GERD: A never-ending headache

Doaa El-Bey , Tuesday 2 Jan 2024

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam file remains a major challenge for Egypt.

Four rounds of talks held during 2023 failed to reach an agreement on GERD / photo: AP
Four rounds of talks held during 2023 failed to reach an agreement on GERD / photo: AP


Four rounds of talks held during 2023 failed to bring progress towards a deal on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Ethiopia’s “persistent refusal” to accept any compromise was cited by Hani Sewilam, minister of water resources and irrigation, as the reason for the failure.

“Egypt reserves its right under international charters to defend its water and national security in case of any harm,” said Sewilam. He told media outlets that Addis Ababa had repeatedly rejected all the proposed technical and legal solutions and was backtracking on previous commitments so as to impose a “fait accompli” on the ground.

Nader Noureddin, professor of land and water resources at Cairo University, noted that Egypt now has sufficient justification to use all available means to halt the operation of the dam or impede it from generating electricity because it was built without agreement with the two downstream countries.

Egypt should have originally negotiated a fixed water quota — a minimum of 40 billion cubic metres (bcm) — rather than discuss ways to operate or store water in the dam, argues Noureddin. This would have spared Egypt an arduous negotiation process with Addis Ababa which is already in dispute with its neighbours Kenya, Eritrea, and Somalia.

While Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement after the failed fourth round of talks saying it remained committed to reaching a negotiated settlement, former minister of irrigation Mohamed Nasreddin Allam said negotiations were to all intents and purposes a closed chapter.

Former deputy foreign minister Mohamed Hegazi disagrees, saying negotiations are a continuous process and while “we may say that the latest round failed we cannot say that negotiations as a process have failed though we do need to stop and look at the reasons for the lack of progress which is mainly due to Ethiopian intransigence.”

It is important, says Hegazi, that Egypt remind the Ethiopian prime minister that the latest round of talks was presaged on an agreement he made with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in July.

Cairo should also update influential regional states like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, South Africa and Kenya, international players including the UK and Italy, and multinational organisations such as the AU and UN on the reasons for the failure of talks.

Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, pins few hopes on an extended negotiating process given Addis Ababa wants non-binding guidelines rather than a legally binding agreement. He argues the Egyptian government should again refer the file to the UN Security Council (UNSC) because the dam poses a threat to the national security of both Egypt and Sudan.

Egypt referred the dispute to the UNSC in 2020 and 2021. In September 2021, the Security Council issued a presidential statement calling for the resumption of negotiations led by the AU to reach a “binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD”.

Referring the issue to the UNSC again, said Hegazi, will serve to underline the challenges that Ethiopian intransigence poses to Egyptian national security.

Talks were revived last year following a meeting between President Al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on the sidelines of Sudan’s Neighbouring Countries Summit in Cairo in July during which the two leaders agreed to finalise an agreement on the filling and operation of GERD within four months.

During these four months of talks Ethiopia expressed its commitment to respecting Egypt and Sudan’s water needs. Addis Ababa, nonetheless, subsequently unilaterally stored 24 bcm of Nile water during the fourth filling of the dam.

Cairo and Khartoum have repeatedly rejected Ethiopia’s continued filling of the dam in the absence of a binding agreement on GERD’s operation. Cairo fears the process will reduce the flow of Nile water on which Egypt depends while Sudan is worried Ethiopia’s unilateral actions will endanger its own dams.

Sharaki expects that Addis Ababa will go ahead with a fifth filling this year.

“Addis Ababa has already started drying the middle passage in preparation for the construction needed to raise the dam’s height ahead of a fifth filling that will probably capture 23 bcm, enough water to irrigate all the agricultural land in the Delta and Upper Egypt,” he said.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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