Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said last week that the second phase of filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s (GERD) reservoir, which would involve 18.4 billion cubic metres of water, will begin during the rainy season in August 2021. The announcement came despite the fact negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over a binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam are ongoing.
The irrigation ministers of all three states met on 16 August and, after failing to resolve several contentious issues, agreed to resume talks on the disputed points on 28 August.
“This week should have been a good opportunity for the parties to bridge their differences. And an agreement is in the interests of Ethiopia since it would legalise the filling Ethiopia has already undertaken,” Abbas Sharaki, a professor of political science at Cairo University, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Without an agreement, it is difficult to see how Addis Ababa can carry on with the coming phases or begin generating electricity.”
Several technical and ministerial meetings have been held in recent days in the hope of reaching a consensus on outstanding disputes before 28 August. One legal and technical representative from each country was selected to form a sub-committee to compile proposals on the filling and operation of the dam with the aim of reaching a draft agreement that was scheduled to be presented to the irrigation ministers by 28 August.
One diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it looked increasingly as if the purpose of negotiations was simply to meet rather than progress towards an agreement.
“Now the meetings are being held under African Union (AU) sponsorship. Last year it was the US mediating between the three countries. Lately, Russia has suggested it could play the same role. But the bottom line is Ethiopia is unwilling to accept binding rules or regulations for the filling and operation of the dam,” he explained.
Mohamed Nasreddin Allam, a former minister of irrigation, believes Addis Ababa is seeking “full hegemony over the Blue Nile, and no restrictions on building more dams” and that “after years of negotiations, we are back to square one.
“In the meantime, despite all the talks, Ethiopia is moving on with its plans without any delay or changes.”
Last month Addis Ababa declared the first reservoir filling of 4.9 billion cubic metres of water complete. The announcement was widely seen as an attempt to placate Ethiopian public opinion after Addis Ababa’s repeated promises that the initial filling would start in July.
“According to the plan drawn by Ethiopia in 2011 the first phase includes operating two turbines. But neither of the turbines are installed, nor has the water reached the 18 billion cubic metres needed to operate the turbines. So, given the conditions it set itself, Addis Ababa cannot really claim the first phase is complete,” says Sharaki.
Ahmed’s declaration angered Egypt and Sudan, that saw it as a violation of the Declaration of Principles (DoP) signed in Sudan in March 2015 which state the three countries must first agree guidelines and rules on the operating process of GERD before filling the reservoir.
Earlier this month Cairo and Khartoum both sent letters to South Africa, the current chair of the AU, rejecting Ethiopia’s unilateral actions.
During a visit by Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli to Khartoum two weeks ago, both countries reiterated their determination to a comprehensive and binding agreement setting the rules for filling and operating the GERD.
Cairo and Khartoum issued a statement that stressed the importance of “avoiding any unilateral measures before reaching an agreement”, and that any agreement must include “effective mechanisms to settle disputes and coordinate efforts to ensure the safe operation of all facilities and water projects affected by the dam”.
Egyptian-Sudanese coordination on Nile water affair is not new, says Allam. “We are in favour of good Egyptian relations with neighbourly Sudan. “Unfortunately, the Sudanese position seems neither strong nor consistent enough to face down Ethiopa.”
In February, when both Egypt and Sudan’s ministers of foreign affairs headed to Washington to sign the agreement that had been mediated jointly by Washington and the World Bank, Ethiopia failed to show up. When Egypt initialed the agreement and Sudan deferred, some commentators argued that Khartoum’s signature would have increased the pressure on Ethiopia to comply.
In March, Khartoum also declined to join Egypt when it appealed for an Arab League resolution demanding Ethiopia refrain from filling the reservoir in advance of an agreement, and when Egypt requested the UN Security Council intervene in May Khartoum did not support the request.
The AU-sponsored tripartite talks launched last month and attended by the US and EU have already stalled twice. There was a hiatus between 27 July and 3 August after Ethiopia announced it had completed the first phase of filling the reservoir, followed by another halt when Sudan called for a suspension of meetings to allow for consultations after Addis Ababa’s proposed a package of non-binding guidelines for the filling.
Allam argues that Ethiopia is pushing Egypt and Sudan to abandon negotiations, leaving Addis Ababa with carte blanche to take any unilateral actions it likes.
Which is why, he says, now is the time to push for greater Security Council involvement.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.