Ethiopian officials have made a number of controversial statements on Wednesday hailing the start of the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s (GERD) reservoir.
The statements were made hours after an African Union (AU) virtual summit was held on Tuesday between the leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in which outstanding points of contention over the dam were discussed.
During Tuesday's AU mini-summit, the Egyptian presidency said that the three parties agreed "to continue the negotiations to reach a binding legal agreement on the rules of filling and operating the Renaissance Dam."
The ongoing AU-sponsored talks aim to revive the deadlocked negotiations over the GERD, after the last round of negotiations, which was brokered by Khartoum, failed to produce an accord.
On 26 June, the Egyptian presidency issued a statement saying that it was agreed upon during the AU's first summit on GERD that all parties would "refrain from taking any unilateral measures, including the filling of the dam," before an agreement was reached. Sudan also echoed the same sentiment, saying the three leaders have agreed to “postpone the filling of the reservoir until an agreement is signed.”
Nevertheless, various Ethiopian officials praised on Wednesday the start of the filling of the $4.8 billion hydropower dam, which Ethiopia has initiated despite failing to reach an agreement with downstream countries Egypt and Sudan.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed congratulated Ethiopians over what he described as “the historic day of the first-year filling of the GERD.”
“I would like to congratulate all the Ethiopian people for the achievement we attained in building the dam through our collective effort,” Ahmed said in statements reported by the Ethiopian state-run news agency ENA.
He described the GERD as “the turning point for Ethiopians to shine once again and eradicate poverty and backwardness,” stressing that “we conducted the filling of the dam without causing harm to anyone.”
He added that, as promised, the filling of the dam’s reservoir has started ahead of schedule.
Egypt and Sudan have repeatedly voiced their rejection of any unilateral move by Ethiopia to start filling the dam before the completion of the GERD negotiations, which are still ongoing under the auspices of the AU.
In a phone call with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the current chairman of the AU, on Friday President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi stressed the importance of forging a comprehensive legal agreement between all parties concerning the rules for filling and operating the dam, and rejecting unilateral measures that would inflict harm upon Egypt's rights to the water of the Nile.
On Tuesday, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok reasserted in a statement following the African summit that Sudan rejects Ethiopia’s unilateral actions.
The Ethiopian prime minister’s statements come one day after he attended AU-brokered talks with Egyptian President El-Sisi and Sudanese PM Hamdok, which were hosted by South African President Ramaphosa. The meeting saw the participation of five other African heads of state as observers.
During the mini-summit, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed to prioritise reaching a binding deal on the filling and operation of the GERD, a statement from the Egyptian presidency said on Tuesday.
The Egyptian statement also highlighted El-Sisi’s appreciation for the Ramaphosa’s efforts, and stressed "the continued sincere desire by Egypt to achieve progress on the contentious issues, which are essential in any fair and balanced agreement reached on the Renaissance Dam."
Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum said that they have agreed to resume technical talks concerning some outstanding issued following the Tuesday summit between the three countries, but without revealing a date.
The AU-sponsored talks come after negotiations faltered last February during US-sponsored meetings in Washington. The US, represented by the Treasury Department, and the World Bank stepped in last year to host tripartite negotiations, which began in November and lasted till February after years-long negotiations between the three countries hit a dead end.
Following the four-month negotiations brokered by Washington, during which the three nations initially agreed on mitigation mechanisms to adjust the filling and operation of the dam during dry periods and drought, the US and the World Bank drafted a deal that was due to be signed in late February. Ethiopia, however, skipped the last round of talks.
On Wednesday, six officials and congressional aides familiar with the matter told the Foreign Policy that Trump administration "is weighing withholding some aid to Ethiopia" over a Nile dam project "if negotiations hit another impasse and the sides can’t reach a final deal".
Other Ethiopian officials also praised the start of the filling, including Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew who also congratulated achieving the first-year target.
"Previously the Nile was flowing, now it is in a lake, from which Ethiopia will obtain its desired development," Andargachew said in a tweet, adding “the Nile is now ours.”
The Ethiopian foreign minister’s statements quickly sparked controversy on Twitter, with the Arabic hashtags “the Nile” and “the Renaissance Dam” becoming top trends in Egypt.
Users also used the hashtag #nile4all_not_Ethiopian_lake in Arabic and English to express their rejection of the Ethiopian minister’s statements.
Ethiopian Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy, Sileshi Bekele said on Twitter that the filling was a “major milestone” and will allow for operating two turbines next year.
He said the talks on Tuesday between the leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan were remarkable and smooth, adding that they have “settled to resolve through continuous discussions the technical and legal issues on which no agreement has yet been reached.”
Bekele said that the issues regarding the filling process will be agreed upon soon, and a more comprehensive agreement will be reached later.
Ethiopia’s congratulatory statements come nearly a week after tensions had escalated following reports that Ethiopia had begun filling the dam’s reservoir, based on an official’s claim that was later retracted.
Ethiopian state TV had quoted Minister Bekele as saying that the country had started to fill the GERD’s reservoir. Hours later, however, the minister denied that the filling process had started.
Satellite images of the Ethiopian dam showed its swelling reservoir, and Sudan said it had recorded a decline in the water level of the Blue Nile coming from Ethiopia.
Egypt has voiced concern over Ethiopia's refusal to agree on rules regulating the filling and operation of the GERD during drought and dry years.
Cairo is also concerned about future projects on the Blue Nile, a main tributary of the Nile, and demands binding dispute settlement mechanisms, which Addis Ababa has refused to include in a deal.
Egypt, which relies on the Nile for 95 percent of its fresh water, fears the dam will significantly reduce the river’s flow, especially during the filling stages through periods of drought or dry years. Ethiopia, on the other hand, says the project is key to its development.