As 2021 opens, the reservoir of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been partially filled and Sudan has, for the time being at least, withdrawn from the seemingly endless negotiations. The clock is ticking, with just a few months left till the next flooding season during which Ethiopia may make good on its threat to start the second filling of the dam.
While an agreement seems as far away as ever, there have been periods when optimism seemed in order. Below are some of them.
MELTING THE ICE
In March 2011, when Ethiopia announced its plans to build a large dam — at the time it was called the Millennium Dam — on the Blue Nile close to the border with Sudan, the news sparked concern in Egypt which feared the dam’s impact on its supply of Nile water.
In April 2011 a delegation of more than 50 Egyptians, from the fields of politics, media, culture, and business, visited Ethiopia and was warmly welcomed by both Ethiopian officials and the public. More than three years later, in December 2014, popular diplomacy came to the fore once again when an Ethiopian delegation visited Egypt in an attempt to foster greater understanding over the issues the dam had raised.
The exchange of visits helped melt the ice between the two countries which had taken hold following the failed attempt on the life of Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995.
Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi subsequently confirmed that the dam would not harm Egypt or its people, and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi announced the dam would not be allowed to become an obstacle to developing Egyptian relations with Ethiopia. The statements may have contributed to reducing tensions between the two states but in the end did not secure a binding agreement.
MORE STUDIES NEEDED
In 2012 the three countries agreed to form an International Panel of Experts (IPoE) to evaluate the project. The panel comprised two experts from each of the three countries, and four international experts drawn from Germany, France, and South Africa.
In 2013 the panel issued a report recommending that detailed studies be undertaken by the Ethiopian government to assess the safety and economic and environmental impacts of the dam. By the end of 2014 the three countries had agreed to contract international consultants to conduct the studies. Contracts, however, were only signed in September 2016.
DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES
The signing of the Declaration of Principles (DoP) in Khartoum in 2015 was hailed as the basis for “cooperation based on mutual understanding, common interest, good intentions, benefits for all, and the principles of international law”. It comprised 10 principles, including not causing significant harm to another country, and the settlement of any dispute by peaceful means.
Unfortunately, the DoP was couched in vague terms such as “significant damage” which the parties could interpret differently, and it postponed decisions on specific procedures, including the initial filling and operation of the dam, and the settling disputes, to a later agreement. Five years after the signing of the DoP, no agreement has been reached on the outstanding issues.
Two days after signing the DoP, President Al-Sisi arrived in Addis Ababa for a two-day visit, the first by an Egyptian president in 30 years. He stressed that the Nile should inspire cooperation and regional integration rather than conflict and called for the immediate implementation of the DoP and for further trust- and confidence-building measures between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.
“Let us not dwell in the past… we have chosen to move forward together, in a relationship founded on trust,” said Al-Sisi.
A VICIOUS CIRCLE
Several rounds of talks and international mediation failed to realise a GERD breakthrough
The tripartite national committee began talks in 2014 with the aim of reaching an agreement. Meanwhile, Ethiopia continued construction work on the dam. Several rounds of talks were held during which the three states agreed — as per the recommendations of the IPoE — to hire two consultancy firms to conduct the studies on the dam. A Dutch and a French company were duly contacted, only for the Dutch company to later withdraw. The work of the French company was then delayed as the tripartite committee held several meetings during which it failed to agree the terms of reference of the study.
It took until May 2017 before the French consultants were able to issue a preliminary report on the impact of the dam. Egypt accepted the report, while Ethiopia and Sudan expressed reservations.
The French company found its work stymied as tripartite talks failed to bridge the differences between the three states. In October 2019, Egypt blamed Addis Ababa for hindering a final agreement and called for Article 10 of the DoP, which stipulates that if the three countries cannot resolve their disputes they should seek outside arbitration, to be activated.
SEEKING A FOURTH PARTY
In December 2017, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said during a visit to Addis Ababa that the World Bank should be asked to mediate. Ethiopia rejected the suggestion.
NEW BLOOD, NEW HOPE
In April 2018, after the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn amid anti-government protests, Abiy Ahmed became the new prime minister of Ethiopia. Two months after taking office Ahmed visited Egypt and met with President Al-Sisi. Ahmed said Ethiopia was committed to ensuring Egypt’s share of Nile water. “We will take care of the Nile and we will preserve your share and we will work to increase this quota and President Al-Sisi and I will work on this,” he said.
Though the two leaders signalled their commitment to mutually benefit from the Nile and cooperate in other fields, the tripartite meetings continued without any sign of progress.
A nine-party meeting held in Addis Ababa in May 2018 resulted in the ministers of foreign affairs and irrigation and the heads of intelligence of the three states producing a document in which they reasserted their commitment to the DoP and agreed on holding tripartite summits between the leaders of the three countries every six months. They also agreed to establish an infrastructure fund for joint infrastructure and development projects in the three countries.
Most importantly, the three countries established a national independent scientific research study group to discuss ways of boosting cooperation over GERD and to discuss the filling and operation of the dam.
Another nine-party meeting was scheduled to be held in Cairo in June to follow up on the implementation of the document. It never convened.
LAST MINUTE NO-SHOW
In response to a call from Egypt for mediation, Washington brokered a tripartite negotiation between the three countries, in the presence of the head of the World Bank. The talks lasted from 6 November 2019 until 28 February 2020, when Ethiopia filed to show up for the final session at which an agreement between the three countries was due to be signed. Egypt initialed the agreement. Sudan abstained from doing so in the absence of Ethiopia.
During the negotiations the three countries appeared to agree on the rules and mechanisms governing the operation of the dam and the first filling of the dam’s reservoir during periods of drought and prolonged drought. Addis Ababa’s failure to attend the final session, however, meant the talks were back to square one, prompting Egypt to refer the case to the UN Security Council (UNSC).
UNSC AND AU
In May 2020 Egypt sent a letter to the UNSC asking that it “intervene to affirm the importance of the three countries resuming negotiations with good will… in order to reach a fair and balanced settlement” over the dam. Sudan followed with its own letter stating that the dam could “cause substantial risks” to Khartoum, endanger the lives of millions of people living downstream, and warning that filling the dam without reaching an agreement would compromise the safety of the Sudanese Roseires Dam.
A month later Cairo officially called on the UNSC to intervene to restart negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan in order to settle the dispute in a fair and balanced way. At Cairo’s request the UNSC held an open session on the dam during which its15 members voiced support for the African Union (AU) facilitating renewed talks.
AU-brokered video talks began on 3 July, observed by representatives from the EU, the US, the AU Commission, South Africa, and AU legal and technical experts. Several rounds were held, all of which failed to break the stalemate over the most contentious technical and legal points.
During the last round, which began on 27 October, Sudan argued that experts attending the talks should be given a larger role in deciding the methodology, direction and timetable of negotiations. When the suggestion was rejected, Khartoum withdrew from the tripartite ministerial meeting scheduled for 21 November to discuss guidelines for further negotiations.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly