Ethiopia has started operating the first two turbines of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), built on the Blue Nile, without prior coordination with either Sudan or Egypt.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that the two turbines were in operation on Sunday, adding that they would alleviate the country’s energy shortages and that Ethiopia would soon be in a position to export clean energy to its neighbours, and possibly to Europe should the west help build further dams.
Hours after Ahmed’s announcement, the Foreign Ministry in Cairo said the unilateral move, like the unilateral fillings of the GERD reservoir during the last two summers, placed Ethiopia in violation of the 2015 Declaration of Principles. Similarly, Sudan said it considered the move a “fundamental breach” of Ethiopia’s international legal commitments.
Both Khartoum and Cairo say the Declaration of Principles, signed by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, the now ousted Sudanese president Omar Bashir, and late Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn in Khartoum in March 2015, stipulate that no action on the operation or filling of the dam can be taken without first securing a legally binding agreement with downstream countries.
Despite countless attempts at mediation, the negotiations that followed the signing of the Declaration of Principles failed to produce such an agreement.
“Technically speaking, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia should be preparing to resume negotiations to get a deal done, as stipulated by the UN Security Council statement adopted in September last year which called for a legal binding agreement within a reasonable timeframe,” said a concerned Egyptian official. Yet instead of working to resume negotiations and finalise a deal “Ethiopia opted to act unilaterally, thus courting political confrontation”.
Cairo was not blindsided by the Ethiopian move. It had been widely trailed. Nor was Egypt surprised by the timing. That Ethiopia should chose to act just as Senegalese President Macky Sall, the new chair of the African Union (AU), was getting ready to try to bring the three parties to the table, was predictable.
“When Sall was in Cairo late last month he said that he wished to see a restart to negotiations. He received Egypt’s support, despite profound skepticism over the intentions of Ethiopia,” said the official.
For Cairo, he continued, it is clear that Ethiopia “intends to keep wasting time while it is moves on with its plans without any consideration for downstream countries. Abiy Ahmed does not want a deal. He negotiated one in 2019 and when the deal was ready for signing he ordered his delegation home from Washington.”
In 2019, a deal was expected to be signed in Washington following intensive negotiations, but Ethiopia backed out at the last moment. Since then, Egypt, with the help of France and the US, twice managed to table disagreements over GERD for the attention of the UN Security Council which requested the AU to mediate. Two successive chairs of the AU, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), subsequently failed to secure a deal, despite Western support.
The new chair, Senegal, was expected to continue work on a reconciliatory document prepared by the DRC, with direct US support, and had consulted with the concerned parties. Egypt and Sudan, according to diplomatic sources, had agreed in principle to work with the document, while Ethiopia’s position remained ambiguous.
Nor has the AU been able to reach an agreement with Ethiopia on the composition of the panel of experts that is supposed to review the sharing of information on the filling and operation of GERD, and develop a conflict resolution mechanism. Ethiopia has similarly stonewalled over allowing the EU and US observers to intervene to facilitate negotiations.
“Ethiopia is playing a risky game, continuing to shrug off the concerns of Egypt and Sudan,” said the Egyptian official.
Abiy Ahmed, he continued, is banking on Sudan being too immersed in political turmoil to worry about picking up GERD negotiations ahead of the next rainy season, and on the rest of the international community being too distracted by the crisis over Russia and Ukraine.
“Clearly, for now, the world’s attention is elsewhere. But Abiy Ahmed is mistaken if he thinks Egypt will not defend its basic water rights,” said the official.
Egypt gets most of its already inadequate water supply from the Blue Nile, prompting Cairo to send “urgent messages” on the unilateral operation of GERD’s first two turbines to concerned capitals.
The core of Egypt’s message, says the official, is that by failing to pressure Ethiopia to work on reaching a fair and legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of GERD, the world is pushing the dispute into uncharted territory.
On Monday the Egyptian permanent mission to the UN handed over a letter from Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Ati to the current President of the UN Security Council, Russian Permanent Representative Vassily Nebeniza. In it Abdel-Ati reminded the Security Council that it had requested the three concerned countries should engage in constructive negotiations with a view to reaching an agreement within a reasonable time frame. Ethiopia’s inistent unilateralism, the letter added, is opposed to the cause of constructive negotiations. The letter was presented under the item of Peace and Security in Africa.
“The situation in the east of Africa is already tense, with political confrontations in Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti, and internal and cross border conflicts across the region. The absence of an agreement on GERD will serve only to exacerbate these tensions.”
While the operation of the two turbines may not cause immediate harm to Egypt or Sudan, the official added, there is no guarantee that Ethiopia will not engage in further unilateral moves that will be harmful.
“We are also deeply concerned over the safety of the dam given that Ethiopia has refused to answer questions that Egypt and Sudan have raised over its construction,” he explained.
Amany Al-Tawil, head of the African Affairs Unit at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says there is no doubt about the political message Ethiopia is sending by unilaterally operating the two turbines, and it is extremely negative.
“What Ethiopia is saying is that it is unwilling to work in good faith with downstream countries to reach an agreement.”
The situation, according to the Egyptian official, may be even worse, with prime minister Ahmed contemplating further projects on the River Nile.
“What seems clear is that a major political confrontation is looming over GERD which will only be deflected if the prime minister of Ethiopia adopts a different approach — ie, one that is not based on going in circles and wasting time,” argued the official. “Unfortunately, the chances of such a shift happening are tiny.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.