Egypt’s foreign and irrigation ministers say that although a negotiated agreement over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) remains their goal Cairo is ready for all scenarios. While their statements had a reassuring effect on public opinion, anxiety still prevails over Ethiopia’s continued intransigence.
Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen said on 20 May that a second filling of the GERD reservoir, planned in July and August, will be “conducted as scheduled” with or without an agreement. Mekonnen accused Egypt and Sudan of “attempting to exert unnecessary pressure” on Ethiopia, not least through the “internationalisation and politicisation” of technical issues concerning the dam.
In response, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri on Saturday said the Ethiopian statement “indicates intransigence, is an attempt to impose a fait accompli, and is not even accurate”.
“If there is internationalisation, then it has happened with the consent of Ethiopia and the involvement of the African Union [AU]... Moreover, Ethiopia agreed and participated willingly in the [GERD] negotiations last year in Washington,” Shoukri said in a telephone interview with MBC Masr.
While Addis Ababa argues the GERD issue is a matter of Ethiopian national sovereignty, Shoukri made it clear that “there is no sovereignty when it comes to an international river.” The foreign minister also stressed that Egypt would not accept harm caused by irresponsible behaviour, and would steadfastly defend its water rights.
Egypt’s Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel-Ati reaffirmed on Sunday in an interview with ON E channel that “we still have hopes of reaching an agreement because other solutions will be difficult, and we do not want difficult solutions.”
While Abdel-Ati reiterated that Egypt has been pursuing a policy of cooperation in the Nile Basin for more than 10 years, Ethiopia has consistently been an obstacle in this regard, Hani Raslan, an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Ahram Weekly. The minister stressed that Egypt is not a hostile country and does not seek war, but if it happens it will be the result of Ethiopian intransigence, added Raslan.
Ethiopia’s insistence on pushing things to the brink risks causing instability in the region.
“Ethiopia is trying to secure the maximum concessions from Egypt and Sudan,” says African affairs expert Attia Essawi. “It is also buying time ahead of elections scheduled for 21 June.”
Throughout the decade-long negotiations, Abdel-Ati said Egypt had proposed 15 scenarios, each one of which guaranteed that GERD would continue to generate at least 80 per cent of its electricity output even during the worst droughts, and Ethiopia rejected them all.
“Ethiopia does not want an agreement. If it did, Addis Ababa would have signed the Washington agreement last year,” the irrigation minister said.
The US and the World Bank had stepped in to sponsor GERD talks from November 2019 till February 2020 which resulted in a draft agreement. Ethiopia then skipped the signing meeting in February, citing “domestic reasons”.
In April, Irrigation Ministry Spokesman Mohamed Ghanem said Egypt was not against the filling of GERD’s 74 bcm reservoir but wanted the process to be flexible while Addis Ababa continued to insist on a fixed timetable, regardless of whether there was plenty of water or drought.
“Does Ethiopia intend to complete GERD’s second filling with 13.5 bcm in July and August by halting the flow of the Blue Nile for two months, causing the river to dry up, wreaking havoc on water and electricity supplies in Sudan and also harming Egypt,” asks Nader Noureddin, professor of agriculture and water resources at Cairo University.
“Or will it exploit the five-long flood months that last till November and divide the amount so harm on the two downstream countries is minimised?”
Shoukri says Cairo is still trying to reactivate AU-sponsored negotiations by pushing an earlier Egyptian-Sudanese proposal to upgrade the role of the AU, US and EU observers to mediators who can actively participate in the talks, facilitate negotiations, and bridge gaps.
IS AN AGREEMENT ON THE HORIZON?
Experts are divided. Some believe an agreement is still within reach, while others think Ethiopia’s stubbornness over a decade has derailed the possibility of a negotiated settlement.
In his recent tour of the region, says Essawi, US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman made proposals that aimed at a partial agreement covering only the second-year filling of GERD, in the hope that a comprehensive and binding agreement would follow.
Meanwhile, on 14 May, the US State Department issued a statement urging the resumption of AU-mediated negotiations in line with the 2015 Declaration of Principles and the outcomes of the July 2020 AU summit on GERD, saying that the US “is committed to providing political and technical support to facilitate a successful outcome”.
By including references to the 2015 Declaration of Principles and the 2020 summit, Washington was backing a comprehensive and legally binding deal before the filling, says Raslan.
With all these factors in play a shift in the Ethiopian stance “is still possible”, former minister of water resources and irrigation Mohamed Nasr Allam told the Weekly.
Raslan, however, believes any hope has faded. Given that the flood season begins at the end of June, and there are indications it could begin even earlier this year, and the failure to fix a date for any new negotiations, “there is no time left for reaching an agreement or political manoeuvring.”
Adding to the confusion is the sudden souring of Ethiopian-American relations. On Sunday, the US imposed “wide-ranging” restrictions on economic and security assistance to Ethiopia and Visa restrictions on Ethiopian and Eritrean officials accused of fuelling the six-month-old conflict in Tigray. A day later, Ethiopia denounced the US actions, saying they could prompt Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government to “reassess the bilateral relationship”.
EGYPTIAN MILITARY PRESENCE IN SUDAN
Egypt’s Armed Forces spokesperson announced that ground, air, and naval forces had arrived in Sudan on 22 May to participate in the Guardians of the Nile joint military drill, a continuation of the Nile Eagles 1 and Nile Eagles 2 exercise which took place in November 2020 and March and April 2021.
Essawi believes the timing of the exercise is intended to send a clear message to Ethiopia: that when President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said any threat to Egypt’s water share “is a red line” and there would be severe regional consequences if Egypt’s water supply was affected by GERD, he was not speaking idly.
“I say once again no one can take a drop of Egypt’s water and if it happens there will be inconceivable instability in the region,” the president had said.
Egypt’s current military presence on the ground in Sudan indicates clearly, says Essawi, that in the event of negotiations failing and the efforts of the international community floundering, then the military option remains as a last resort.
The joint exercises also underline Egypt’s support for Sudan in its territorial disputes with Ethiopia, and Cairo’s determination to halt Ethiopian infringement on Sudan’s Al-Fashqa region.
“We are entering a critical time when it will become clear whether Ethiopia will fill the dam unilaterally, causing turmoil in the region, or not,” Allam told the Weekly.
“We have reached a stage when everything is assessed and we monitor on a daily basis, if not every hour, the development of the construction of the dam,” says Shoukri.
Egypt’s 100 million-plus population relies on the world-longest River Nile for more than 95 per cent of its renewable water resources. It fears the massive $4.8 billion hydropower project will significantly diminish its water supply, which at 560 m3 per person annually is already well below the international threshold for water scarcity.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly