Regional and international calls for Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia to reach an agreement on the operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) have intensified.
During a meeting this week between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and his Somali counterpart Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud, both leaders agreed on the dangers of pursuing unilateral action when dealing with transboundary rivers. To preserve security and stability in the region, the two presidents stressed the urgent need to reach a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of GERD.
Mahmoud’s visit coincided with the second day of a regional tour by Mike Hammer, the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa. One aim of Hammer’s visit, according to a statement issued by the US State Department, is to promote a “diplomatic resolution” to the disagreements over GERD that achieves the interests of all parties.
Former deputy foreign minister Mohamed Hegazi described the visit as a positive step.
“Recent talks in Jeddah opened the door for renewed US diplomacy and for Washington to take responsibility for bringing the parties to negotiations. President Al-Sisi’s discussions of the issue during his European tour last week gave a further push to the GERD file,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Samir Ghattas, a former MP and head of the Middle East Forum for Strategic Studies, is not pinning much hope on the visit which he says is little more than a political pleasantry following the Jeddah summit.
Hammer’s tour, which concludes on 1 August, will take in the UAE and Ethiopia as well as Egypt.
In the UAE, Hammer will discuss ways to get the negotiations back on track. Abu Dhabi has recently hosted two rounds of technical talks between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia in an attempt to revive negotiations over the dam but no progress was reported.
In the last leg of his tour Hammer will consult with the African Union (AU), under whose auspices tripartite negotiations have been held. The AU-sponsored talks between the three countries have so far failed to reach a solution.
Hammer will also review developments in the conflict between Ethiopian government forces and rebels in Tigray, including progress on the delivery of humanitarian assistance and efforts to advance peace talks.
Although the declared aim of the visit is to find a breakthrough in the GERD file, said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity, there are fears that Ethiopia’s domestic problems will capture most of the attention of the envoy.
Ethiopia is proceeding with a third filling of the GERD reservoir despite no agreement being reached.
Abbas Sharaki, a professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, explained recently that satellite pictures show that the dam’s middle passage has reached 590 metres which means that the third filling will be around five billion cubic metres (bcm), taking the amount of water stored in the dam so far to 13 bcm.
Ethiopia’s original plan was to store 18.5 bcm in the first filling in July 2020, but only 5 bcm were stored. Even less — 3 bcm — was stored in 2021, though Addis Ababa hopes to store10 bcm of water annually until the reservoir’s target of 74 bcm is reached.
Hegazi says downstream countries are not against the filling per se but want it to be regulated by a legally binding agreement. “By taking unilateral action for the third time Addis Ababa is pushing its relations with neighbouring states to a very low ebb which is why we are hearing calls from international parties, including the US and Germany, to take steps to reach an agreement.”
During their meeting in Germany last week, President Al-Sisi and the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz underlined the importance of breaking the stalemate over GERD.
Earlier this month, following a meeting with President Al-Sisi while attending the Jeddah Summit for Security and Development, US President Joe Biden reiterated Washington’s support for Egypt’s water security and its commitment to a diplomatic solution that will achieve the interests of all the parties. The Jeddah summit, which included leaders of Gulf Cooperation Council states, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and the US, issued a declaration underlining their support for Egypt’s water security.
The communiqué stressed “the need to reach an agreement on filling and operating the dam within a reasonable time, as stipulated in the presidential statement of the Security Council issued on 15 September 2021 and in accordance with international law.”
Although regional and international calls are helping to keep the issue alive, Ghattas argues that Egypt still needs to lobby for support within the AU “in order to press for resolutions that are in our interest”.
In 2021, Egypt and Sudan petitioned the UN Security Council over the dam file for the second year in a row. During a meeting last July Tunisia — the only Arab (non-permanent) member of the council — submitted a draft resolution calling on Ethiopia to negotiate in good faith and setting a timetable of six months to reach an agreement under the umbrella of the AU, though the session concluded without a vote on the draft resolution.
The Security Council did, however, issue a presidential statement two months later urging Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt to resume negotiations under the auspices of the AU and “finalise the text of a mutually acceptable agreement on filling and operating the dam within a reasonable time frame”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.