After years of tripartite negotiations to reach a deal on filling the reservoir of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Addis Ababa said it had no legal obligation to seek the approval of Egypt, according to a letter Ethiopia sent to the United Nations’ Security Council (UNSC) last week.
The letter was sent days after Egypt forwarded its own letter to the UNSC calling on the international community to ask Ethiopia to respect its international legal obligations as set out in the Declaration of Principles (DoP) — signed by Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum in 2015 — and pressure Addis to accept the deal drafted by the US Treasury Department and the World Bank in Washington in February 2020.
Egypt’s letter came in response to a unilateral Ethiopian proposal earlier this month to fill the dam in two stages. Under the plan, the reservoir would retain 18.4 billion cubic metres of water in just two years.
Ethiopia proposed the initial filling of the dam should start in July, with or without an agreement with downstream countries Egypt and Sudan. Under the DoP an agreement on guidelines governing the filling and annual operation of the dam should have been reached before the filling commences.
Egypt’s letter expressed Cairo’s reservations over the proposal, and accused Ethiopia of sidelining the interests of downstream countries. It said both Egypt and Sudan rejected the Ethiopian proposal.
“Ethiopia is in full compliance with the DoP signed between the three countries in 2015, and made a remarkable and generous gesture in offering an agreement to Egypt,” Addis Ababa claimed in its letter.
It stressed that its proposal would cause no significant harm to Egypt.
According to Mohamed Hegazi, a former assistant to Egypt’s foreign minister, the unilateral proposal shows that Ethiopia is determined to plough ahead with the project without consulting Khartoum or Cairo.
In February this year Ethiopia failed to attend the final round of talks in Washington which had been convened to sign a final agreement over the rules for the filling and operation of GERD.
In its letter Addis Ababa noted that the talks in Washington were held in the absence of the Ethiopian team, despite an Ethiopian request to postpone the meeting.
It called on the international community to convince Egypt to continue the tripartite negotiations on the filling and annual operation of GERD in good faith, and to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.
“[Egypt should] abandon its insistence on its self-proclaimed historic rights and current use, and halt its relentless efforts to politicise and internationalise the remaining technical negotiations,” says the letter.
Abbas Sharaki, a professor of political science at Cairo University, sees the latest moves as yet another attempt by Addis Ababa to buy time.
Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok made it clear last week that Khartoum rejected the Ethiopian proposal for an initial agreement. He sent a letter to Abiy Ahmed, his Ethiopian counterpart, saying the proposal “poses legal and technical problems that must be addressed”.
According to Sudan’s Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resource, Hamdok underlined that the way to reach a comprehensive agreement is through the immediate resumption of negotiations.
Throughout the negotiations Sudan attempted to steer a middle course between Egypt and has tried to bridge their differences whenever possible, says Hegazi. But now that Khartoum realises Ethiopia is not willing to reach a compromise and is indifferent to the dangers the dam may pose to downstream countries it has changed its approach to the issue and is prioritising the national interests that bind Cairo and Khartoum.
Sharaki questions Hegazi’s analysis, arguing there is little evidence of a genuine change in the Sudanese approach.
“Until Sudan signs the final agreement reached in Washington after four months of consultations among the three countries, or sends a letter to the Security Council, one cannot regard Khartoum as supporting Egypt’s position,” he says.
When tripartite talks reached a deadlock in October the US Department of the Treasury stepped in to act as an observer in the talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. Under the roadmap it drew, the talks were supposed to conclude by mid-January. The deadline was subsequently pushed to the end of February.
By mid-January the three countries had agreed a schedule for the staged filling of the dam and mitigation mechanisms to apply dry periods and drought but said they needed more time to finalise a deal on safety measures and a dispute resolution mechanism.
Ethiopia rejected the agreement mediated by the US on the filling and operation of the dam when it failed to turn up for the February session at which the agreement was supposed to be signed. Both Egypt and Sudan attended. Cairo initialed the agreement, while Sudan said it would delay doing so until Ethiopia was on board.
Hegazi expects Cairo will continue to put diplomatic pressure on the negotiating parties. Egypt will always be “open to negotiations within the framework of the Washington talks, and open for suggestions that can build on whatever is achieved during the negotiations,” he says.
Sharaki now expects Ethiopia to postpone the initial filling.
“Addis Ababa wanted to start filling before the elections because it believes this will play well with voters. Now that elections have been postponed indefinitely the pressure to start filling is off. Besides, the dam is not structurally ready for filling. According to an announcement by Ethiopia’s minister of irrigation construction is only 73 per cent complete.”
The dam was scheduled to be completed this year. In August 2018 a delay of several years was announced, with Addis Ababa saying initial operations will start this summer, while full operation would begin by 2023.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly