The clock is ticking in a long-running dispute over Ethiopia’s plans to build a mega-dam on the Blue Nile River that has stoked increasing tensions with Egypt, which relies on the river as its main source of water.
Addis Ababa recently reiterated its pledge to begin filling the reservoir during the wet season between late June or July and September — a date that looms just over two months away. Yet, despite years of negotiations, both sides remain at loggerheads, unable to overcome key differences to finalize an agreement on the filling and operation of the dam.
Ever since US-sponsored talks broke down earlier this year, Sudan — positioned on the Nile between Egypt and Ethiopia and the third party in the deal — has emerged as a key actor that could play a decisive role in the outcome. And as the final countdown begins, both Egypt and Ethiopia appear to be courting Sudan’s favor to win leverage in the dispute. The latest developments also come amid the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic, further complicating matters by sidelining the issue in Washington, which has acted as a mediator. As the potential for robust US involvement fades, Egypt has also been working to bring Ethiopia back to the negotiating table on the condition that a draft text negotiated in Washington in February be used as a starting point.
Tensions have simmered between Cairo and Addis Ababa since 2011, when Ethiopia announced plans to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), pitting Ethiopia’s push to generate electricity for domestic consumption and export against Egypt’s fears over water scarcity.
On Sunday, senior officials from both Egypt and Ethiopia issued statements that highlighted the continuing intransigence on both sides.
Seleshi Bekele, the Ethiopian Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy, said that the construction of the dam was nearly 75 percent complete and promised that Ethiopia would be ready to begin filling the reservoir by the beginning of the rainy season this summer. Meanwhile, Egypt’s Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Abdel Aty reiterated Cairo’s determination not to allow Ethiopia to go ahead with the filling absent a comprehensive and binding deal.
The exchange of statements came just a few days after Egypt’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, spoke extensively with his American counterpart, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, over the need for the US to “re-engage” on the issue.
The US became involved in the dispute in November after Egypt called for international mediation. Delegations from Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan met three times in Washington DC earlier this year. Ethiopia pulled out of the final meeting in late February where a deal was to be signed, calling on the US to allow time for more internal consultations. After holding bilateral talks with Egypt and Sudan, the US released a statement saying it believed an agreement had been reached. Yet Sudan declined to give any formal consent to the text, leaving Egypt as the only country to sign the deal.
While Ethiopia has called for a new negotiation process, Egypt has firmly maintained over the past six weeks that it has no intention of abandoning the text negotiated in Washington. Meanwhile, Sudan has been offering mixed signals — alternating between proposing a new draft for negotiations and standing by the Washington draft.
Last week, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said that Khartoum was committed to the Washington text “as a term of reference” to a final agreement on the filling and operation of the dam.
This appeared to signal a slight shift from Khartoum’s stance in March, when it registered an official objection to a resolution proposed by Egypt to the Arab League to support both Egypt and Sudan in the dispute. The resolution ultimately passed without Sudan’s signature.
Hamdok’s comments committing to the Washington text as a term of reference came shortly after he met with Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, the second such meeting in six weeks. The Sudanese prime minister is scheduled to visit both Addis Ababa and Cairo before the end of the month. Hamdok had a previously scheduled visit to Cairo that was postponed upon request from Khartoum.
Sudan’s wavering position is complicated by a lack of agreement within the senior leadership in Khartoum over the dam dispute, according to Egyptian and Sudanese sources informed on the GERD issue.
Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the chairperson of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereign Council, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as “Hemedti”), are more inclined to accommodate Egypt’s position regarding the text of the agreement, while Hamdok is more in line with Ethiopia, the sources say. Hamdok lived in Ethiopia for years, as did many of his closest aides, and he has close ties with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, according to a European diplomat in Cairo who is closely following the GERD developments.
Hamdok had been Sudan’s point man on the dam project, but Burhan agreed to become more involved following a direct request from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, according to a well-informed Egyptian official. The same source states that Egypt has detailed a number of possible economic, political and security incentives to Sudan in exchange for cooperation on the dam dispute.
“A good process has been initiated, but, to be frank, I am not sure whether this would actually take us where we want to go,” the Egyptian official says. Egypt ultimately hopes to get Sudan to put its initials on the text that was negotiated in Washington in February. But according to a Khartoum-based political source, this outcome seems “quite unlikely.”
“Hamdok will not be pressured to go that far,” the Khartoum source says. “He might make some concessions to accommodate the sovereign council, but he will not go as far as getting into a disagreement with Abiy Ahmed.”
Abiy appears to be backing Hamdok against Burhan and Hemedti in siding with Ethiopia, sources in Egypt and Sudan say. They also point to Abiy’s tacit approval of an agreement on Sunday for Ethiopia to hand over lands from the Fashqa border territory to Sudan that would resolve an almost 30-year dispute between the two countries.
Additionally, following the Egyptian intelligence chief’s visit to Khartoum last week, Abiy sent his chief of staff to the Sudanese capital for talks with Hamdok.
Energy supply deals may also come into play as bargaining chips for both Egypt and Ethiopia. The mega-dam is expected to give Ethiopia an electricity surplus, from which Sudan could benefit with a cheap supply of power. Yet, Cairo has also recently secured a deal to supply Sudan with electricity, with the national supply grids of the countries being officially connected earlier this month.
Egypt and Ethiopia have long vied for political influence in Sudan. During the Sudanese revolution last year that ousted longtime president Omar al-Bashir, both sides jockeyed for a position to act as mediator between opposition forces and the transitional military council that was headed by Burhan; Sudan’s involvement in the dam negotiations was a primary motivating factor.
According to the Khartoum source, Sudan currently agrees with Ethiopia on some of the key sticking points in the dispute, including Ethiopia’s demand to maintain a certain level of water in the dam reservoir.
“Egypt is set to lose part of the water it gets every year. We might also lose part of the water, but, in the meantime, we’ll get to have the floods regulated in a way that would help us better manage our agricultural schemes, and we are also set to get considerably inexpensive electricity which is essential for our development plans,” the Sudanese source says. “We would like to help Egypt, but I am not sure how we can do this really.”
The best that Khartoum could do, he adds, would be to convince Addis Ababa to accept the text that was reached in Washington as a term of reference for any future talks that might take place — talks that could potentially be hosted in Khartoum. This would require the drafting of a new text that is inspired by the spirit, rather than the letter, of the Washington text, the Sudanese source says.
Egypt is aware of the internal dynamics in Sudan and of Ethiopia’s moves to curry favor with Khartoum, the Egyptian government official says.
“We are not delusional. We know that when Hamdok comes to Cairo later this month following his visit to Ethiopia he might be again carrying a version of the Ethiopian proposal to restart the negotiation process,” the Egyptian government source says. “But we will not agree to enter into an open-ended negotiation process that goes around in circles. It’s out of the question.”
The final draft that emerged in Washington at the end of February is the most recent text of a number of proposals that have been floated since the Declaration of Principles was signed by all three countries in Khartoum in 2015.
Over the past several months, Egyptian officials have repeatedly indicated to Mada Masr that they believe Ethiopia has steadfastly avoided committing to any detailed agreement that lays out processes to resolve serious points of contention, including: the annual water release; mitigation measures in various cycles of drought; water levels of both the GERD and the Aswan High Dam; and a dispute resolution mechanism.
The officials believe Ethiopia is looking to secure a broad, loosely defined agreement that would allow Addis Ababa a free hand to interpret however they wish.
“This has been the case since the very beginning of the early talks on the construction of a dam back in Ethiopia in 2008,” a former Egyptian negotiator says. “They were never clear about what they really intended to do or how they intended to do it.”
For its part, Ethiopia has argued that Egypt wants to maintain a colonial era grip over the Nile. Under the terms of a 1959 bilateral agreement signed by Egypt and Sudan — which was built on a 1929 agreement — Egypt was entitled to 55 billion cubic meters and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic meters to the Blue Nile. The deal also gave Egypt veto power over all proposed Nile projects. Neither colonial era agreement made any allowance for the water needs of other riparian states that were not party to the deal, including Ethiopia.
Ethiopia first proposed the construction of a much smaller dam in 2007 with the aim of generating electricity as part of a major development scheme. Cairo was apprehensive from the start, given Egypt’s dependence on Nile water, the majority of which flows downstream from the Blue Nile. In 2011 — in the aftermath of the revolution in Egypt — Ethiopia upgraded its plans from a 14 billion cubic meter project to a giant 74 billion cubic meter mega-dam.
During the negotiations, Cairo had initially been unwilling to concede to an annual release below 40 billion cubic meters per year that would be shared by both Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia, meanwhile, pushed for an annual release of 31 billion cubic meters, according to a leaked draft of a proposal submitted by Ethiopia. In Washington, a compromise of an annual release of 37 billion cubic meters was concluded.
However, Ethiopia wants to tie the annual release to the level of water in the reservoir, which could potentially allow it to release a smaller share if the water levels are low. It also refused to agree to a dispute resolution mechanism that would allow Egypt to monitor the flow of water to ensure it receives the agreed-upon annual share, citing issues of sovereignty.
Egyptian officials say that clear mechanisms must be laid out in any final deal. “We cannot just overlook the possibility that Ethiopia would be deciding on its own the amount of water it releases from the dam every year for us and for Sudan,” an Egyptian official says. He adds that Cairo is willing to sit down for talks with both Ethiopia and Sudan but the Washington text must be an integral part of the negotiations. “We will sit and listen, but we will never agree to start a whole new negotiation process as if nothing has happened.”
The mega-dam has also played into internal political dynamics in Ethiopia, with the prime minister recently describing the project as a “symbol of sovereignty and unity.” In recent weeks, the Ethiopian military has also said it is willing to defend the dam from any attacks and showcased its prowess with a military display near the site of the dam in images broadcast on national television.
Yet, there are mitigating factors to Ethiopia’s ability to begin the filling process.
The Ethiopian parliamentary elections originally scheduled for August were recently postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, which may lessen political pressure on Abiy to push ahead with plans to begin filling the reservoir in the summer.
“We have heard Ethiopian officials say that they will start the filling this year, but this remains to be seen, especially since the political pressure that Abiy Ahmed was facing with the general elections that were scheduled for late August has now been put off,” a Cairo-based European diplomat says.
The diplomat, whose country has several companies in Ethiopia involved in construction and mechanical work on the GERD, also says it is possible that construction on the dam will not have progressed far enough for the filling process to begin by the summer.
At least two turbines must be operational in order for the dam to generate electricity, which requires the reservoir to be filled to at least 4.9 billion cubic meters. The assessment of several Cairo-based European diplomatic sources closely following the issue is that by July or even August, construction on the dam will not have progressed far enough for more than two billion cubic meters to be filled, which is insufficient to generate electricity.
However, the same sources also say that Abiy might opt to fill the reservoir by that amount as a display of political power. “This might harm Egypt politically as opposed to anything else,” another Cairo-based European source says, as the filling would have begun without a definitive agreement in defiance of Cairo’s stated position.
The prospect of the United States mediating another round of talks to broker a conclusive agreement between all three parties in the near future is dubious at best. Few believe the coronavirus crisis will have subsided enough by July for Washington to get involved, at which point Ethiopia may decide to initiate the filling of the reservoir absent a final deal. Beyond the pandemic, the US presidential elections in November may also divert the Trump administration’s attention from the GERD dispute. And if President Trump loses the White House, the text concluded in Washington may hold little value to the new administration.
As Egyptian officials continue diplomatic and back channeling efforts to try and avert a crisis, time is running out. And they know it.