In his meeting with Kenyan counterpart Alfred Mutua last week, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri vowed that Egypt would defend its people’s interests if Addis Ababa fails to ensure that no serious harm is caused to downstream countries because of the building and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
In a press conference after the meeting, Egypt’s top diplomat pointed out that Cairo has always been after a legally binding agreement on the filling and operations of the GERD that will safeguard the interests of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia.
He questioned whether Ethiopia has the political will to reach that agreement at a time when it is going ahead with plans to build the dam and unilaterally carry out the fourth phase of its filling this summer.
Ethiopia is preparing for the fourth water-storage work next August, said Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University.
Ethiopia is expected to raise the height of the dam by 20 metres to store about 13 billion cubic metres (bcm) of water, Sharaki explained, adding that this brings the total amount of water stored in the four fillings to around 30 bcm.
The first filling of the GERD took place in 2020 with 4.9 bcm. The second was carried out the following year with around three bcm. The third took place in July last year and was around nine bcm, taking the total in the dam reservoir to 17 bcm.
Sharaki described the Ethiopian attitude as being another violation of international agreements, and this was reflected in Shoukri’s statements before an Arab League session last week.
Shoukri’s remarks during his meeting with Mutua coincided with a statement issued by the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying that Addis Ababa would continue building the GERD despite continuing protest from Egypt.
It added that any dispute must be settled through the African Union (AU) rather than through non-African bodies, namely the UN Security Council or the Arab League, because “the Nile is an African river”.
The Ethiopian statement appeared to be in response to Shoukri’s call on the Arab countries to put pressure on Ethiopia to abandon “uncooperative” and “unilateral” practices and to accept compromises reached at the negotiating table.
These calls came during the meeting of the Arab League Council in Cairo last week. During that meeting, the council approved a decision to place the GERD as a permanent topic on its agenda.
Shoukri described the decision as showing that there is a joint Arab vision in this regard and that Ethiopia must take this into consideration.
Although that decision, said one diplomat who talked on condition of anonymity, underlines the Arab commitment to protecting the rights of Egypt and Sudan, as Shoukri said, it does not guarantee a change in Addis Ababa’s position.
Shoukri’s efforts come as part of Egypt’s diplomatic campaign to highlight the importance of resolving the GERD issue.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has repeatedly stated Egypt’s position regarding the GERD in various international meetings. Last month, he highlighted the importance of finding a solution to the GERD issue during a joint press conference with his Uzbek counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoyev at the end of his visit to Cairo.
Al-Sisi underlined the importance of urging Addis Ababa to sign a legally binding deal on the rules for filling and operating the dam.
Over the past three years, Ethiopia has implemented three phases of filling the dam, and it started the partial operation of its first turbine last year despite objections by Egypt and Sudan over fears for their people’s interests.
Sudan and Egypt fear that the massive dam, Africa’s largest, could diminish their share of the Nile’s water. The two downstream countries have repeatedly called on Addis Ababa to sign a binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam that secures their water rights and protects their people’s interests.
In 2015, the three countries signed a Declaration of Principles on the GERD in Khartoum that was built around 10 principles, which included prioritising cooperation, agreeing not to cause significant harm, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and equitable and reasonable utilisation, among other things.
The agreement also called for Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan to agree on guidelines and rules on the first filling of the GERD.
Multiple rounds of talks between the three governments have failed to produce an agreement over the filling and operation of the dam.
Egypt and Sudan have taken the issue to the UN Security Council twice. Cairo and Khartoum managed in 2021 to pass a resolution in the Council, with the help of Tunisia, the only Arab non-elected member, calling on Ethiopia to cease its unilateral activities on the GERD and to restart talks under the auspices of the AU to reach a legally binding agreement.
While there are no signs that the parties will reach that agreement soon, Sharaki pointed to two possible scenarios: the first is to urge the AU, chaired by the Comoros Islands, to resume negotiations as soon as possible in order to reach an agreement before the start of the fourth filling of the dam.
The second is taking the issue to the Security Council for the third time. “However, this time Egypt and Sudan will not focus on the water problem but on the danger that the dam represents to security and peace, especially for the 20 million Sudanese living on the banks of the Blue Nile, who could be exposed to floods in the event of the collapse of the dam,” he said.
“After all, Addis Ababa has raised the dam’s reservoir from 11.1 bcm, as in the original US design, to 74 bcm, and it has failed to conduct studies on the safety of the dam, as stated in the 2015 Declaration of Principles.”
However, the diplomat seemed to pin more hope on diplomacy than on the Security Council route. “Egypt needs to stick to its approach of raising the GERD issue and highlighting its dangers in all international forums,” he said.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly