US and African Union (AU) efforts to drag tripartite talks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) back on track have failed. Negotiations remain deadlocked, with Egypt and Sudan insisting on a legally-binding agreement before any second filling and Ethiopia adamant that it will go ahead with the filling with or without an agreement when the flood season starts in July.
The regional visit of US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman conspicuously failed to push things along.
“Feltman underlined the importance of an urgent resumption of the talks under the auspices of the AU,” said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity. “What was not mentioned was the reason talks had failed in the past or how to prevent them from failing again. Addis Ababa’s intransigence to conclude a legally binding agreement was not referenced.”
Following Feltman’s visit to the region, Washington underlined its commitment to providing political and technical support to facilitate a successful outcome of negotiations.
“We believe that the 2015 Declaration of Principles signed by the parties and the July 2020 statement by the AU Bureau are important foundations for these negotiations,” read the media note issued by the US Department of State.
Feltman’s 4 to 13 May tour took him to Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia and aimed to revive negotiations and reach an agreement acceptable to Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. The newly-appointed US envoy said he would return to the region soon to continue his diplomatic efforts.
Hani Raslan, an expert on Nile issues at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, detects a significant shift in the Biden administration’s position on the dam, from indifference/keeping a distance, to active engagement, and puts the administration’s new found willingness to listen to Cairo and Khartoum’s concerns and push for an agreement down to Cairo’s consistent refusal to accept any encroachment on its rights to Nile water.
“Any settlement will require Cairo to hold firm on its position. It will need a strict time limit, measured in days, to be set, and for Egypt and Sudan to continue to cooperate closely.”
As a part of international efforts to relaunch the negotiations Felix Tshisekedi, chairperson of the AU and President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), visited Egypt and Sudan last week.
He arrived with a proposal from Addis Ababa to resume negotiations on the second filling and settle all other pending matters later. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi made it clear during his meeting with Tshisekedi that Egypt refused to compromise its water security.
In Sudan Tshisekedi held talks with General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, head of Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council, and Foreign Minister Mariam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi. Al-Mahdi rejected any unilateral steps by Ethiopia to start a second filling in July.
Cairo and Khartoum both insisted on a legally binding deal that preserves their water rights and saves the region from further tensions and instability before a second filling can commence.
Abbas Sharaki, a professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, says the Ethiopian proposal was in essence an attempt to get Egypt and Sudan to give a second filling the green light, thereby changing the situation on the ground, while deferring the ongoing dispute to negotiations that “might as well last forever”. He also pointed out that once the second filling is complete the option of taking military action against the dam will be off the table given the impact any breach will have on Sudan.
The Feltman and Tshisekedi visits came as tensions continued to mount after the latest trilateral round of talks in Kinshasa failed early last month.
Ethiopia has rejected several proposals by Egypt and Sudan on the negotiation mechanism and the role of mediators, including a suggestion to form an international quartet of the AU, US, EU and the UN to arbitrate the dispute.
Last year several rounds of AU-sponsored talks, under the chairmanship of South Africa, failed to break the deadlock among the three countries, with Addis Ababa continuing to refuse a legally binding agreement.
Last summer Ethiopia went ahead with a first filling of the dam despite the absence of a deal with Egypt and Sudan. The second filling aims to raise the amount of water stored in the dam’s reservoir to 18.4 bcm, from the 4.9 bcm secured during the first filling.
In September 2020 the Trump administration cut $100 million in aid to Ethiopia after Addis Ababa failed to come to an agreement over GERD. The Biden administration reversed the cut earlier this year.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly