GERD talks: What was achieved under South Africa's AU chairmanship; what to expect under DRC

Ahmed Morsy , Friday 5 Feb 2021

Ahram Online assesses what has been done during months of South Africa's mediation in the GERD dispute and what scenarios to expect with the DRC chairing the AU in 2021 starting Saturday

FILE PHOTO: Water flows through Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam as it undergoes construction work on the river Nile in Guba Woreda, Benishangul Gumuz Region, Ethiopia. REUTERS

A year-long attempt by South Africa – as chair of the African Union (AU) in 2020 – at mediating talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to break a decade-long deadlock in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) negotiations ended to no avail due to Addis Ababa's persistent intransigence.

The last seventh round of negotiations, held online on 10 January, ended in a stalemate, and a legally binding agreement – a goal pursued by Egypt and repeatedly dodged or rejected by Ethiopia – was nowhere in sight.

Sudan recently boycotted the scheduled rounds of talks, voicing displeasure with Ethiopia's approach of ignoring Khartoum's concerns over the impact of GERD on its own dams.

The 34th Ordinary Session of the AU Assembly is set to start on Saturday, with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) assuming the presidency of the AU in 2021 and therefore replacing South Africa as mediator in any future GERD talks.

However, before the DRC takes on the tough task that eluded South Africa, an assessment of South Africa's own efficacy in mediating talks and negotiations between the three sides is in order.

African affairs expert at Al-Ahram Establishment Attia Essawy believes that “South Africa’s role in the negotiations' methods were lukewarm... no meaningful progress was made in the negotiations under its auspices.”

“That was because it [South Africa] did not play any effective role during the negotiations, represented in not submitting any alternative proposals to those rejected by any of the three parties,” Essawy told Ahram Online.

Hani Raslan, head of the Sudan and Nile Water Basin department at Egypt's Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Ahram Online he believes that the role of South Africa in overseeing the negotiations was meagre, and was even “tainted by favouritism towards Ethiopia.”

“The GERD negotiations under the presidency of South Africa proceeded in a vicious circle without any controls or clear goals, and there was no significant progress achieved,” Raslan said.

Essawy explained that since the US-sponsored negotiations took place in Washington DC in early 2020 – where the three sides agreed on 90 percent of the points of disagreement but Ethioipia refused to sign on anything – “there was no significant progress in the remaining 10 percent of disputed issues during the sponsorship by the AU, represented by South Africa, of negotiations.”

In November 2019, the US stepped in to host negotiations after Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia announced that talks on the operation and filling of the dam had reached a dead end.

Though the three sides agreed during these talks to entrust the US and the World Bank with the preparation of a draft agreement, Ethiopia skipped the signing meeting in February 2020, citing "domestic reasons."

So, Essawy believes, "one cannot say that South Africa's period of sponsorship of the GERD negotiations was positive."

South Africa: Impartial mediator?

In June 2020, South African President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, the 2020 chairperson of the AU, launched efforts to sponsor and push the negotiation process forward between the three sides after a one round of Khartoum-brokered negotiations, which followed the aborted attempts in Washington, had also deadlocked.

South Africa’s involvement in the negotiations process came a few days before the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) was scheduled to discuss the GERD dispute in an open session upon Egypt’s request.

In the same month, an emergency online GERD-focused summit of the AU’s three countries was chaired by Ramaphosa. The three sides agreed in the meeting that they would "refrain from taking any unilateral measures, including the filling of the dam," before a final agreement was reached.

The three sides agreed in the meeting to form a committee of technical and legal experts from the three countries and the AU in order to conduct further negotiations and reach a deal in two weeks.

That two-week deadline never materialised, and Ethiopia started immediately after the online summit the first filling of the dam, announcing shortly afterwards that it has completed the initial filling with 4.9 billion cubic metres of Blue Nile water in the GERD’s reservoir.

“The AU held two summits last summer in dam negotiations, after which Ethiopia reversed what was agreed upon in both meetings, and South Africa did not issue even a statement about such violations as if nothing had happened,” Raslan said.

Such unilateral action by Ethiopia was not only a breach of the outcomes of that AU summits, but was also a violation of its legal obligations, especially the Declaration of Principles in 2015, Egypt charged at the time.

Ethiopia recently announced, in a new sign of disdain for any meaningful negotiation process or hopes for a deal, that it would start the second phase of filling the controversial dam during the rainy season of August 2021 with 18.4 billion cubic metres of water.

DRC’s mediation: What to expect?

The mediation of the GERD file is due to be shifted from South Africa to the DRC’s hands after the DRC assumes the 2021 presidency of the AU at the African summit on Saturday, which is due to be held online over coronavirus concerns.

Regarding what to expect in the GERD file under DRC sponsorship, Egypt’s former Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Nasr Allam said that “in order to judge, we initially need to clarify what is supposed to be required from the sponsoring party.”

A roadmap for meaningful negotiations to reach a deal that ends the dispute requires "setting a reasonable timeframe for negotiation, setting an agreed-upon agenda, determining what the contentious items are and presenting the position of international law on them – all this is the role of legal experts and the African Commission," Allam explained to Ahram Online.

“If the DRC can impose such rules of engagement, the negotiations will be fruitful in the coming period,” Allam said.

Essawy, however, maintained that he is "not optimistic" that the DRC chairmanship and mediation can change things as they now stand.

“Though the DRC is enthusiastic to make progress in the GERD negotiating file, its good relations with Egypt might lead Ethiopia to claim that it favours Cairo," Essawy fears.

"From a different perspective, despite the country’s large size and potentials, the DRC is neither diplomatically nor economically as strong as South Africa in a way that would allow it to pressure the three parties to reach an agreement,” Essawy said.

Meanwhile, in Raslan’s point of view, DRC’s management of the GERD file might work in ways different from South Africa's. 

“The most important thing, however, is whether DRC can make an impact on the talks; I do not think that DRC will be able to deter Ethiopia, especially given that Ethiopia is boastful in its stances even though they violate international law,” Raslan said.

Essawy not only echoed Raslan’s pessimistic forecast for the coming period in negotiations, but also provides reasons and other conflicts beyond the GERD issue that warrant a pessimistic outlook.

“I do not think there will be progress in the negotiating process in the near future because the dispute is no longer centred solely on the rules for regulating the filling of the GERD during drought, prolonged drought or even the need to reach a legally binding agreement on the operation of the $4.8 billion mega-dam, but also because of the conflict on the borders between Ethiopia and Sudan,” Essawy said.

Since late last year, tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan over the disputed eastern border region of Al-Fashqa have been mounting, with both sides trading opposed claims over ownership of the agricultural area.

The decades-old dispute over Al-Fashqa, land within Sudan's international boundaries that has long been settled by Ethiopian farmers, erupted into weeks of clashes between forces from both sides in late-2020.

Essawy believes that the tension on the borders between the two countries would have an impact in one way or another on the GERD issue, and “will lead to hardening of both parties' positions during the negotiation."

If these border tensions are settled, and Ethiopia gives up its obstinate stance in negotiations and accepts a greater role for observers, then there could be progress in the deadlocked GERD talks, he said.

What if negotiations continue to stall under DRC’s sponsorship?

“In the event that differences are resolved and an agreement is reached, this is fine, but if solutions are not reached, the AU is supposedly obligated to submit a report to the UNSC regarding the issue,” Allam said.

Raslan, meanwhile, believes that prolonged deadlock in negotiations might spur new US mediation efforts, and this could facilitate the role of the DRC.

Likewise, Essawy said the US may have a role in facilitating negotiations and bringing views closer, but only if the new administration in Washington is able to win Ethiopia's trust.

This scenario could materialise only if Ethiopia gives up its rejection of the involvement of a "third" party in the mediation, Essawy noted.

According to Allam, the Declaration of Principles signed between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in 2015 stipulates that mediators can be resorted to in the event that a solution is not reached during negotiations, and “we have been negotiating for 10 years now with little progress."

Raslan stresses that Ethiopia is afraid of involving a mediator in the negotiations because it fears pressure, especially because Addis Ababa believes it is not in a position to challenge the US or resist its pressures given the problems it already faces because of strife inside the country.

Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict has entered its fourth month, with thousands of people killed as Ethiopian and allied forces fight those of the now-fugitive Tigray government that once dominated the country's government for nearly three decades.

On Thursday, the new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed in a call with Ethiopia's prime minister “grave concern” about the crisis in the embattled Tigray region and urged “immediate, full and unhindered humanitarian access to prevent further loss of life,” a US spokesman said, according to AP.

Essawy picked up the same thread, saying that pressure “is in itself the basis for Ethiopia's acceptance or rejection of mediation, because if it is left without pressure, it will not accept the intervention of any party as a mediator."

Arab role?

Essawy suggested that certain Arab countries could also play such a role.

“Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait can also play the same role of mediating, especially since they have great economic interests with Ethiopia,” Essawy said, referring to the similar role that the UAE and Saudi Arabia successfully played in 2018 between Eritrea and Ethiopia to settle their border conflicts.

The UAE, which imports half of its meat needs from Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, which imports 20-30 percent of its meat from Ethiopia, and Kuwait, which hosts about 50,000 Ethiopian workers, are able to bridge the gap and reduce discord, he said.

“Egypt has from $3 to $5 billion investments – mainly in infrastructure projects – in Ethiopia. And if the negotiation process gets tough, we should start with ourselves and withdraw such investments and then cut off diplomatic relations, and after that we may ask the Arab countries to put economic pressure on Ethiopia,” he said.

Back to the UN?

Also, Egypt can, without anyone blaming it, return to the UNSC, or can with Sudan file a complaint with the International Court of Justice, Essawy noted.

“Though the court’s decision is not binding, it can still be used in the UNSC, which may issue a decision according to it. The UNSC can also form a committee to study the issue and take a binding decision, impose sanctions, or even intervene by force according to Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter,” he said.

Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations provides the framework within which the UNSC may take enforcement action. It allows the Council to "determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression" and to make recommendations or to resort to non-military and military action to "maintain or restore international peace and security."

Raslan, however, doubts the possibility that the UNSC could play a role in resolving the dispute.

In June 2020, the UNSC held an open session on the dam – in response to Egypt’s request – in which Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stressed during his speech that the council should “remain actively seized of the matter” until efforts are successful towards an agreement.

“Holding a session in the UNSC last year to discuss the GERD crisis was a success for Egyptian diplomacy. However, the council has never resolved or even looked into such issues before,” Raslan said.

Egyptian and Sudanese fears 

During the UNSC’s GERD session last year, Shoukry stressed an unwavering commitment to support African nations, especially in the Nile Basin and including Ethiopia in efforts towards greater prosperity, adding that Cairo has cooperated with every Nile Basin state in constructing dams and other projects.

“This reflects our unshakable belief in our common destiny as Africans, and confirms our conviction that the Nile River is not the exclusive property of Egypt or of any riparian state, but the common heritage and sacred trust of all our peoples,” Shoukry said.

He also affirmed Egypt’s commitment to negotiations on the 6,000-megawatt dam for almost a decade in an aim to reach a fair and just agreement that guarantees that Addis Ababa achieves its developmental objectives while minimizing effects of the dam on Egypt and Sudan.

Egypt’s 100 million-plus population relies on the River Nile for more than 95 percent of its renewable water resources. It fears the massive $4.8 billion hydropower near-complete project will significantly diminish its crucial water supply, which is already below scarcity level.

According to an independent study on the GERD by Deltares, published by the Egyptian Embassy in the US, a decrease of only 1 billion cubic metres of water could eliminate more than 1 million jobs and $1.8 billion in economic production annually in all economic sectors in Egypt.

Urbanisation would skyrocket due to rural depopulation, which would lead to an increase in unemployment, crime rates and transnational migration, causing serious ramifications in the Middle East and Europe.

“A loss of 1 billion cubic meters of Nile water would cost Egypt 130,000 hectares of lost cultivated land, $430 million of lost agricultural production, and $150 million increase in food imports,” the embassy said, quoting the Deltares study.

Such figures come amid Ethiopia’s continuous refusal during the decade-long negotiations to provide any socio-economic and environmental impact studies of the dam on downstream countries – a requirement under international law. Moreover, the embassy said, Ethiopia has blocked every attempt to conduct such studies, whether through an impartial party, or jointly with its co-riparians.

On the other hand, in its three-page letter to the UNSC last June, Sudan said the GERD "will completely change the flow regime of the Blue Nile" by flattening its hydrograph, and with its gigantic size it "poses substantial threats to Sudan if not properly designed, constructed, filled and operated."

Even though the AU called for a binding agreement on the GERD filling and operation, Ethiopia announced that it is not seeking a binding agreement, but rather guidelines that can be modified any time at Ethiopia’s discretion.

Among such harmful impacts, Sudan fears the GERD would put the operation of its Roseires dam and the lives of Sudanese citizens – 20 million Sudanese rely on the Blue Nile – at "a very high risk" if an agreement regulating its operation and filling is not reached.

Sudan depends on its Roseires dam – whose reservoir is located only 15km away from the Ethiopian dam and is 12 times smaller than the storage capacity of the GERD's 74 billion cubic metre reservoir – to generate 280 megawatts.

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