After last month’s United Nations Security Council (UNSC) presidential statement urging Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia to resume negotiations and reach a legally binding agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) “within a reasonable time frame”, hopes grew that a date for the resumption of negotiations would be set. A month on, and nothing has happened.
Addis Ababa said last week that it is ready to resume negotiations, yet gave no indication it would compromise its earlier stances. Last month it repeatedly stated that it would soon begin operating the first two turbines of the dam, without any agreement in place.
Egypt and Sudan have made clear they are ready to resume on the outcomes of the UNSC statement and under the auspices of the African Union (AU), said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity. He added that “unless talks aim to reach a binding legal agreement on filling and operating the dam within a reasonable time frame they will be a waste of time.”
It is important, he argued, that observers attending the talks should be given space to suggest ways to bring the three countries’ positions closer given the time pressure. While GERD’s second unilateral filling was far less than originally planned, buying time before the next rainy season, he warned that unless downstream countries press all out for a breakthrough, Addis Ababa is likely to embark on a third unilateral filling of the dam’s reservoir.
Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, agrees that pressing for the resumption of AU-sponsored tripartite negotiations is now an urgent priority.
“Egypt and Sudan have to push international parties and the AU to resume negotiations and explain to the international community the negative repercussions of more unilateral actions,” he says.
Sharaki thinks the construction work needed for a third filling could start as early as next month if Ethiopia opens the drainage gates to dry the area around the dam’s middle wall, meaning that GERD will be ready, by the next rainy season, to store the 10.5 bcm of water it failed to hold this year.
Cairo has been using the delay in resuming the tripartite talks to highlight the issues involved at every available regional and international fore, and is actively encouraging the international community to intervene.
During President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s meeting with his Hungarian counterpart János Áder last week, Al-Sisi reaffirmed Egypt’s commitment to negotiations, and underlined the importance of international players adopting a more influential role in solving the dispute.
Addis Ababa’s repeated insistence that GERD will not affect the flow of water to Egypt needs to be translated into a legally-binding agreement, Al-Sisi said at a press conference held with Áder in Budapest.
During a phone call with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson last weekend, President Al-Sisi further stressed the need for the international community to play a more hands-on role in resolving the dispute.
During a meeting early last month with a delegation of international organisations working on water resource management, headed by the UN Coordinator in Egypt, Elena Panova, Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel-Ati reiterated Egypt’s willingness to continue with talks to find a solution that maintains the interests of all the involved parties. The meeting was attended by representatives of the EU, and diplomats from the embassies of the US, UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland.
Abdel-Ati used a press conference last week to once again underline that Egypt is seeking a just, legal, and binding agreement.
Meanwhile, Addis Ababa has said that it is ready for talks, but conspicuously failed to mention the UNSC statement calling for a legally binding agreement in a reasonable time frame.
Last week, Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Dina Mufti told the media Ethiopia was ready to resume talks and that the Democratic Republic of Congo, current chair of the AU, would soon be contacting Khartoum and Cairo to fix a date.
The dam issue imposed itself during the 76th UN General Assembly in New York. UN Secretary-General António Guterres stressed in his meeting with Ethiopian Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen the importance of the three countries resuming negotiations, while Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri raised the subject during meetings on the sidelines of the UNGA.
The last round of tripartite talks, held in Kinshasa in April, concluded without an agreement on rules to fill and operate the dam. Ethiopia has repeatedly refused to sign such a deal, and says it wants nothing more binding than guidelines that can be modified at any time.
In July, Addis Ababa started the second filling of the dam despite Egypt’s and Khartoum’s insistence the filling should be contingent on an agreement being reached.
Egypt fears that GERD will reduce the amount of Nile water flowing to Egypt,while Sudan is concerned about the impact of GERD on its own dams.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly