GERD: Ends and Beginnings

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 20 Jul 2021

Ethiopia announced the end of the second filling and Egypt is gearing up for the beginning of a new diplomatic offensive, officials say

GERD second filling
Photo posted on Monday by Ethiopian Minister of irrigation Seleshi Bekele of the completion of the second filling of the GERD. Twitter

On Monday, 19 July 2021, Ethiopia announced the completion of the second filling of the reservoir of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The announcement failed to specify the amount of water that Addis Ababa managed to withhold from the Blue Nile.

According to the original plan that Ethiopia announced, the second filling should have added extra 13.5 bcm to the around five bcm that had been withheld by the first filling that was executed last year.

However, according to government officials in Cairo from both the ministries of irrigation and foreign affairs, the information available suggests that Ethiopia had not reached nine bcm by today’s announcement.

“Our information is that they got around eight bcm, which is compatible with our assessment in view of the stage of constructions they have reached,” said a government official.

Earlier in the month, when Ethiopia announced the beginning of the second filling, this official had said that Addis Ababa was lagging behind with its construction efforts. He, like other government officials, attributed the delay to both financial and political handicaps. The government of Abiy Ahmed, they said, had failed to honour its financial commitments to the construction companies. The government has also been involved in internal political disputes, which have forced a delay as resources were consumed to finance military and security confrontations.

Hane’i Rasslan, a senior African affairs analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies said today that Ethiopia had only managed to withhold water at the level of 574 meters, rather than the anticipated 595 meters. According to Rasslan, “Abiy Ahmed may celebrate all he wants, but he knows and we know that he failed to achieve the original objective as planned,” Rasslan said.

Still, according to Egyptian and Ethiopian statements, both on and off the record, this level of water at the reservoir of the GERD is sufficient for Addis Ababa to operate the first two turbines, of over 13 total, to generate electricity. The successive Ethiopian governments have consistently promoted GERD as the country’s way to overcome an acute power shortage.

Neither of the two downstream countries of the Blue Nile, Sudan and Egypt, provided an immediate reaction to the news of the second filling’s completion. Neither countries have reported an acute drop in the Nile water level or the suspension of water facilities in either countries.

Both countries have, however, been for the past two years contesting the Ethiopian unilateralism with the construction, filling and operation of the GERD. They too have been contesting the failure of Ethiopia to show required flexibility to reach a legal agreement for the three countries overlooking the Blue Nile on the filling and operation of the GERD in a way that would not cause significant harm to the downstream countries.

Last year, Sudan complained about the “harmful” impact of the unilateral first filling that forced a stop to several of the country’s water stations. Earlier this month, in a UN Security Council meeting on the GERD dispute, the foreign ministers of Sudan and Egypt criticized Ethiopia for failing to provide the downstream countries with adequate information on the filling and potential operation to help them prepare for the possible impact on their subsequent dams and their water needs. Sudan, in particular, has complained about the impact of the sudden and un-synchronized filling on its seasonal Roseires Dam.

“We have been demanding an agreement on the cascading of dams. Ethiopia has been promising to cooperate but it never really did,” commented a Sudanese diplomatic source. He asked for his name to be withheld.

According to Sudanese and Egyptian officials the question now is what next? Ethiopian officials are already talking about scheduling the third filling. This is the case despite the fact that for the past two years they had argued that only the first and second filling are part of the construction according to their interpretation of a 2015 Declaration of Principles that they had signed with Sudan and Egypt.

Neither Sudan nor Egypt has at any point over the past two years subscribed to this interpretation. “This was never the meaning of the text nor the spirit behind it; the idea of the DOP was to reassure Ethiopia about the agreement of the downstream countries to build a hydropower dam in return for the commitment of Ethiopia to reach a full and binding legal agreement on all aspects of the construction, filling and operation of the dam,” said another Egyptian official. “Since then Ethiopia has only been going in circles and playing games,” he added.

As of today, both Egyptian and Sudanese sources say that their countries would be putting pressure on the international community to either get Ethiopia to come round to negotiate with the intention of reaching an agreement before the end of this year or by the beginning of next year or to put pressure on Ethiopia to suspend all plans for a third filling pending reaching an agreement for as long as it would take for the three countries to get an agreement.

The same officials insist that their countries have gone way beyond the extra mile to encourage Ethiopia to reach a legally binding agreement. They say that they were willing to go for an interim agreement on the second filling, but that Ethiopia had not even come round to meet the requirement for a decent second filling.

Both Egyptian and Sudanese officials say that their capitals have been very flexible and very accommodating unlike Ethiopia, which has been very rigid.

“Today marks the end of the second filling for Ethiopia, for us it marks the beginning of a new path – an intense diplomatic and political offensive to get an agreement before the end of this year or the beginning of next year,” said a third Egyptian official. “If, by spring next year, Ethiopia has not come round and the international community is not putting pressure to bare then it will be a new ball game,” he added.

Egyptian and Sudanese officials anticipate the African Union led negotiations will resume before or around the end of August. They argue that this new round when or if it happens would be very telling of the true intentions of Ethiopia.

According to Rasslan, “these talks cannot be purposeful if they are managed the way the AU-led negotiations have been for the longest time.” He added, “We cannot be expecting a deal out of the AU-led negotiations if no clear intervention is offered especially from the US.”

Sudanese officials say that they are still pushing for a formula they had proposed whereby the AU presidency, currently the DRC, would get direct technical support from the US, the EU and the UN.

In the UN Security Council session that convened earlier this month, Sudanese foreign minister Mariam Sadik Al-Mahdi pressed on the need to fix the mode of negotiations to allow for the negotiations to be purposeful. Also, earlier this month Sudanese Irrigation Minister Yasser Abbas said that his country is not willing to go back to the empty circle of negotiations.

Egyptian officials for their part said this week that they have been getting “substantial reassurances” from both the US and the EU on their willingness to be “more involved” in helping DRC to get the negotiations to lead to an agreement.

Ethiopia had during the past few months said that it would not sign any full and legally binding agreement but that it would only sign a set of guidelines and principles.

According to Rasslan, if the UN Security Council was to adopt a firm stance on basis of the draft resolution that Tunis, the current Arab non-permanent member of the council had tabled on behalf of Sudan and Egypt, then Ethiopia would have to succumb. If not, he added, then it would be up to the US to put pressure towards one of two scenarios: a two-stage agreement, that would consecutively deal with the filling and operation and then future projects or an overall agreement that would leave each of the three countries unhappy about something.

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