What are Egypt’s remaining options as Ethiopia continues unilateral GERD filling?

Amr Kandil , Wednesday 10 Aug 2022

Ethiopia has recently announced it would start the third-phase filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam's (GERD) 74-billion-cubic-metre reservoir during the current flood season – which lasts until September – without Egypt and Sudan’ consent, again.

This general view shows the site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Guba, Ethiopia, on February 19, 2022. AFP


This comes though the two downstream countries have been for over a decade now adopting a diplomatic approach to persuade Ethiopia to sign a legally binding deal on the filling and operation of its GERD. 

Egypt has repeatedly protested against Ethiopia’s moves on regional and international platforms to date, most recently by sending a letter to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the third time late in July to voice its rejection of the unilateral third filling.

Egypt’s latest letter was in response to a message received from the Ethiopian side on 26 July stating that Addis Ababa would continue filling the GERD reservoir during the current flood season, according to Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ahmed Hafez.

The third filling comes after Ethiopia unilaterally completed the first and second filling of the GERD, which Addis Ababa has been building on the Blue Nile since 2011, and started earlier this year operating the first turbine of the GERD to generate power.

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry described such unilateral continued filling as “a clear violation of the 2015 Declaration of Principles and a grave violation of the applicable rules of international law” that oblige Ethiopia, as an upstream country, not to harm the rights of downstream countries.

“Egypt stresses its demand for Ethiopia to be responsible and comply with the rules of international law and the principles governing transnational watercourses,” Shoukry said in the letter.

The primal rule, Shoukry says, is avoiding significant damage, and holding Ethiopia fully responsibility for any significant harm to Egyptian interests that may result from Addis Ababa’s violation of its aforementioned obligations.

“Egypt will not tolerate any prejudice to its rights or water security or any threat to the capabilities of the Egyptian people, for whom the Nile River represents the only lifeline,” Shoukry said.

Egypt also reserves its legitimate right guaranteed in the UN Charter to take all the necessary measures to ensure and protect its national security, including against any risks that Ethiopian unilateral measures may cause in the future.

With Ethiopia continuing its unilateral acts and rejecting mediators at the now-stalled African Union-sponsored negotiations on GERD, questions have been raised on the options available for Egyptian diplomacy to change the current fait accompli and end Ethiopia’s “intransigence.”

A number of experts opined that Egypt’s diplomatic options include leaning on the UN and United Arab Emirates – the only Arab non-permanent member of the UNSC – to break the stalemate in stalled negotiations. Nevertheless, other experts have ruled out any influential role by the UNSC, especially amid the current global developments.

Egypt’s diplomatic campaign

“It seems that Ethiopia will never stop its unilateral acts on GERD despite the pressures it faces,” Attia Essawi, a long-time Africa expert at Al Ahram daily newspaper, told Ahram Online.  

“Egypt, however, will continue its diplomatic and media campaigns to expose the faulty Ethiopian stance to the international public opinion and the influential countries that share good relations with Ethiopia, including the US, Western European countries, Russia, and China,” Essawi said.

The African affairs researcher stressed that the continuation of Egypt’s diplomatic and media campaigns will highlight to the world the country’s concerns regarding the potential “horrible” repercussions on its water interests.

Some 85 percent of the Nile’s waters in Egypt flow from the Ethiopian highlands through the Blue Nile – one of the Nile’s two main tributaries, along with the White Nile.

Egypt, which is considered one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, receives around 60 bcm annually – mainly from the Blue Nile – while its needs stand at around 114 bcm, placing the over 103-million country well below the international threshold for water scarcity, at 560 cubic metres per person annually.

“This would pave the way for any international movements either through the UNSC or the US to bring all parties back to the negotiations table to reach a solution,” Essawi said.

The GERD project violates international laws regulating transboundary rivers, which stipulate that a new project on a joint watercourse should not obstruct older projects built on these waters, Essawi said, shedding light on Egyptian and Sudanese concerns regarding the negative impacts of GERD, if operated and filled in the absence of an agreement, on their dams and water share.

Continuous US role

Through the recent visit by the US Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa Ambassador Mike Hammer to each of Egypt, Ethiopia, and the UAE, the US has been trying to bring views closer regarding GERD.

Late in July, Hammer met with Egyptian officials to advance a diplomatic resolution for GERD that supports the water needs, economy, and livelihood of all the people of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, the US Department of State announced.

“I came to Cairo on my first official trip to the region to hear from our Egyptian partners on the critical issue of the GERD and to better understand Egypt’s water needs,” Hammer said.

He added the US is actively engaged in "supporting a diplomatic way forward under the African Union’s auspices that arrive at an agreement that provides for the long-term needs of every citizen along the Nile.”

The US attempts since 2019 to break the long-running stalemate between the three countries have failed despite reaching advanced levels.

Under Donald Trump’s administration, Ethiopia pulled out of a final meeting and refused to sign a binding deal that was sponsored by the US Treasury Department and the World Bank in February 2020 to resolve the dispute.

To pressure Addis Ababa to sign a binding agreement with Egypt and Sudan, the US under Trump in September of the same year cut $100 million in US foreign assistance to Ethiopia. The Joe Biden administration reversed the decision in February last year.

"I had a deal done for them and then unfortunately Ethiopia broke the deal, which they should not have done. That was a big mistake, and we have stopped payment to them of a lot of aid because they did it, and they will never see that money unless they adhere to that agreement. But they built a dam which stops water from flowing into the Nile. You can't blame Egypt for being a little bit upset, right?" Trump told then-Sudanese pmrime inister Abdalla Hamdok.

Although tensions continue to exist between the US and Ethiopia over the ongoing conflict in Tigray, the Biden administration has taken a softer line on GERD. The US has reiterated support to GERD talks under the AU and invited the three countries to the negotiations table.

However, the US has imposed sanctions on individuals and parties due to their role in the Tigray conflict ongoing since November 2020, which led to gross human rights violations.

“The US can play an influential role on GERD by using the carrot-and-stick approach, which means lifting sanctions if Ethiopia showed more flexibility with the negotiations, or else it will be subject to more sanctions,” Essawi said.

Anticipated UAE role

The UAE shares warm relations with each of Egypt and Ethiopia, which has enabled the Gulf country to play a role in the GERD talks. In May and June this year, Abu Dhabi hosted two rounds of technical talks on GERD, which have failed to yield any tangible results.

Experts believe that the UAE has the chance to play a role in the GERD talks given the big role it played in ending two decades of hostility between Ethiopia and Eritrea since conflict erupted due to a border dispute in 1998, killing tens of thousands of people.

“The UAE can also play a big role in the GERD issue in case Ethiopia extended its hands and changed its stubborn stance a little bit,” Essawi said.

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, Essawi said in previous remarks to Ahram Online.

The UAE has recently put the ball in the court of the AU, calling on the three countries to continue the GERD talks under the umbrella of the union “in good faith” and in the spirit of finding “African solutions for African problems.”

The UAE affirmed that the Declaration of Principles on the GERD agreed upon by the three countries in 2015 remains a “basic reference” for negotiations, according to a recent statement by the Permanent Mission of the UAE to the UN.

This comes despite the fact that the AU had failed to break the stalemate between the three countries on GERD over the past two years in the presence of representatives from the EU, the US, and the AU’s legal and technical experts as observers.

The AU-brokered negotiations led by South Africa – the 2020’s AU chair – from June 2020 until January 2021, and by the successor AU chair, DR Congo, until April 2021 without reaching an agreement due to Addis Ababa’s “intransigence”, according to the two downstream countries Egypt and Sudan.

Former Egyptian minister of irrigation and water resources Mohamed Nasr Allam recently said that the Emirati statement claims that the three countries have the same desire to reach an agreement on GERD despite knowing that Ethiopia obstructs all the ways leading to a deal that abides by the international law.

“The UAE is throwing the responsibility of the negotiations to the impotent AU although Ethiopia has obstructed all attempts made by Egypt, Sudan, and the AU,” Allam wrote on his Facebook page.

UNSC action unlikely

In September 2021, the 15-member Security Council has done his best regarding the GERD dispute, issuing a legally non-binding presidential statement that urges the three countries to resume AU negotiations and reach a binding solution to the crisis as soon as possible.

The AU, which is chaired by Senegal in 2022, has not brokered any negotiations for the $4.8 billion Ethiopian hydropower project since then.

Abbas Sharaky, a professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, says the council will not lift a finger after receiving the third Egyptian letter on GERD unless Cairo explains the issue from a security perspective rather than a technical one.

Sharaky thinks Ethiopia has made GERD a “water bomb” after increasing its capacity to 74 bcm instead of 11.1 bcm initially amid unstable geologic conditions.

“This water bomb can be more destructive than a nuclear bomb as it endangers the lives of more than 20 million Sudanese people living on the banks of the Blue Nile,” Sharaky wrote on his Facebook page, warning that the danger may extend to Egypt.

According to Sharaky, Ethiopia has already embarked on the third filling phase with a capacity of 5.5 bcm until 5 August. This raises the volume of water stored at the dam's reservoir to 13.5 bcm, he added.

The unilateral implementation of three consecutive filling phases for GERD and the operation of a turbines increase tensions in the region and can inevitably threaten security and peace in the region, Sharaky warned.

Sharaky said Egypt’s resorting to the UNSC for the third time despite the UN body’s ditching of the GERD issue last year and affirming that it is not entrusted with water issues indicates that the mega dam threatens regional security and peace.

On the other hand, Essawi believes that the UNSC will not take any action on GERD except at least its five permanent members, which include Russia, China, and the US, reached consensus over the issue, which is highly unlikely in light of the major differences between them.

“The UNSC is not expected to take any action in the near future unless a water war takes place,” Essawi said.

He added that it is also unlikely that the UNSC will authorise Egypt to use armed force against the dam especially amid the current global circumstances.

In addition, some permanent UNSC members, including Russia, have huge investment and security interests in Ethiopia and will not allow the UNSC to act under Chapter 7, Essawi stressed.

Although the AU-sponsored talks may resume over the coming months, as per the request of the three countries, a solution to the dispute seems out of sight, Essawi said.

In order to end the stalemate, Ethiopia has to abandon its rejection of a binding deal on GERD and the US and other influential countries, including the UAE, have to put foot, he noted.

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