an agreement violates international law and threatens regional and international peace and security, said the anonymous diplomat.
“The next step should be to either hold another mini-summit like the one held in July, or refer the whole issue to the UNSC,” says Abbas Sharaki, a professor of political science at Cairo University.
Hegazi argues that other options are possible, including that observers from the AU or South Africa submit a detailed report that will show which party is impeding the negotiations. In the light of the report, the AU can try to put more pressure on the parties to make the necessary concessions.
Foreign Policy magazine reported last week that Washington had decided to freeze $130 million worth of aid to Addis Ababa due to the GERD crisis.
The move, says Hegazi, may not lead to any concessions from Addis Ababa, but “it does show which party is impeding the negotiations.”
The diplomat is hopeful Washington’s decision to freeze aid will pressure Ethiopia into showing some flexibility in the negotiations, but in Ethiopia the move was derided on social media as proof that the US is biased towards Egypt.
Mehemed Tekuya, an Ethiopian human rights lawyer, tweeted that “Ethiopians around the world should raise the amount the US is planning to cut. Our ancestors fought colonialism, and this is how we should fight neocolonial powers now, @AbeyAhmedAli resist.”
Several visits have been exchanged between heads of state during the last month in which the parties vowed to exert more efforts to resolve the dam deadlock. Last week Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed paid a one-day visit to Khartoum and met with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. Both officials agreed they would make every effort to reach a deal on GERD.
Ahmed’s visit to Sudan coincided with that of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, though the two officials did not meet.
Pompeo urged Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt to continue talks on the dam as the only way out of the impasse.
Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli paid a visit to Khartoum two weeks ago following which Egypt and Sudan reiterated their determination to secure a comprehensive and binding agreement setting rules for the filling and operation of GERD.
The latest round of talks fell into a hiatus between 27 July and 3 August after Ethiopia announced it had completed the first phase of filling the reservoir, followed by another halt last month when Sudan called for a suspension of meetings to allow for consultations after Addis Ababa proposed a package of non-binding guidelines for the filling.
Last month, Addis Ababa declared the partial filling of 4.9 billion cubic metres of water complete. The announcement was widely seen as an attempt to placate Ethiopian public opinion after Addis Ababa’s repeated promises that the initial filling would start in July.
Addis Ababa’s declaration angered Egypt and Sudan, who saw it as a violation of the Declaration of Principles (DoP) signed in Sudan in March 2015, which state the three countries must first agree guidelines and rules on the operating process of GERD before filling the reservoir.
Both states sent letters to South Africa, the current chair of the AU, rejecting Ethiopia’s unilateral actions.
Nonetheless, Ahmed declared last month that the second phase of filling the GERD reservoir, which will involve 18.4 billion cubic metres of water, would begin during the rainy season in August 2021.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly