The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) made an inevitable appearance during the 76th UN General Assembly in New York. UN Secretary-General António Guterres stressed in his meeting with Ethiopian Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen the importance of the three countries resuming negotiations, while Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri raised the subject during many of his meetings on the sidelines of the General Assembly. Sudan renewed its rejection of any unilateral acts by Ethiopia, with Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok detailing to the General Assembly the damage his country had suffered as a result of the first and second fillings of the GERD reservoir.
In mid-September, ahead of the General Assembly, the Security Council had issued a presidential statement calling on Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia to resume negotiations to reach for a legally-binding agreement under the auspices of the African Union (AU) “within a reasonable time frame”.
The statement was welcomed by Cairo and Khartoum but described it as “an historic misstep” by Addis Ababa which announced “it is regretable that the council [has chosen to impose] itself over an issue of water rights and development that is outside its mandate.”
There is mounting international pressure on Ethiopia to reach a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of GERD, says former deputy to Egypt’s foreign minister Ali Al-Hefni, a fact reflected not only in the UNSC presidential statement issued mid-September but in the UN secretary-general’s statement during the recent General Assembly. “All involved parties know the dangers of leaving the issue unresolved and as a result we saw international pressure on Ethiopia to resume the tripartite negotiations ‘in a spirit of reaching a compromise’ as Gueterras said.”
The Security Council statement in mid-September, and the Congolese foreign minister’s visit to Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt during the same period, raised hopes that the tripartite talks would soon restart. Such hopes were dashed, however, when Ethiopia made public that it will soon begin operating GERD’s first two turbines despite no deal being reached.
Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, questioned whether Ethiopia is in a position to start the turbines given that it has been threatening to do so since 2014.
“If they were in working condition, why did they not begin operating them immediately after the first filling in 2019? We will have to wait and see whether they do begin in October. Until then, we cannot take Ethiopia’s statements seriously,” Sharaki told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Ethiopian Minister of Water, Irrigation, and Energy Sileshi Bekele said early September that preparations were underway to enable the first two GERD turbines to generate electricity within months.
Despite international pressure for tripartite negotiations to restart, Ibrahim Idris, a member of Ethiopia’s GERD negotiating team, said this week that his country will never sign an agreement on the dam that affects Ethiopia’s future development. In response, Foreign Minister Shoukri said the negotiations, which have focused on reaching an agreement on the filling and operation of the dam, in no way affect Ethiopia’s future development, and described Idris’ statement as “prevaricating and lacking credibility”.
Sharaki interpreted the Security Council statement as putting pressure on the AU to assume its responsibilities in the tripartite negotiations, adding that a number of factors are now in place that may encourage an agreement: “The second filling was far less than originally planned, giving the parties an extra year to talk before the next rainy season; the situation inside Ethiopia, and on its border with Sudan, is becoming increasingly complex for both countries, and the flood was high this year, covering shortages that might have accrued as a result of the incomplete second filling.”
Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Cairo Markos Tekle Rike told the media this week that the Ethiopian Embassy in Cairo closing for three to six months due to economic reasons. Tekle Rike stressed that the decision had nothing to do with GERD.
In July, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that Ethiopia would “need to close at least 30 of its embassies” and underlined that the closures were to economise.
The decision, says Al-Hefni, reflects the extent of the economic problems Ethiopia is facing as a result of its war in the Tigray region and conflicts on its border with Sudan.
In August, Ethiopia’s embassy in Algiers suspended all consular activities. Last month, its embassy in Kuwait suspended activities and staff numbers at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington and Ethiopia’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations were reduced.