CAIRO – 4 May 2021: In 2019, the United States of America brokered a deal between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan aiming to break the deadlock in negotiations on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Per an invitation sent by the United States then, the three countries resumed their talks. Meetings were held with foreign and water ministers of Egypt and upper stream countries, in the presence of United States Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin and a representative from the World Bank.
The negotiations were praised internationally, and an initial agreement, which Egypt has signed, was announced to be reached then. However, Ethiopia refused to attend the last round of negotiations or to sign the deal.
"Ethiopia as the owner of the GERD will commence the first filling of the GERD in parallel with the construction of the Dam in accordance with the principles of equitable and reasonable utilization and the causing of no significant harm as provided for under the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles (DoP)," Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry said.
It was added that Addis Ababa "does not accept that the negotiations’ outcome on the Guidelines and Rules of the First Filling and Annual Operation of the GERD (Guidelines and Rules) is completed. The “resulting text” reportedly initialed by Egypt in Washington D.C. “is not the outcome of the negotiation or the technical and legal discussion of the three countries."
Since this announcement that was issued in February 2020, the negotiations stalled once again until they were resumed in 2020 with support from the African Union. In November 2020, statements revealed that officials couldn’t agree on the role of experts in negotiation along with the time limit of the negotiation process, therefore, another round of talks collapsed.
Continued rejection from the Ethiopian side to all proposals, raised questions on maneuvering in negotiations with the aim of not signing a legally-binding deal.
“Ethiopia cannot sign an agreement that determines the passage of specific quotas of water from the Dam to the downstream countries.” Dina Mufti, Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in a press conference remarks. He added that his country refuses to sign any agreement that could hinder establishing any other projects related to Blue Nile in the future.
Kinshasa negotiation held earlier in April was the final move between the three countries described by Egypt's Foreign Ministry as a “last chance” to reach a binding agreement regarding the filling and operation of Renaissance Dam.
The talks hosted in Congo shattered hopes to reach a deal. The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, "Ethiopia rejected in the meeting all proposals and alternatives brought forward by Egypt and supported by Sudan to develop the negotiation process in a way that empowers the [three] states."
Ethiopia also rejected the proposal issued by Sudan suggesting the formation of an international quartet to broker the negotiations. This quartet was suggested to include the African Union, the European Union, the United States, and the United Nations.
Sudan issued a statement saying that “Ethiopia’s obstinacy on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which became obvious, pushes Khartoum to think of all possible options to protect the country’s security in accordance with international laws.”
Since then, Egypt and Sudan intensified their international calls for mediations aiming to solve the stalled situation, especially with Ethiopia’s intentions to proceed with the dam’s second filling expected next July according to Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed.
Greeting his people on Easter, Ahmed said, “The Renaissance Dam, which has been long-awaited, is nearing completion, and we look forward to the second filling next July.”
Ahmed talked about other countries describing them as “his county’s competitors, who are trying to impede Addis Ababa from its revival.”
Second filling risks
“Sudan has annual storage water dams; it stores water to be used only during one year, on contrary to Egypt’s high dam which can store water for several years. Khartoum will bear the highest damage if Ethiopia proceeds with the second filling,” Egypt’s former Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Hossam Moghazy told Egypt Today.
Explaining the damage that will affect the downstream countries [Egypt and Sudan] if Addis Ababa conducts the second filling, estimated at 13 billion cubic meters of water, Moghazy said a second filling means shortage of water, and thus Sudan will receive the hardest hit.
According to Moghazy, Egypt can handle the second filling with less damage; however, several procedures and factors must be taken in consideration to prevent any major impact, including lining canals, reducing rice cultivation areas and the reuse of wastewater. All these measures increase the country's ability to absorb the second filling’s threats and damages.
He also noted that had it not been for Aswan High Dam, the impact would have been greater.
On the other hand, Professor of Geology and Hydrology at Cairo University, Abbas Sharaqi said that the Egyptian citizen may not feel the water shortage crisis directly; however, this might be expected to change. “Egypt tried to prepare for this moment since the beginning of the negotiations,” Sharaqi said.
He explained that the water coming from Ethiopia after the filling will cause a great gap between water needs and resources, but due to past preparations, the difference will be compensated through other means, in addition to the previously stored water at the Aswan dam, but this will cost the country a lot of money.
“Thirteen billion cubic meters of water can plant 3 million acres of rice, at a cost of $10 million. This is also a loss for Egypt,” Sharaqi stressed.
Moreover, not being able to reach an agreement on the filling and operation of GERD at this point causes a state of “extreme confusion for Egypt and Sudan”. According to Sharaqi, both countries cannot set up the best plan for water storge or use because they don’t know for sure what is going to happen.
This however, not the only threat for the completion of the Renaissance Dam. Other fears of political effects have been raised.
“If Ethiopia manages to conduct other fillings without any binding agreements with the other countries, this could pave the way for establishing other dams or projects to use the water in the future… This could be a life-long threat to Egypt’,” Sayed Fleifel, former chairman of the African Affairs Committee in the House of Representative, told Egypt Today.
Fleifel further explained that establishing dams to store water without reaching an agreement is a political pressure card. “Providing water or preventing it from the people is a weapon in fact,” Fleifel added.
“Ethiopia did this before in Kenya after establishing several dams on Omo River and in Somalia after establishing three dams on Shebelle River,” Fleifel revealed, wondering “if we know Ethiopia did the same to its neighbors, why won’t it repeat this behavior with Egypt and Sudan?”
Ethiopia, which is expecting General elections in June, is suffering from several internal conflicts especially in Tigray and Benishangul-Gumuz, where GERD is being established. According to Sharaqi, Ethiopia’s current government is just trying to use the GERD project to win the elections. “The government is only trying to correct its situation though promoting GERD as its national project for Addis Ababa development,” Sharaqi clarified.
What are the alternative options?
Kinshasa talks held on April 4-5 did not achieve any progress or lead to an agreement on re-launching negotiations on the filling and operation of GERD. These were the last official talks between all three countries brokered by the African Union.
Egypt and Sudan said that Ethiopia rejected in the meeting all proposals and alternatives brought forward by Egypt and supported by Sudan to develop the negotiation process in a way that empowers the [three] states and parties taking part in the negotiations.
Ethiopia also rejected an Egyptian proposal put forward in the conclusion session of the ministerial meeting and supported by Sudan aiming for the resumption of negotiations, chaired by the Congolese president and attended by observers in accordance to the current negotiation mechanism.
In March 2021, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi stated, “No one can take a drop of water from Egypt... If it happens, there will be inconceivable instability in the region that no one could imagine. This is not a threat.”
Sudan, as well has warned more than once of filling the GERD before reaching a legal binding agreement.
Ethiopia, on the other side affirms that the second filling will be conducted, despite all negotiations and mediations.
Reaching this deadlock seems to limit the three countries’ options. However, Ambassador Mona Omar, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Assistant for African Affairs said that alternative options have already began.
She referred to the steps taken by Egypt and Sudan to communicate with the international community to explain GERD threats, along with reaching out for Security Council.
Omar told Egypt Today that this could lead to imposing sanctions on Ethiopia as a country that violates international conventions and does not care about human rights principles by purposely deploring Egypt’s and Sudan’s rights in water and accordingly, their right in life.
A Sudanese proposal for forming a quartet committee that includes the European Union, the United Nations, the United States and the African Union to mediate the GERD talks has been refused repetitively by Ethiopia. “They have a very weak legal stance,” Omar said, adding that Ethiopia is not capable of facing the international mediation because their obstinacy will be evident to everyone.
She explained that the only solution for the current situation is for Ethiopia to show more flexibility in negotiations.
Sharaqi, however, believes that Addis Ababa refuses any international mediation because they don’t want to reach an agreement, or a solution. “They are just gaining more time until conducting the second felling”
Some raised concerns on considering “military moves” as an option to resolve the complicated situation, and despite that “all options are on table,” as President Sisi said in April. No official or direct statements have been issued on this regard, despite the Sudanese Water Minster’s April Tweet that claimed this option “is not negotiable”.
Does the U.S. new administration have the key to negotiations?
The United States’ new administration just completed its first 100 days in office. They had a lot on their plate, including the Coronavirus pandemic, according to Omar. Internal affairs were a priority for the new administration, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Assistant explained.
She added that even 2019’s negotiations, brokered by the former administration, failed at the last minute when Ethiopia refused to attend the last meeting and sign the agreement.
Former Water Resources and Irrigation Hossam Moghazy, on contrary, saw that “the U.S. could push to resolve the issue and go back to the negotiations table.”
He explained that naming U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa on April 23 indicates an American intention to defuse tension in Africa caused over the GERD and to bring all related parties together to reach an agreement. Naming Ambassador Jeff Feltman as the U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa is one of the most recent moves taken by the new administration on its foreign affairs policies.
In statements to Egypt Today, the White House National Security Council (NSC) said, “The United States continues to support collaborative and constructive efforts by Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan to resolve their disagreement on the (GERD). NSC added, “Moving forward, we will encourage a resumption of productive dialogue.”
“For us to help achieve constructive outcomes and de-escalate tensions in the region, we work to ensure a balanced approach toward issues related to the GERD,” NSC said in its statement replying to Egypt Today’s questions.
However, no further details were mentioned on any mediation between the three countries during the coming period.
Ethiopia conducted its first filling in July 2020 with 5 billion cubic meters. The total capacity of the reservoir is 74 billion cubic meters to be filled over several years [the years number is still one of the disagreements between the three countries].
Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are at loggerheads over the $4-billion dam; Cairo voiced concern over its water share [55.5 billion cubic meters] after Ethiopia started building the dam on the Blue Nile in May 2011.
In 2015, the three countries signed the Declaration of Principles, per which the downstream countries [Egypt and Sudan] should not be negatively affected by the construction of the dam.