There has been a decade-long dispute over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile since 2011. Recently, after the final failure of the negotiations in Kinshasa, this dispute has intensified between Cairo and Khartoum on the one hand, and Addis Ababa on the other. Various rounds of talks under the African Union (AU) auspices to resume stalled negotiations, including the latest round in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have failed to convince Ethiopia not to take any unilateral action on the second filling of the GERD in July this year. Cairo and Khartoum blamed the failure of the talks on the stubbornness of Addis Ababa and, in the absence of a political will, agreed to any legally binding deal to fill and operate the GERD.
The two downstream countries view the second filling, which aims to collect about 13.5 billion cubic meters of Blue Nile water, a “serious threat” to their interests and a “violation” of international laws relating to cross-border rivers. Sudan’s government said the country was suffering from a shortage of irrigation and drinking water after a total of 3.5 billion cubic meters of water was held by the GERD-reservoir in just one week during the first filling last year. The Sudanese have previously stressed that the GERD “will also threaten the lives of half the population in central Sudan, irrigation water for agricultural projects, and electricity generation from the Roseires Dam.”
In an unusually blunt statement, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry, in turn, accused Sudan of allegedly changing its position on the impact of the GERD on Sudan’s water security during the flood season. At the same time, Cairo was criticized for not appreciating the “generosity” of Addis-Ababa, which offered not to put Egypt’s water security at significant risk. The statement came hours after Egypt and Sudan rejected an offer from Ethiopia to share information about the second filling of the GERD reservoir by mid-July. Meanwhile, Sudan has warned it could sue Ethiopia if it plans to fill a mega-dam on the Blue Nile without an agreement with Khartoum and Cairo.
And yet, the spokesperson of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, H.E. Ambassador Dina Mufti has taken a hard line against Egypt and Sudan, accusing them of not seeking the success of the African Union’s ongoing mediation in the GERD dispute. She reiterated that her country rejects the historic agreements on the share of the Nile’s waters, which were supported as benchmarks by the two downstream countries during the negotiations. The historical treaties referred to by Dina Mufti include the Nile waters agreement between Egypt and Sudan of 1959. This agreement allows both countries to use the waters of the Nile in total, and not in part, confirming the right of Egypt to 55.5 billion cubic meters per year and Sudan to 18.5 billion cubic meters. The 1959 agreement complements the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement, signed between Egypt and the United Kingdom, representing Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Sudan at the time. It gives Cairo the right to veto projects higher up the Nile that affect its water share.
Cairo and Khartoum continue to prioritize negotiations over all other options. They aim to reach a comprehensive agreement guaranteeing the rights and interests of all three States following the provisions of the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. The Convention, adopted in 1997, establishes the principles of fair and equitable use of transboundary rivers by the countries through which they pass and takes into account such factors as the relative availability of water resources, population size, and basic water needs. Its main principle is to avoid harm, that is, not to take measures affecting the river that could intentionally or unintentionally harm others.
Egypt and Sudan are using every available diplomatic opportunity to rally enough pressure to persuade Ethiopia to abandon its hard-line and destructive unilateralism. After the failure in Kinshasa, they now hope to bring Addis Ababa back to the negotiating table under a new mediation, this time involving the UN, the EU, the US, and the AU. Thanks to these parties’ political and moral weight and valuable ideas and proposals that they could bring to the table of trilateral technical and legal negotiations, this powerful quartet could guide the talks within the established time frame to a binding agreement that would satisfy all parties. In other words, a contract must be developed that guarantees Ethiopia’s right to achieve its development goals in a peaceful and cooperative regional environment while preventing significant damage to downstream countries and protecting their rights to the Nile water.
The current stalemate has inevitably created the possibility of other options, including unpleasant ones. If they do occur, they will be regarded as acts of self-defense, given that the lives of more than 150 million people are at stake. To avoid such undesirable opportunities, Egypt and Sudan have appealed to the UN Security Council. In separate letters, Cairo and Khartoum called on the UN to ensure international peace and security and prevent a slide into a protracted conflict. In his five-page letter to the UN Security Council, Sameh Shoukry reaffirmed Egypt’s commitment to the pursuit of mutual benefit. He stressed the link that Cairo draws between Ethiopia’s right to development, on the one hand, and Egypt’s right to its water quota, on the other, and Ethiopia’s commitment to mitigate any negative impact of the dam on downstream states. The letter claimed that eight months of negotiations under the auspices of the AU had proved fruitless due to Ethiopia’s intransigence and lack of political will to reach a binding agreement and the refusal to consider any Egyptian proposals to overcome obstacles. Repeated denials gave the impression that Ethiopia was reluctant to accede to a legally binding instrument that established clear rights and obligations for the three parties and robust mechanisms to ensure its effective implementation. In his letter, Shoukry warned that the second filling of the dam would cause severe damage to the downstream countries in the absence of a trilateral agreement. As a result, water shortages would negatively affect the lives of 105 million Egyptians.
Addis Ababa plans to proceed with a second filling of the dam, despite Egyptian and Sudanese objections to the move in the absence of a legally binding deal. The second filling is intended to accumulate about 18.4 billion cubic meters of Blue Nile water in the GERD reservoir, compared to the 4.9 billion cubic meters provided during the first filling last year. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has repeatedly urged Ethiopia not to jeopardize Cairo’s share of the Nile water, saying “all options are open” and stressing that “cooperation is better than fighting.” Earlier in April, Al-Sisi said that failure to resolve the dam crisis would negatively affect the security and stability of the region.
Egyptian diplomacy, recognizing the seriousness of the problem with the second filling of the GERD, has taken several urgent and effective measures. In particular, Foreign Minister Sameh Hassan Shoukry toured seven African countries to explain Egypt’s position on the threats posed by Ethiopia’s unilateral approach, the dangerous consequences of the AU’s failure to lead the negotiations, and the urgent need for effective international intervention to prevent any dangerous escalation. In such difficult circumstances, the international community must convince all three countries to engage in the negotiations in good faith leading to an agreement, and refrain from any unilateral action, including re-filling the GERD- reservoir during the upcoming rainy season. The continued absence of a deal and the probability of severe damage to the countries downstream of Ethiopia will increase tensions throughout the Horn of Africa and endanger international peace and security.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.