Pragmatism is required in the face of failing efforts to stall reservoir fillingThe cautious optimism following the announcement that Egypt agreed to resume negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has now been complicated by a Sudanese letter to the UN Security Council that aligns itself with Egypt’s demand to stall the impounding of the GERD until a “comprehensive agreement” is signed.
The Sudanese letter, which puts the Washington draft as 90 percent agreed and characterizes it as the only document that can lead to a comprehensive deal, has cast doubt on the prospect of an agreement before the filling of the GERD reservoir commences.
The Washington process is hardly an ideal point from which to restart the trilateral negotiation.
On 24 February, ignoring Ethiopia’s request to postpone negotiations, Egypt and Sudan held separate meetings with the U.S. and the World Bank in Ethiopia’s absence. The U.S., in an act that went beyond its role as an observer, presented a deal that was signed by Egypt. The U.S. Treasury then issued a statement, in effect failing to recognize Ethiopia’s sovereign right to govern its property.
The Treasury statement declared that Ethiopia should not start filling the reservoir until it signed the agreement. Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement rejecting the draft, emphasizing the text didn’t reflect the talks. Sudan not only declined to sign but also refused to enter into negotiations in Ethiopia’s absence.
Sudan is a witness to the fact that the GERD negotiations have been hostage to Egypt’s attempt to mix its interest of maintaining existing water-sharing deals with the first filling and operation of the GERD. The Washington process also failed to disentangle the two issues.
Egypt’s response to the Washington failure was to escalate. It initiated a resolution in the Arab League aiming to make the Nile an Arab water security issue. Sudan, however, refused to be associated with it, arguing that an Arab versus Africa approach did not help ongoing negotiations. Ethiopia rejected the resolution, reaffirming its right to use the Nile.
Egypt also launched a diplomatic offensive, requesting countries to use their leverage to compel Ethiopia to sign the U.S. draft, with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry visiting several Middle Eastern, European, and finally African states. When this appeared to produce little result, Egypt stretched its efforts, with a letter sent to the UN Security Council President on May 1, claiming Ethiopia’s rejection of the U.S draft and decision to fill the GERD reservoir meant there was a high possibility of conflict.
The dam, it alleges, would jeopardize the livelihoods of Egyptians. The letter was accompanied by a propaganda campaign with Egypt’s state machinery working closely with the media and Egyptian think tanks to put pressure on Ethiopia and the international community to take sides.
Ethiopia responded in a letter from Foreign Minister, Gedu Andargachew, to the President of the Security Council, clarifying Ethiopia’s position and reaffirming its refusal to sign the U.S. draft. He stressed Ethiopia’s pursuit of the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization of the Nile, reiterating GERD would not inflict any significant harm on downstream countries, but rather bring several benefits including regulation of the flow, prevention of flooding, reduction of evaporation, and cheap electricity. The letter made clear that Ethiopia is under no obligation to seek permission to fill its dam.
The response to the two submissions came in a statement from the UN Secretary-General. “The Secretary-General encourages progress towards an amicable agreement”. The UN message was clear: ‘figure it out yourselves!’ Ethiopia also continued its diplomatic work with briefings by the Ministers of Water, Irrigation & Energy, and Foreign Affairs and other officials to resident ambassadors from America and Europe, Africa, Asia, the Pacific region and the Middle East.
Sudan’s position, up to the point of separately approaching Ethiopia and Egypt to resume the negotiations, is balanced.
In light of the bungled finale of the Washington process, and Egypt’s unsuccessful efforts to enlist international support and even before the success of the Sudanese efforts to bring the three parties back to the negotiating table, Sudan sent a letter to the UN Security Council on 2 June, presenting a view that concurred with Egypt’s.
The position detailed in the letter is not a surprise. Sudan has expressed concerns about Ethiopia’s plan to start impounding the reservoir with or without a deal. However, the fact that it requested Security Council assistance to halt the filling until a “comprehensive” deal is reached has shifted the trajectory from riparian cooperation to upper riparian versus lower riparian dynamics.
Making a deal a precondition of GERD first-stage filling is a point Ethiopia has rejected in its letter to the Security Council. Sudan’s contribution has, therefore, managed to escalate, rather than pave the way for a negotiated resolution.
While Egypt in accepting renewed discussions claimed that the negotiations would have to take into account “Egypt’s water interests”, Sudan, while unlike Egypt recognizes Ethiopia’s right to utilize the Nile, concurs with Egypt that there are technical details that mandate delaying filling the reservoir. These complementary positions indicate a desire to block the impounding of a dam that is already years behind schedule and is nearing completion.
Egypt’s demand for “historic right” can only be suitably addressed in a broader resource-sharing arrangement through the Nile Basin Commission, once the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) is ratified and not in a marathon leading up to the impounding of the GERD or on any other forum.
During the long GERD negotiations, one of the issues on which consensus was reached is the specific Ethiopian plans for the first two-year filling stage under different hydrological conditions. It is also vital to underscore that the first-stage impounding and testing of the GERD is part of the construction process and there is the eventual promise of a bumper harvest from a project on which millions of Ethiopians have spent billions of dollars. It should indeed be a moment of regional celebration, not of discord.
The future of the partnership among the three parties is now at a critical stage. Egypt and Sudan have the chance to reflect on what has so far transpired. At the resumption of the three-party talks, they can recognize the failure of the U.S process and focus on forging a reliable agreement. This could be done with a focus on the initial filling and operation of the dam as opposed to a rushed “comprehensive” text that would later cause hard feelings, difficulties in implementation, and may even lead to abrogation.
For Egypt, a major impediment to reaching a comprehensive deal is Article 44 of its constitution which stipulates that the government should protect Egypt’s historical right to the Nile. This promises a dead end for a fair water-sharing deal. In the short run, the impact is likely to be that Egypt’s return to talks would not necessarily result in any major change to this long-held stance.
Sudan is under a lot of national, regional, and international pressure. It is required to honor a 1959 water-sharing agreement with Egypt that stipulates that Egypt and Sudan should stand together on any Nile related negotiations. Sudan has also felt the sustained pressure of Egypt and other Arab states to adopt a partial position. This partly explains its asymmetric letter to the Security Council. Both Ethiopia and Egypt should appreciate the challenges facing Sudan and work to accommodate its concerns.
By deciphering what can and can’t be agreed on in the few weeks that lie ahead, a way out of this quagmire can be found. That would give Egypt the time to make the necessary domestic adjustments to facilitate discussions of an equitable water-sharing deal; and for Sudan to return to being a reliable partner and interlocutor
The most pragmatic approach would be, first, to endorse the first stage-filling schedule, as agreed in negotiations, and requested by the dam owner once again in a 10 April letter from Prime Minister Abiy to his counterparts. Second, outstanding issues such as Sudanese concerns on dam safety and the environmental and social impacts studies, which have been part of the long negotiations, should be addressed with the requisite pragmatism and mutual respect.
It should not be necessary to emphasize that Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt are forever tied together by the Nile. There are no sides to take. The trust that these countries can build is more important than any deal on the filling and operation of GERD. Agreement on the dam is not an endgame—it is, if handled well, the beginning of a regional partnership of historic proportions.
This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Editors: Patrick Gilkes, William Davison
Main photo: Teleconference between Sudan and Ethiopian prime ministers; 22 May 2020; PMO
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