In an obstinate move on Tuesday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said that the second filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will start on 21 July and that his country cannot afford to miss the rainy season.
Addressing the Ethiopian parliament, Ahmed said that the dam will not affect the natural flow of water to downstream countries. Egypt and Sudan strongly oppose that Addis Ababa proceed with the second filling of the dam without a legally binding agreement on its filling and operation.
Egypt’s Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Abdel-Ati on Tuesday lamented Ethiopia’s procrastination and waste of time in the negotiating process. There are 11 dams on the River Nile, some of which were financed by the Egyptian government, Abdel-Ati pointed out, indicating the good will of Egypt towards other riparian states and its acknowledgement of their right to development.
Addressing a closed session at the Supreme Council for Media Regulations on Tuesday, Abdel-Ati stressed Egypt’s keenness to reach an agreement.
Former Egyptian minister of irrigation Mohamed Nasreddin Allam noted that the situation was dangerous. “Ethiopia is imposing its agenda without offering any guarantees that the dam will not harm Egypt and Sudan. The second filling and subsequent filling of the GERD present genuine harm to both countries. It will cause major changes in the agricultural sector and possibly in other related sectors as well, especially as there has been no preplanning. This should not be allowed by the international community,” he concluded.
The second filling of the GERD threatens to inflict serious damage on Egypt and Sudan. Egypt relies on the River Nile for 98 per cent of its water needs. Any reduction in its quota will cause water shortage in a country that is already suffering from water poverty. GERD is also expected to severely affect the performance of Sudan’s dams if it is carried without coordination with Khartoum.
Tripartite talks brokered by the African Union (AU) on the GERD in 2020 broke down in January when Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan failed to reach an agreement. Both Egypt and Sudan are moving to resume the suspended negotiations.
Dina Mufti, Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said on Tuesday that GERD talks between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan will commence soon under the leadership of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the current chair of the African Union. Mufti said that Ethiopia has not officially received the international quartet meditation suggestion by Sudan, adding that the AU-led negotiation should be finalised before any other option is pursued. In an attempt to put the negotiations back on track, Sudan called last month for the formation of a quartet group made up of the UN, the EU, the US, and the AU to act as mediators in the GERD talks.
The principal obstacle to an agreement, according to Amal Kandeel, the founding director of the Middle East Institute's climate change, development, and human security program, “is the vastly divergent perspectives between Ethiopia on one hand and Egypt and Sudan on the other about what is lawful and fair in the common use of a transboundary freshwater course.”
In his address at the UN high-level meeting on the implementation of the water-related goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda last week, Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli said that the water issue had turned into a threat to the security and safety of the states and peoples of the Nile Basin.
Expressing Egypt’s concern about recent developments related to the Ethiopian Dam, Madbouli said that “the second filling of the GERD threatens to inflict serious damage on the interests of Egypt and Sudan.”
In an attempt to defend Egypt’s strategic interests on water issues, Egypt’s diplomatic mission to the UN acting with a group of other countries has drafted a cross-regional statement regarding water issues, according to Egypt’s Permanent Representative to the UN Mohamed Idris in a statement last week.
The joint statement focuses on the crisis of water scarcity and the profound effects this could have on the countries that already suffer from water shortages and the need to take urgent measures to support them, Idris said.
Sudan has also repeatedly rejected the second filling of the GERD by Ethiopia as the imposition of a fait accompli on the downstream countries.
In a meeting with the Sudanese higher committee for following up on GERD developments last month, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said that going ahead with the second filling of the GERD before an agreement would risk the security of the 20 million Sudanese whose lives rely on the Blue Nile.
The united stand that Cairo and Sudan have adopted will put further pressure on Addis Ababa, according to former Egyptian minister of irrigation Allam.
“It will show the world that both Egypt and Sudan are willing to negotiate, while Ethiopia is not. It will show the true face of Ethiopia. But whether that will lead to any concessions on the part of Addis Ababa is another issue,” Allam told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Tirusew Asefa, an Ethiopian expert on water issues and a professor at the University of South Florida in the US, does not believe that the pressure will be useful. “Undue pressure will not bring the generational stability the region needs... The pressure will only take you in the wrong direction,” he claimed.
Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs Demeke Mekonnen said at a symposium last week in Addis Ababa on the 10th anniversary of the inauguration of the GERD that his country would proceed with the second filling of the dam’s reservoir in July regardless of whether the three countries had reached a legally binding agreement.
The rainy season in the region starts in July and ends in mid-September.
In mid-July last year, the Ethiopian authorities unilaterally carried out the first filling of the GERD with 4.9 billion cubic metres (bcm) of water. It is expected that this July an additional 13 bcm of water will fill the dam to reach a total of around 18 bcm.
Kandeel said it was obvious that the Ethiopian government was determined to do what it wanted without binding commitments. “The recent rapprochement between Egypt and Sudan, while important, will not put any meaningful pressure on Ethiopia,” she said, adding that Ethiopia would do only what it felt comfortable with and did not have costly consequences.
“The way things are, no one should hold their breath for a dramatic change in Ethiopia’s course of action,” she added.
Many commentators regard the Ethiopian stand as a crystal-clear indication of the absence of a political desire to proceed with the negotiations on Ethiopia’s part, even though the current leader of the AU, the DRC, is exerting efforts to put the negotiations back on track and reach an agreement before July.
Hopes are pinned on the DRC succeeding where South Africa, the previous chair of the AU, failed.
The AU is capable of doing the job, according to Asefa. But, he said, bringing third-party mediators in would not result in a solution because the underlying disagreements must be resolved by the stakeholders themselves.
“The role of third-party involvement should be limited to that of a facilitator providing ideas, data, new ways of framing the issue, and knowledge from similar experiences outside the present matter, in order to enable the parties to sustain their engagement and eventually reach an agreement,” he elaborated.
Kandeel said it was unfortunate that the AU mediation had not borne fruit, but that this was not unexpected. Expanding the mediation to include the US, the EU, and the UN confirmed the legitimacy of Egypt and Sudan’s grievances and demands, she stressed. However, she added that the efficacy of the mediation was not guaranteed.
Sudan and Egypt’s desire to resort to international mediation on the issue comes as Sudan has complained about the ineffectiveness of the talks last year under the AU.
Last year, several rounds of AU-sponsored talks failed to break the deadlock between the three countries.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly