Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam: A last chance for diplomacy
Is the GERD turning from an opportunity for cooperation into a cause for antagonism?
by Yaseen Mohmad Abdalla
(sudantribune)—The dispute between Egypt and Sudan on the one side, and Ethiopia on the other, about filling and operating the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) seems to have reached an impasse with Ethiopia’s insistence on beginning to fill the dam in July, with or without the consent of the other parties.
On May 6, the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, wrote to the UN Security Council asking it to call on Ethiopia to return to the negotiating table and to respect its international obligations.
A few weeks earlier, on April 10, the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and the Sudanese Prime Minister, Abdallah Hamdok, received a letter from the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abi Ahmed, requesting them to agree to the first phase of filling the GERD reservoir. This would require 4.9 billion cubic meters of water in the first year, and 13.5 in the second, a total of 18.4m3 billion. Both recipients rejected the Ethiopian plan.
However, Ethiopia continued its preparations. On May 11, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abi Ahmed called a meeting of senior officials, including the chief of staff, to discuss a report on the dam’s progress. It stated that 85% of the engineering work had been completed and the total construction had reached 76%. More importantly, the report stated that preparations to start filling the dam in July had been completed.
On the following day, Ethiopia attempted to co-opt Sudan by asking it to sign a bilateral agreement agreeing to its plan. Sudan rejected the Ethiopian request in favour of a tripartite agreement that included Egypt.
On May 18, the Ethiopian website Addis Standard reported that the Ethiopian Foreign Minister, Gedu Andargachew, had sent a letter to the Security Council, in response to the Egyptian letter, saying that his country was not legally obliged to wait for Egypt’s approval before starting to fill the reservoir.
The implications for Egypt are clear: if Ethiopia fills the reservoir over a period of 10 years, Egypt will lose 14% of the Blue Nile water; but if Ethiopia decides to fill it over three years, Egypt will lose 50%.
Will Ethiopia continue with its plan or will it hold back until an agreement is reached with Egypt and Sudan? And if it does not back down from its plan, how will Egypt, which has most to lose, respond?
More than an economic benefit
According to a bilateral agreement concluded between Egypt and Sudan in 1959 regarding the 74m3 billions of water from the Nile River, which flows through each country, Egypt’s share was 55.5m3 billion, while Sudan’s was 18.5 billion. Ethiopia was not a party to the agreement, never recognized it, and was unable to do anything about it.
At the time of the agreement and over subsequent decades, Ethiopia was a backward and divided country, exhausted by widespread poverty, ignorance, injustice and wars. It also was isolated, regionally and internationally, especially under the rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was allied with the Soviet bloc during the Cold War. Sudan, which was under the rule of Jaafar Nimeiri at the time, was allied with Egypt and in a state of enmity with the Mengistu regime. Somalia was at war with Ethiopia, and the Gulf states were hostile to the Mengistu regime. The West was also against the Ethiopian regime and its policies.
However, by the time Mengistu’s successor, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced the construction of the dam in 2011, its internal situation and its regional and international relations had changed radically. It had become one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, its level of poverty was greatly reduced, and the average level of education had increased. Its internal wars had ceased, and most important of all, Ethiopia had achieved more internal unity than ever in its history. On the international level, Zenawi succeeded in building strong relations with the West, which regards him, his development projects and his role in combating terrorism with appreciation and admiration.
On March 30, 2011, Ethiopia announced that it had completed plans to build a huge hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile. According to an International Crisis Group report (March 20, 2019), it had been secretly conducting studies since 2006.
As soon as it was announced, the GERD project became a matter of national pride for Ethiopians, and millions of them bought bonds to finance it. Meles Zenawi not only aimed at obtaining economic benefits from his huge project, but he also wanted to make it a source of regional influence as his country began selling electricity to its neighbours. He also wanted his country to be seen as controlling the Nile waters, particularly after it lost its role on the Red Sea. Zenawi also used the disputes between the regimes in Sudan and Egypt over issues such as the disputed Halayeb ‘triangle’, and the attempted assassination of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995, to win the support of Sudan for the dam.
A sensitive issue
It appears that Egypt’s reading of the developments in Ethiopia made it agree to the Declaration of Principles on the GERD project which was signed in Khartoum on March 23, 2015. This was a major shift in Egypt’s stance with regard to what it called its historical rights, and it ushered at the beginning of a new era of cooperation between the three countries. However, it soon became clear that the technical details of the dam were complicated as the negotiators of the three countries failed to resolve their differences during successive rounds of talks.
When the three countries failed to reach an agreement on the issues of filling and operating the dam, Egypt asked the United States and the World Bank to intervene to help resolve the dispute. In response to an invitation by US President Donald Trump, several meetings have been held in Washington between the three countries, with the participation of Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin and World Bank President David Malpas, but without success. Consequently, the US suggested that Ethiopia release 37m3 billion from the Blue Nile water annually, an increase of 6m3 billion above Ethiopia’s offer.
The Ethiopians were angered by the American suggestion which their foreign minister said his country would not accept and added that the United States was ‘not a mediator, but an observer’. The US did not understand how sensitive the matter was for the Ethiopians and the historical background to the dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Nile. The Trump administration only seemed to want to achieve a quick result. Thus, the so-called American mediation came to an end.
The dispute over the dam may threaten peace and security in the region
If Ethiopia continues with its plan to fill the reservoir without reaching an agreement with Sudan and Egypt, this will leave Egypt facing difficult choices, not only because of the reduction in water that it receives but also because of the damage to its reputation as a major power in the region.
In the worst-case scenario, Egypt could launch an airstrike to stop work on the dam. But this option is fraught with risks not only for the two countries and their long-term relationship but for the entire region.
Ethiopia would lose the billions of dollars it has spent on the dam, and the project would be delayed for many years. There would also be potential impacts on the environment and Ethiopia’s relationship with Sudan.
Egypt would also suffer, as an attack would attract international condemnation on moral grounds. And Ethiopia could still reduce Egypt’s share of the water without Egypt being able to stop it.
Even more concerning are the implications for the whole region which could enter a new cycle of proxy wars. Tensions are everywhere: in Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia.
The last diplomatic opportunity
The best solution for the three countries and the region is to return to the negotiating table. Sudan, although a party to this complex relationship, appears to be the best possible mediator in this conflict. The Sudanese government, despite the internal and external difficulties it faces, acted wisely in relation to this crisis when it expressed its reservations regarding the Arab League’s statement of solidarity with Egypt in its dispute with Ethiopia over the issue of the dam, and when it refused to sign a bilateral agreement with Ethiopia on starting to fill the reservoir.
Sudan also has significant interests in the peaceful resolution of this issue, not least because the dam is only 40 km from its border and it would be the main victim if it were, for whatever reason, to collapse. Sudan is also expected to be one of the principal beneficiaries of the electricity that the dam will generate. So, the current efforts of the Prime Minister of Sudan appear to be the most likely to succeed in solving the dispute, as both parties could be expected to respect the pivotal role of the Sudanese in this equation.
After refusing Ethiopia’s suggestion to reach a bilateral agreement on filling the dam, Sudan sent a high-level delegation to Addis Ababa to discuss this issue and others. The Sudanese delegation led by Minister of Cabinet Affairs, Ambassador Manis, met with Ethiopia prime minister Abiy Ahmed who tweeted about the meeting, “I welcome @SudanPMHamdok’s high-level delegation as a demonstration of the long-standing strong ties between our two countries. I am pleased with the discussion we held on jointly strengthening our economies, on GERD, border issues, as well as the COVID19 challenge, faced”.
Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok replied to Abi Ahmed’s tweet, “Happy to hear that the visit was successful. I am confident that the historic partnership between our countries will remain strong and united in facing these challenging times”.
After the Sudanese delegation returned to Khartoum, Abdalla Hamdok held a virtual meeting with Egyptian prime minister, Dr Mustafa Madbouly, together with their respective foreign and irrigation ministers and intelligence chiefs to discuss Sudan’s initiative to resume negotiations between the 3 countries on outstanding issues regarding the filling and operation of the Renaissance Dam.
On the same day, Abdalla Hamdok held a virtual meeting with Abiy Ahmed also with their respective foreign and irrigation ministers and intelligence chiefs. After the meeting, Hamdok tweeted in Arabic “We have agreed to continue with technical level engagements through our Water Ministers tasked to discuss outstanding issues and arrive at win-win solutions. I also reiterated the economic advantages of the GERD for all that we can seize through the spirit of collaboration.”
Egypt agreed to return to the negotiation table. The Egyptian foreign ministry issued a press statement: “Egypt is always ready to enter into negotiations and participate in upcoming meetings … to reach a fair, balanced and comprehensive agreement”.
Sudan succeeded in convincing its partners to resume meeting, but this doesn’t mean that the dispute between the 3 countries will be resolved. There is still a big possibility of failing to reach an agreement between the parties before July. If the coming meetings, which are still not scheduled, failed to resolve the problem, this will certainly lead the region to a very dangerous situation of instability. The situation needs much more attention from the regional and international community, at least, to encourage the 3 countries to seek a “win-win” solution to their dispute over the Nile dam project.