President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi during his meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Cairo last week. Photo courtesy of Egytian Presidency
In a statement posted on Twitter on Saturday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said Addis Ababa does not plan to cause “any harm to sisterly Nile Basin countries”. He was referring to the impact of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on downstream countries Egypt and Sudan.
“For thousands of years, Ethiopia has been committed to sharing the Nile with downstream countries with integrity and trust. Let our brothers know that Ethiopia’s will to honour this commitment has never been stronger,” Ahmed said.
“One should welcome Ahmed’s statements. They may lead to a breakthrough on a rather complicated issue,” said a diplomat who asked that his name be withheld.
He added, however, that the latest statements contradict Ahmed’s comments over the last three years, warning that “unless his words are accompanied by deeds and action on the ground, one cannot rely on them.”
Ahmed’s remarks came days after he met with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in Cairo last week on the sidelines of the Sudan Neighbours Meeting. Both leaders say they are committed to exerting all efforts to reach an agreement on the filling and operation of the dam within four months. The first sign of a possible change in Addis Ababa’s stance came when he told the Ethiopian House of Representatives that the filling of GERD would be postponed until late August or early September to give time to address the concerns of downstream countries.
“This year’s filling will be different to the previous three rounds. It will be done in a way that alleviates the concerns of neighbouring peoples,” Ahmed told parliament.
The seeming U-turn raised as many questions as hopes among political commentators. What are the reasons behind the sudden change in position? What does a one-month delay in the filling actually signify? And can negotiations that have failed for years be revived and end in success?
While some experts welcomed the Ethiopian prime minister’s statements, others cautioned that, given Ethiopia’s lack of flexibility over the past 12 years and its refusal to sign the Washington draft agreement in February 2020, little is likely to change.
Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, argues that the Ethiopian statements were no more than a diplomatic nicety and should be taken with extreme caution. He questioned how trustworthy Addis Ababa’s statements are given it has taken six unilateral decisions in the last three years, “filling the dam in four consecutive years and operating two turbines without consulting with Egypt or Sudan”. Ethiopia, he said, has already stored 17 billion cubic metres (bcm) and is on its way to store another 24 bcm. The total amount equals 74 per cent of Egypt’s annual share of Nile water.
Nor, says Sharaki, is there any agreement between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia on what constitutes causing harm. Ethiopia clearly views this year’s planned storing of 24 bcm as a harmless action and has been preparing for the fourth filling since late February despite the absence of any legally binding agreement.
Over the last three years, Ethiopia has unilaterally implemented three fillings of the dam. The first filling took place in July 2020, involving 4.9 bcm of water, the second involved 3 bcm while the third, conducted in July last year, took the total of water stored in the reservoir to 17 bcm.
Sudan and Egypt have repeatedly raised concerns about the possible impact of the dam on water supplies to both countries. Egypt depends on the Nile for irrigation and drinking water and the Blue Nile accounts for more than 80 per cent of the river’s flow. Sudan draws two-thirds of its water supplies from the Nile.
“Ethiopia’s previous positions on negotiations and GERD hardly encourage us to believe that a breakthrough is imminent,” said the diplomat. “If their words are followed by deeds, however, all the parties involved will be winners.”
Sharaki agrees. “We can only welcome Ethiopia’s insistence that it is committed to reaching an agreement that regulates the filling and operation of the dam within four months as long as there is genuine political will to reach a solution,” he said.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly