Cairo is reviewing its options as the latest round of negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) ended in deadlock.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said on Monday that regrettably the African Union (AU)-brokered talks between Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum had ended without an agreement being reached.
In phone interview with several satellite channels on Monday Shoukri said Egypt had engaged in the talks in good faith. “Cairo has shown much flexibility and understanding over GERD issues and Ethiopian needs, but once again the round ends with no agreement,” he said.
“We were looking forward to a change in some of Ethiopia’s positions, but they remained the same and we didn’t reach consensus. We don’t wish to return once again to the United Nations Security Council [UNSC], but if something threatens regional and international peace, the responsibility falls on the Security Council to take action to prevent it.”
On Tuesday news agencies showed satellite imagery suggesting the reservoir behind GERD was beginning to fill, though the phenomenon could be due to seasonal rains.
On Monday, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia presented the AU with their assessments of the outcome of the talks that had unfolded over more than a week.
Held via video-conference, and with the presence of the AU, US and EU as monitors and a panel of experts sitting in online, the 10 sessions of talks failed to resolve outstanding points of disagreement. The Ministry of Irrigation’s almost daily statements on the progress of the negotiations were dotted with words like hiccups, difficulties and disagreements, and phrases such as Ethiopian intransigence.
Off record, members of the negotiating team were even more pessimistic. And as one negotiator said on 11 July, the last day of talks, “we tried everything and we were open to reasonable compromises but things are not moving.”
According to the same source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the ball is now in the court of the AU, which sponsored the talks and must now try to produce a text in the next week or so that can be approved by the three countries.
No one is holding their breath given the statements coming out of Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa.
In Addis Ababa, the line increasingly being adopted is that the first filling, of a little under five billion m3, does not require an agreement given that it is part of the construction and testing of the turbines. Cairo and Khartoum disagree.
While neither Egypt nor Sudan have fully closed the door on the possibility of an AU-drafted compromise, the Egyptian negotiator said should one emerge, it will be little short of a miracle.
“Ethiopia is still not coming round on some very crucial points,” he said, including filling in periods of drought, mitigation measures, a dispute settlement mechanism and the necessity for the agreement to be legally binding.
Egypt, according to official statements, is unwilling to put such crucial matters on hold for an interim agreement on the first filling.
Sudan has been insisting on some, but not all, the points that Egypt is stressing: for Sudan GERD poses problems that relate to the details of water management, rather than the existential issue of access to water.
Egypt, which already suffers water poverty, depends on the Nile for close to 98 per cent of its water. The Blue Nile, on which GERD is being built, is the source of 85 per cent of the 55 billion m3 of Nile water Egypt receives.
On Monday, the Ethiopian press reported that early filling measures began on 8 July, though this was denied by Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew.
Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister of Ethiopia, last week told his country’s parliament that the filling will begin this month and diplomats who follow internal politics in Ethiopia say it would be “political suicide” for Ahmed to retreat from this position.
Cairo has no illusions. It is preparing for a first filling and considering a set of reactions that according to government officials includes recalling its ambassador to Addis Ababa and requesting a second UNSC session on the issue.
Ahead of the first session Egypt requested, Cairo presented the UNSC with a draft resolution seeking a binding commitment that the parties to the dispute refrain from taking any unilateral steps.
The draft did not go far. In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly last week, Maged Abdel-Fattah, the permanent representative of the Arab League to the UNSC, questioned the political appetite of the UNSC to get involved in disputes over transboundary rivers.
Still, Abdel-Fattah said that if the AU-sponsored talks failed to strike a deal then the matter would have to be referred again to the UNSC.
Egypt maintains that if GERD is filled and operated without taking into consideration Egypt’s crucial water concerns the dam would constitute a direct threat to peace and security in east Africa.
Cairo, according to informed officials, is ready to present the UNSC with a new draft resolution requesting a condemnation of Ethiopia’s unilateral move.
Officials who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity say Cairo is determined to push forward on the political and diplomatic fronts.
In an earlier phase of the dispute over GERD, which has been unfolding for over a decade, Egypt secured a suspension of international support and assistance for the dam on the grounds no mega project on a transboundary river should be allowed without prior notice and prior agreement.
The 2015 Declaration of Principles, signed by the leaders of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, furnished Egyptian consent for the construction of GERD, but should Ethiopia go ahead with a unilateral filling then Egypt will once again demand suspension of support for the project.
According to officials in Cairo, Egypt is fully aware that should it fail to secure a fair agreement before the first filling, it will need to continue “the uphill political battle” to secure such an agreement before Addis Ababa moves on to the second filling of over 18 billion m3.
Unfortunately, as one Cairo-based Western diplomat put it, “the difference is at heart about the shares: Ethiopia is not willing to let Egypt keep its annual 55 billion m3 and Egypt is not willing to let go of this share, and it is hard to see how this will change after the first filling.”
By next year things might be a lot more complicated than they are today, not just because relations between Egypt and Ethiopia will have taken a turn for the worse, but also because Egypt could well have concluded that the AU is not a fair broker.
With neither the UNSC nor the AU coming forward to help fix a deal, Egypt might have to resort to the US again. But next year will see either the second presidency of Donald Trump, who maintains very good relations with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, or a new administration under Joe Biden. Should the latter come to pass Biden is unlikely to want to get involved in a seemingly intractable dispute during his first year in the White House.
In his daily column in the independent daily Al-Shorouk, Editor-in-Chief Emad Hussein quoted a former high ranking and well-informed official as saying that if Ethiopia was to deny Egypt sufficient water, then Egypt could work on denying Ethiopia the electricity that it hopes GERD will generate. Hussein quoted his source as saying that Egypt would not target GERD but could well target the electricity stations connected to the dam.
In his statement to the UNSC session on the dam, Foreign Minister Shoukri said that if it is filled and operated without an agreement GERD would constitute an existential threat to Egypt.
“While our position is that the only viable solution is to reach a fair and balanced agreement, Egypt will uphold and protect the vital interests of its people. Survival is not a question of choice,” Shoukri told the UNSC.
As well as lobbying for international support should there be no deal sometime this month, Egypt will also reach out to Nile Basin countries.
“This is crucial, Egypt has been reaching out to Africa for some time now but there is a lot more work to be done, especially when it comes to the countries of the Nile Basin. We need to pursue a multilayered developmental cooperation scheme,” says Amany Al-Tawil, expert on East Africa at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
Cairo officials say several Nile Basin countries are already contemplating irrigation and hydrological projects on the White Nile.
“The sooner we reach out to these countries to help them with these projects and make sure that their interests are served without causing significant harm to us the better it is for everyone,” says Al-Tawil.
Sooner or later, says Al-Tawil, the dispute over GERD will have to be resolved. “It could happen in a matter of weeks if there is sufficient pressure put on Abiy Ahmed, or it may take longer. The question is about the future — to make sure that this dispute does not repeat itself with Ethiopia or any other riparian state.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly