Egypt is counting on the United States to intervene to ensure that Ethiopia does not move ahead with plans to fill the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) absent a final agreement, according to an Egyptian official who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.
Tensions have simmered between Cairo and Addis Ababa since 2011, when Ethiopia announced plans to build a mega-dam on the Blue Nile River, pitting Ethiopia’s push to generate electricity for domestic consumption and export against Egypt’s fears over water scarcity. Years of negotiations have failed to secure an agreement over key aspects of the operation and filling of the dam, which could have significant consequences for the downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan. On Saturday, Ethiopia declared it planned to start filling the dam reservoir irrespective of a final deal, a move that could trigger a deep regional crisis.
“We are still counting on US intervention,” the official says. “We have shown enough signs of good will, and we sent all the right signals.”
Egypt’s reliance on the US comes despite Cairo coming under pressure from Washington in January to agree to a less-than-favorable deal, according to Egyptian officials. The pressure was reportedly tied to Egypt’s arms deal with Russia and the scrutiny the US continues to face over Egypt’s human rights record, sources said.
The US got involved in the dispute in November after Egypt called for international mediation. Delegations from Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan met three times in January and February in Washington DC alongside US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and World Bank President David Malpass. Yet, a number of key issues remain unresolved. Sources previously told Mada Masr that the three countries remained at loggerheads over the annual water release, how to monitor the flow and the definition of “severe drought.” Sources also said that the US was pressuring the Egypt and Ethiopia sides to make significant concessions in order to secure a deal.
The US Treasury had announced that an agreement was due to be signed at the end of February with a final round of talks scheduled for February 27 and 28. However, Ethiopia pulled out of the negotiations at the last minute, calling on the US to postpone them to allow time for more internal consultations.
After holding bilateral talks with Egypt and Sudan, the US released a statement on Friday saying it believed an agreement had been reached. “The United States believes that the work completed over the last four months has resulted in an agreement that addresses all issues in a balanced and equitable manner, taking into account the interests of the three countries,” the statement said. Egypt was the only country to sign the deal.
An international development organization source close to the talks previously told Mada Masr that US President Donald Trump, who is preparing for a reelection campaign in 2020, wants to preside over some kind of signing ceremony, even if the agreement is only a general outline that leaves many of the more difficult questions unanswered.
Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry responded the next day expressing “disappointment” at the US statement and insisting no agreement had been reached. It also declared it would begin the first filling of the dam in accordance with the 2015 Declaration of Principles it signed in Khartoum with Egypt and Sudan.
“Egypt cannot agree to this,” the Egyptian official tells Mada Masr. “There is nothing in the Khartoum Declaration of Principles that allows for a unilateral move from the Ethiopians. We expect the US to do what is necessary to secure an agreement before the filling,” he adds.
Sudan also emphasized “the importance of reaching a comprehensive agreement including safe operation of the GERD prior to commencement of the initial filling,” according to a statement by its ministry of irrigation and water resources. However, Sudan did not sign on to the US draft proposal in Washington DC.
A Cairo-based European diplomat who is closely following the issue also told Mada Masr that Egypt is heavily counting on the US to help resolve the issue. “What happened is not necessarily a surprise to the Egyptians because they had already been complaining about Ethiopian procrastination,” the source said.
In its statement, the Treasury Department said that “final testing and filling should not take place without an agreement.” The Egyptian official says Egypt will give the US time, possibly a few months, to try to resolve the crisis.
The European diplomat told Mada Masr last month that it was unlikely any agreement would be signed by early March, saying that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was hesitant to sign to any definitive agreement that might cost him politically before parliamentary elections that are scheduled for August.
The question of when the filling of the dam would commence was answered in the first round of talks in Washington in early January, when the three countries issued a joint statement noting that it would begin in stages during the wet season between July and August.
However, according to two sources who advise the Egyptian government on the negotiations, Cairo is not necessarily worried at this juncture about the prospect of Ethiopia beginning to fill the reservoir during the wet season. The two sources, interviewed separately, said internal official assessments indicate that it is unlikely Ethiopia will have completed the necessary construction of the dam in less than four months. Both sources said that Egypt is keeping a very close eye on this development.
It is unclear how a number of key issues will be resolved and what the United States role will be in mediating the process. In its statement, the Treasury Department said “the United States reaffirms its commitment to remain engaged with the three countries until they sign the final agreement.”
Yet Ethiopia has been increasingly critical of the US role. In its statement declaring it would begin filling dam without a final agreement, it ended by affirming its commitment to “continue to engage” with Egypt and Sudan on the outstanding issues, though it refrained from mentioning any US role.
This runs counter to Egypt’s plans. According to the Egyptian official, Cairo is not “at all” prepared to dump all the work that has been done during the US-sponsored talks and to start another open-ended mediation process. “We think that the Americans would not accept this either,” he said.