Still at loggerheads
Doaa El-Bey, Tuesday 14 Jul 2020
Another round of negotiations over GERD ends without a breakthrough due to Ethiopian intransigence

Egypt said on Monday that the talks brokered by the African Union (AU) between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) had ended without an agreement.

At the end of 10 days of negotiations differences between Ethiopia and Egypt and Sudan on the legal status of the agreement, a mechanism for dispute settlement, rules regulating the filling and operation of the GERD during drought, prolonged drought, and dry years, and the relationship between any GERD agreement and earlier water agreements signed by the Nile Basin countries, remained unresolved.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri described the failure of talks as “regrettable”, adding that Egypt had no wish to resort once again to the UN Security Council.

Helmi Shaarawi, a leading expert on Africa, had expected the mediation of the AU, the EU and the US “to place pressure on Addis Ababa to compromise, especially given both Egypt and Sudan share the same position”.

The two downstream countries have repeatedly called on Ethiopia not to take any unilateral action over the filling of the dam.

Rakha Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, was less surprised by the results of the AU-brokered talks.

“When Ethiopia decided to take part in the talks, it said it was possible to reach an agreement within two weeks, yet on the same day it stated that the initial filling of the dam would start within two weeks. It was obvious that Ethiopia made no link between an agreement and the filling.”

Addis Ababa, says Hassan, remains unwilling to commit to any rules governing the filling or operation of the dam during periods of drought, prolonged drought and dry years, let alone a link between any agreement that might emerge and previously signed agreements.

A diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity agreed with Hassan. “Ethiopia has consistently refused to commit to a legally-binding agreement, and endlessly seeks to defer contentious issues to a later stage. Egypt clearly stated this week that it will not accept a partial deal that fails to address major differences.”

The AU-brokered video talks were initiated on 3 July and attended by observers representing the EU, the US, the AU Commission, South Africa, as well as AU legal and technical experts.On the eighth day of negotiations Ethiopia proposed that a decision on contentious points in the talks be postponed until an accord is signed and a technical committee formed to follow up on the implementation of the accord’s provisions. Egypt refused the suggestion, saying “the points of disagreement that touch upon Egyptian concerns in key technical issues cannot be deferred to the technical committee after the signing of an agreement”.

The Ministry of Irrigation revealed that Egypt had proposed several draft agreements on procedures to deal with the annual operation of the dam, especially during periods of extended drought, and on the refilling of the reservoir.

Hassan says it is now likely that Ethiopia will come up with more proposals.

“Its approach has always been to procrastinate and delay any commitment. It is not the first time that Addis Ababa has come up with a proposal that aims to defer agreement on contentious issues to a later stage,” he said.

In April Addis Ababa prepared a document on the guidelines and rules for the initial filling and the annual operation of the dam and presented it to Egypt and Sudan. Cairo and Khartoum rejected the Ethiopian proposal on the grounds that it backtracked on all previous negotiations and understandings between the three countries, and provided guidelines for the first filling that Ethiopia could amend at any time.

A previous round of unsuccessful negotiations brokered by Khartoum was held last month. It ground to a halt due to Ethiopia’s refusal to accept that any agreement be legally binding.

Last week Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offered to help resolve outstanding points of dispute in the dam talks during a video conference with his counterparts from Egypt, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It is not the first time that Russia has offered to mediate. On the sidelines of the Sochi summit in October, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow was ready to help in bridging the differences between Egypt and Ethiopia.

As the clock runs down — Ethiopia has said repeatedly that it will start the initial filling in the second half of July — the anonymous diplomat believes “the intervention of the UNSC, as the international body that is responsible for keeping international peace and stability, is now needed rather than the mediation of a state, however strong and influential.”

Last month Egypt sent a letter to the UNSC appealing to the international body to intervene. Sudan followed with its own letter stating that the dam could “cause substantial risks” to Khartoum, endanger the lives of millions of people living downstream, and warning that filling the dam without reaching a tripartite agreement would compromise the safety of the Sudanese Roseires Dam.

The Security Council called on the three countries to refrain from taking any unilateral action.

In November the US and the World Bank joined forces in an attempt to broker a deal on the dam. After four months of talks the three countries reached an agreement, but Ethiopia failed to turn up to the signing ceremony in February.

Egypt relies on the Nile water for more than 90 per cent of its water and is concerned that the filling of the dam’s reservoir will affect the amount of water reaching the country. Construction of the dam began in May 2011 and ismore than 70 per cent complete.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition ofAl-Ahram Weekly