Egypt is pushing back against Addis Ababa’s plans to the filling of the reservoir of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) this summer. Government officials say they have to take seriously the statements made by Ethiopian officials that the filling process will be initiated during this rainy season, with or without an agreement with Egypt and Sudan.
“We cannot ignore the fact that they could start the filling. Regardless of the amount of water they extract from the Blue Nile, it would be a violation of [existing] legal agreements, and an indication that Ethiopia was never serious about reaching an agreement to get the dam up and running in a way that does not harm Egypt and Sudan,” said an informed government official.
Under construction since 2011, GERD is a gravity mega dam with a reservoir capable of storing 74 billion m3. It will be the largest hydrological dam on the continent, designed to generate 6,450 megawatts.
This week, Egyptian sources estimated that the dam is close to 85 per cent complete, which means it is technically possible to store water in the reservoir.
On Monday the Ethiopian News Agency quoted Ethiopian Water, Irrigation and Energy Minister Sileshi Bekele saying that Addis Ababa is determined to start the filling in July and that it will not succumb to pressure from downstream states to reverse its plans.
There was no immediate response from either Cairo or Khartoum to this statement though Egyptian officials speaking off the record said it revealed the extent to which Ethiopia had been “playing games” during the past five years of negotiations. Addis Ababa, said one official, had only been “pretending to look for a consensual agreement”.
In March 2015 Egypt signed the Declaration of Principles with Ethiopia and Sudan under which the completion and operation of the dam was made dependent on a comprehensive agreement being reached between the three states.
Last year, following more than four years of inconclusive negotiations, Cairo requested the mediation of the US and the World Bank. The talks that began in Washington last autumn produced a text that Egypt initialed. Sudan declined to sign in the absence of Ethiopia, which had absented itself from the final negotiations hosted by the US.
Egypt had hoped the US would put enough pressure on Ethiopia that it would sign the deal. By last month, however, Egyptian authorities realised that was not happening, and the US administration’s attention was focused elsewhere.
“The US repeatedly promised to pressure Ethiopia to honour the outcome of the Washington negotiation process but this did not happen. Ethiopian officials are now saying they will start the filling this summer with or without an agreement,” said one Cairo source.
The source argued that “there seems to be a split” in the US administration: while the US Treasury Department, which co-facilitated the talks with the World Bank, seems to have a good understanding of Egypt’s “legitimate concerns regarding possible severe water shortages”, the US State Department seems to be more aligned with Ethiopia. “The State Department’s view is that it is important to stand by Abiy Ahmed who is facing internal political opposition and needs to move ahead with GERD to be able to defy his opponents.”
It was concern that an effective US intervention would not materialise, the same source said, that prompted Cairo to seek political support from the UN Security Council.
Egypt must now use the next few weeks to build enough international pressure to get Ethiopia to return to the negotiating table and commit to the Washington treaty, or at the very least suspend its plans to start filling the reservoir without an agreement.
Earlier this month Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri sent a letter to Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu, the current chair of the UN Security Council (UNSC), demanding that the body responsible for world peace and security ensures that Addis Ababa makes good on its 2015 commitment not to start filling the dam in the absence of an agreement. Ethiopian officials promptly leaked a copy of the letter to the Ethiopian press.
The letter and its annexed aide memoire detailed the long process of negotiations that led to the drafting of the text of a treaty in Washington earlier this year, before Ethiopia opted to walk out on the deal.
The letter emerged after Egypt and Sudan declined an offer made by Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed in April, to engage in a new round of negotiations over an interim agreement on the first filling of the reservoir.
According to Egyptian diplomatic sources, in his talks with Reinsalu and other foreign ministers Shoukri explained that Egypt is losing faith in the intentions of Ethiopia which seems determined to maintain an open-ended negotiating process without taking any of the steps needed to reach an agreement.
Hani Raslan, a Nile affairs specialist at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS), says the refusal of Ahmed’s offer to negotiate an interim agreement and the sending of a letter to the UNSC reflect Cairo’s realisation that a prompt and effective US intervention is unlikely to be forthcoming.
“It is significant that Egypt is now taking the matter to the highest possible political forum in anticipation of an Ethiopian decision to start filling the dam this summer, and any subsequent reaction from Cairo will match the grave threat such an Ethiopian move would constitute.”
Egyptian officials say the letter to the UNSC is the opening salvo in an intense political move Cairo is planning for the coming weeks as it seeks to persuade the international community to get Ethiopia to abandon its plans to start filling the reservoir this summer.
According to Raslan, it was important for Egypt to explain its position to the international community to counter “the misleading Ethiopian narrative that suggests Egypt is seeking to monopolise the water of the Nile.”
Ethiopia has announced that it is drafting a reply to the Egyptian letter, to be sent to the current chair of the UNSC. It promised its reply would refute Egyptian claims that the filling and operation of GERD would cause significant harm to downstream countries.
Raslan says Ethiopia “will find it difficult to convince the international community that Egypt is trying to block Ethiopian development.
“In its letter to the chair of the UNSC Egypt states clearly it has no objections to the filling and operation of the dam. What it wants are solid reassurances that this filling and operation will not cause severe water shortages in Egypt.”
If the diplomatic offensive fails to persuade Ethiopia to pursue a consensual agreement, Raslan says it will then be up to Egypt to consider its choices “in light of the support it is building in the international community”.
Ayman Abdel-Wahab, an expert on the management of water resources at the ACPSS, argues that the time is ripe for Egypt to expand its Nile focus beyond GERD.
“I think that what Egypt needs to do now is pursue a far more comprehensive vision of the management of the Nile and its resources by all the riparian states,” he says.
In 2010 Egypt suspended its membership of the Nile Basin Initiative in protest at an agreement that several Nile Basin countries were promoting to rework Egypt’s share of Nile water. Egypt refused the argument being made by these states that existing agreements specifying Egypt’s water share were void given that they were concluded when most of the Nile Basin countries were under colonial occupation. Instead, Cairo argued the historic agreements remained legally binding.
Egyptian officials agree that Ethiopia is not the only country with plans to build barrages on the Nile. Nor is GERD likely to be the last dam Ethiopia seeks to build on the Nile.
Egypt faces growing water scarcity. The Nile provides over 90 per cent of Egypt’s water. Cairo’s worst fear is that Ethiopia plans not only to use GERD to generate electricity — its stated aim — but intends to withhold water for agricultural purposes.
This scenario, say Egyptian officials, explains why Addis Ababa is so resistant to agreeing a resolution mechanism for disputes arising from the amounts of water held by GERD. It is a clear indication, they say, that Ethiopia has “other plans” for its mega dam beyond the generation of electricity.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly