In what seems a circular journey, Egypt and Sudan suspended talks with Ethiopia after it proposed linking a deal on its newly constructed reservoir and giant hydroelectric dam to a broader agreement about the Blue Nile waters that would replace a colonial-era accord, to which Ethiopia was never a party. The African Union-led talks among the three key Nile basin countries are trying to resolve a years-long dispute over Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. The Ethiopian negotiating has not yet shared any details with the Ethiopian public as to what the sticky issues are and any progress thereof. However, Egypt and Sudan Ethiopia on yesterday (Tuesday) disclosed that Ethiopia floated a proposal that would leave the operating of the dam to a comprehensive treaty on the Blue Nile. Both lower riparian countries objected it and threaten to quit the talks.
It is worth noting that the recent hostilities are more intense between Sudan and Ethiopia, not between Ethiopia and Egypt. Sudan’s position with regard to the GERD has been continuously inching away from that of Ethiopia and towards Egypt. There are little known details coming out on the genesis of the project of the Renaissance Dam, which would revolutionize energy and water delivery in Ethiopia, that goes back decades, but despite the involvement of multiple Egyptian administrations, it has not moved forward. Egypt, which is heavily dependent on the Nile for its agriculture-based economy, claims up on the filling of GERD, 17% of its arable land will go fallow. The ideal time span for Ethiopia to fill up the Dam completely is three years while Cairo is demanding Ethiopia to push off the starting date and slow down the process to seven years, and even longer. US-brokered talks failed to break this impasse; in fact, at one point, Ethiopia walked out of the negotiations.
A prominent geopolitical analyst with affiliation to Israel, Irina Tsukerman, brought up some new details on how the Ethiopian dam project on the Nile evolved all along. She says the following: “The backstory of this conflict is complex. Ethiopia has been committed to the decision to construct the “Nahda” Dam since approximately 2000. Attempts were made several times to break ground, but Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak interfered with the process and it went nowhere. In fact, as Wikileaks eventually revealed, the Egyptian government went so far as to bomb the dam’s site before construction began.” Tsukerman is saying Ethiopia initially tried to build “Nahda” in 2000 and the reason it didn’t happen then is Egypt. Nahhda is the Arabic equivalent word for Renaissance. Egyptian media are also calling the GERD Egypt’s “nakba” – another Arabic for “catastrophe”. Tsukerman pointed out that Egypt under the leadership of Mursi and Sudan under Bashir were a bit tamed to allow GERD’s construction because both countries as well as Ethiopia were all enjoying generous funds from Qatar and Turkey, without revealing much how the latter became interested to support GERD.
Back to now, Egypt said on Tuesday that it has decided to withdraw from the latest round of tripartite negotiations with Ethiopia over its multi-billion dollar dam on the Blue Nile for internal consultations after Addis Ababa proposed new draft of filling guidelines. Egypt fears the project could lead to water shortages upstream, while Sudan is concerned about the dam’s safety. Sudan’s irrigation ministry said the latest Ethiopian position presented in talks raised new fears over the track the negotiations had been on. “[We] stress the seriousness of the risks that the dam represents for Sudan and its people, including environmental and social risks, and for the safety of millions of residents along the banks of the Blue Nile… which reinforces the need to reach a comprehensive agreement covering both filling and operation,” the Sudanese irrigation ministry said. Ethiopia’s Irrigation Minister Seleshi Bekele had expressed optimism over the talks and tweeted earlier on Tuesday saying: “Ethiopia would like to sign the first filling agreement at the soonest and also continue negotiation to finalize a comprehensive agreement in subsequent periods.”
But Sudan said it may withdraw from the current round of talks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) if Ethiopia insists on linking the reaching of a long-term agreement on the filling and operating of the dam to creating a convention on the use of the Blue Nile waters as a whole. In letter addressed to the South African foreign minister, as the country is currently chairing the African Union and presiding over the negotiations, Sudanese Irrigation Minister Yasser Abbas said that Ethiopia’s proposal has “raised serious fears” concerning the path of the current negotiations, as well as the understandings that were reached in previous talks. It is reported Ethiopia only wants the current agreements to focus only on the first filling of the dam while linking a possible agreement on the operating of the dam in the long-term to reaching a convention on the waters of the Blue Nile.
During recent talks by phone between Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa—current chairperson of the African Union (AU)—El-Sisi reiterated concern about Ethiopia’s filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). El-Sisi said he seeks a fair and balanced agreement and rejects any unilateral filling of the dam’s reservoir. Ramaphosa said he hopes “intensive coordination” between both sides would hasten an agreement. The dam, and the ongoing tense negotiations over its filling and its future operation, has sparked much conflict between Ethiopia and downstream states of Sudan and Egypt, which say they fear the giant Blue Nile hydropower dam could alternately cause water scarcity and flooding in their countries. “Data analysis shows that Egypt will not be severely affected by the first stage of the filling of the dam, says Peter Hany, a professor of irrigation and hydraulics at Egypt’s Ain Shams University. Egypt’s Nile river water supply will only be threatened by the filling of the upstream Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in the case of prolonged drought, new analysis suggests,” In addition, Hany said beginning the filling process this year, rather than next year, was the better option as water levels are currently high in Egypt’s Lake Nasser, which fills from the Nile and provides water for agriculture and energy production. Recent heavy rains mean the first stage of the dams filling for the year is already complete. Little is reported about the actions Egypt has taken to massively expand the storage capacity of Lake Nasser almost doubling it to the capacity of 135 million cubic meter which includes relaying it through canals outside the basin. On this too, the upper the upper riparian countries were not consulted.