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GERD: Intransigence or reason

Ethiopia’s response to the mounting concerns of downstream states over their water quotas will directly impact regional security, writes Abdel-Mohsen Salama

Abdel-Mohsen Salama, Tuesday 15 Oct 2019

As this year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, it would be fitting for Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to work towards achieving greater stability across the African continent. A good place to start would be for Addis Ababa to commit to international treaties on transnational waterways and end its procrastination in negotiations intended to resolve differences over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

The Declaration of Principles, signed by Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, commits the three countries to refraining to take any action that may harm the others. It requires Ethiopia to recognise the water needs of downstream states, and to respect international laws within a framework of cooperation and good faith.

Unfortunately, following the signing of the Declaration of Principles, Addis Ababa’s modus operandi has been one of delay. The work of the committees the declaration established to ensure its commitments were met has been consistently hampered with the result that no concrete, practical steps to resolve outstanding differences over the dam have been taken.

When Ahmed took over as Ethiopia’s prime minister, hopes grew that the pattern of stalling that had dogged the talks was over. He made peace with Eritrea over the two countries’ seemingly intractable border dispute. Soon after taking office he visited Egypt, where he said Ethiopia was not only keen to preserve Egypt’s water quota, but recognised the existing quota was insufficient to meet the needs of Egypt’s population.

It was expected that Ahmed’s positive spirit and clear statements in Cairo would translate into progress in the tripartite talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Yet Addis Ababa has continued with its pattern of equivocation and procrastination, using false pretexts to stymy any progress in meetings and taking advantage of the situation in Sudan — the revolution against Omar Al-Bashir and subsequent transfer of power to the transitional authority — to try and impose a new, de facto reality on the ground.  

If Ethiopia really wanted to implement existing agreements it would have done so. The problem, after all, doesn’t lie with Egypt or Sudan but with Ethiopia’s determination to subvert international conventions on transnational rivers. It is clear, too, that despite signing the Declaration of Principles Addis Ababa has little intention of upholding Article 3 which commits the three signatories not to harm the interests of the others, “to take all appropriate measures in consultations with the affected states to eliminate or mitigate such harm and, where appropriate, to discuss compensation”.

Egypt is the victim of Ethiopia’s procrastination, its failure to abide by the declaration and its determination to ignore international law. It is now a matter of the utmost urgency that Ethiopia review the positions it has adopted and halt its attempts to engineer a fait accompli result in flagrant violation of international conventions, the tripartite Declaration of Principles and Ahmed’s own statements and promises.

Some have asserted, more out of malice than regard for the facts, that it was foolhardy of Egypt to have signed the Declaration of Principles. The opposite is true: in placing specific commitments on Ethiopia with regard to downstream countries, the declaration represented a real achievement for Cairo. Its fourth article enshrines respect for the equitable and reasonable division and use of water, an essential consideration given Egypt’s water scarcity. Egypt, as is well known, relies entirely on the Nile for its water supplies whereas Ethiopia receives 936 cubic metres of rainwater a year, which feeds 10 other rivers. 

Since the signing of the Declaration of Principles in Khartoum in 2015, negotiations have been held in many forms and under a variety of political frameworks, as Egypt worked incessantly to forge agreement over the filling and operation of GERD. Summits between the heads of the three signatory states culminated in the Tripartite Summit in Addis Ababa in February 2019. Foreign ministers, ministers of irrigation and intelligence heads have met regularly, the last gathering being in Khartoum on 4 and 5 October. Not one of these meetings has borne fruit. All have been derailed by Ethiopia’s intransigence. 

Article 10 of the Declaration of Principles stipulates that, in the event of disputes over the interpretation or implementation of the agreement occurring that cannot be settled amicably through consultation or negotiations in good faith, the parties may jointly request mediation. 

Given Addis Ababa’s foot-dragging it seems increasingly likely that international mediation will be necessary. 

I have spoken with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, who could not have been clearer on the issue. After four years of fruitless negotiations, he said, recourse to an international mediator who will respect the rights of all parties has become increasingly likely. He stressed that the role of any mediator will be to ensure the implementation of agreements already enshrined in international conventions and the Declaration of Principles in a way that guarantees Egypt’s water rights, both now and in the future, and Ethiopia’s right to generate electricity from GERD, which Addis Ababa has always said is the dam’s primary goal.

Shoukri added that Egypt has commissioned impact studies of different scenarios for the filling of the reservoir and operation of the dam from internationally known consultants and placed them at the disposal of the relevant tripartite committees only for the Ethiopian side to ignore the consultants’ findings. 

Asked what would happen if Ethiopia rejects international mediation as, in the past, it rejected Cairo’s suggestion that the World Bank become a party to the ongoing negotiations, Shoukri said Egypt would have no other option, in the face of a refusal to implement Article 10 of the Declaration of Principles, than to take its concerns to international organisations, including the African Union, the Arab League and the UN General Assembly.

“By February or March at most there must a clear and specific vision. We want to reach an agreement within this timeframe, through international mediation, the UN or via bilateral talks,” said Shoukri.

“It is essential we reach a solution that respects both the rights of downstream countries and Ethiopia’s right to pursue development.”   

The ball is now in Ethiopia’s court.


It is up to Addis Ababa to show whether it wants peace and security in Africa, or whether it wants to violate international law and the Declaration of Principles. For Ethiopia to choose the latter will have dire consequences for the stability of the region, and make a mockery of the latest Nobel Peace Prize.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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