The tripartite committee of scientific experts from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan charged with reaching a consensus on the rules for filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) was due to wind up its activities in Khartoum today. Irrigation ministers from the three countries are scheduled to meet on Friday and Saturday in order to approve the committee’s recommendations. The question is, though, will there be any recommendations for them to approve?
The last round of talks in Cairo, held in mid-September, 15 months after the previous talks stalled, failed to make any breakthrough. So is there reason to hope now?
Egypt has stepped up diplomatic efforts to drive home its frustration over Ethiopia’s foot-dragging and intransigence. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s speech at the General Assembly in New York made clear that it was unacceptable for the dam to begin operating “by imposition of a de facto reality”.
The Foreign Ministry has held an extensive series of meetings with European, African and Arab ambassadors to Cairo during the past month to update them on developments and Egypt’s positions vis-à-vis the dam.
In the last Arab foreign ministers meeting at the Arab League, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri voiced Egypt’s frustrations with Ethiopia’s “evasive” behaviour. Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit made clear Arab countries support the Egyptian position and its rights to Nile water.
Shoukri argues that the Egyptian proposal for a schedule to fill the GERD reservoir is fair and balanced. It meets Ethiopia’s electricity generating needs from the dam without harming downriver states, especially Egypt which is almost entirely dependent on the Nile for its water needs.
Recent statements by Egyptian officials have rekindled alarm over the potential impact of the Ethiopian dam on all aspects of life in Egypt which already suffers a water deficit. Egypt’s annual Nile water quota of 55 billion m3 barely covers half of its water needs.
According to experts, when Ethiopia begins filling GERD’s 74 billion m3 capacity reservoir it will reduce the water reaching Egypt by 12 to 25 per cent. As a result, electricity production at the High Dam will fall and vast tracks of agricultural land turn arid. This is why the schedule for filling the dam is so important for Egypt. The faster Ethiopia fills the reservoir, the greater the decline in the amount of water reaching Egypt. Ethiopia wants to fill the dam in three years. Egypt initially wanted a 10-year timetable. In its last proposal Egypt lowered the figure to seven years, something Addis Ababa rejected out of hand.
Despite Egypt’s flexibility Ethiopia’s Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity Seleshi Bekele described Egypt’s proposals as “inappropriate” and a “potential violation of Ethiopian sovereignty”.
Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde, who also addressed the GERD controversy in her UN General Assembly speech, insisted the purpose of the dam is primarily to generate electricity, and pointed out that 65 million Ethiopians lack access to power. Mirroring Egypt’s diplomatic actions Ethiopian officials met with foreign ambassadors and diplomats in Addis Ababa to explain Ethiopia’s point of view on the dam.
Following the overthrow of the Omar Al-Bashir regime, Khartoum’s politicians, public opinion leaders and experts are upbeat on the role Sudan can play in resolving the issues. The new Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has close relations with Ethiopia and believes in strong ties with Egypt. Keen to follow a balanced foreign policy, he is in a position to help Cairo and Addis Ababa reconcile their views. Sudanese experts also argue that it is possible to reach a consensus over the timetable for filling and operating the dam.
Egyptian politicians and experts are far from optimistic. Some believe that talks with Addis Ababa have reached a dead end.
“Negotiations with Ethiopia will go nowhere,” says Hani Raslan, director of the Nile Basin Studies Unit at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
MP Al-Sayed Feleifal, head of parliament’s Committee for African Affairs, believes Ethiopia is using GERD as a way to maintain domestic cohesion. For Egypt, by contrast, “this is truly an existential matter and Egypt must coordinate with the African Union to compel Ethiopia to abide by the rules of international law, the UN law on international watercourses, the spirit of the UN Charter, the African Union and the declaration of principles of March 2015 which calls for a spirit of good faith and upholds the principle that the dam is a collective development project rather than one that Ethiopia controls unilaterally and that could cause enormous destruction in Egypt, harm the lives of 15 million people, interrupt electricity production and lead to the loss of extensive areas of farmland in the Delta.”
The MP stressed that the dam should not be allowed to proceed according to Ethiopia’s whims, especially after an international committee of experts concluded construction had begun before proper feasibility studies were completed, without consideration for the welfare of downriver nations and with insufficient attention paid to its environmental impacts.
Feleifal does not expect an agreement to be reached in Khartoum.
“I don’t think the Ethiopians will change their position,” he says. “Egypt must make its opinion clear in order to safeguard its interests. The Nile to Egypt is a matter of life and death.”
Nader Noureddin, a professor at Cairo University’s Faculty of Agriculture who specialises in land and water resources, believes Cairo should have adopted the positions it is taking now a long time ago, before it signed the declaration of principles in Khartoum in March 2015. He, too, is pessimistic on the prospects of an agreement.
“We must launch a massive media campaign explaining the dangers and injustice Egypt faces, rally African and international support and press for international mediation. We should also withdraw our recognition of the declaration of principles that we signed as a matter of urgency. It can be brought before parliament and MPs can vote to annul it.”
GERD is riddled with political complexities that have nothing to do with the technical aspects of the dam, say experts. If the three parties — Addis Ababa, Khartoum and Cairo — had been guided by the recognised technical criteria applied in such projects and by the common interests of the people of the three countries they could have resolved the matter long ago instead of dragging it out over eight years without a solution. Now the technical committees should be given greater leeway to reach solutions acceptable to all parties and to ensure that the dam acts as an engine for cooperation and development rather than a source of dispute in a continent that has no shortage of conflicts.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.