The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is in the limelight due to the failure of negotiations with Ethiopia and Sudan after five years of talks and the inability of the committees formed to solve the crisis to reach a breakthrough. This has driven Egypt to announce the futility of negotiations and the search for alternatives.
Before discussing the failure of negotiations and the available alternatives, three factors should be pointed out. Firstly, the GERD issue is an Egyptian national security matter. The Egyptian state is acting according to calculated moves and within the framework of international charters.
Secondly, the GERD has become an imposed reality and we have to deal with it as such to reach accepted solutions to preserve our right to water from the Nile that provides Egypt with 95 percent of its water needs.
Thirdly, Egypt has never objected to the construction of the GERD or any other dam that can help Ethiopia in its economic development, but on the condition that Egypt’s Nile water share is not harmed. Egypt’s Nile water rights are protected by international laws on the use and management of international rivers and agreements Ethiopia is trying to ignore.
Egypt expressed a number of reservations about the standards Ethiopia announced for the building of the dam. Without going into technical and procedural details, the most important reservation has to do with the filling of the GERD reservoir and its operation.
Egypt is demanding the GERD reservoir be filled in seven years, instead of three or four years like Ethiopia wants. If Ethiopia fills the reservoir in three or four years, the shortage in Egypt’s Nile water will reach somewhere between nine and 15 billion cubic meters annually. Egypt’s share of Nile water currently stands at 55 billion cubic meters annually.
The shortage in Egypt’s share of Nile water will carry negative repercussions on electricity generation and agriculture.
Egypt also expressed reservations about a few technicalities related to the safety of the dam. Ethiopia didn’t cooperate on the demands of the international experts committee concerning this issue.
It is important to point out that Ethiopia started building the GERD right after Egypt’s 25 January 2011 Revolution. The Ethiopian prime minister laid the foundation stone of the GERD in April 2011. Which was why, after the 30 June 2013 Revolution, Egypt prioritized the GERD issue after the state regained its strength and order, and embarked on negotiations with Ethiopia to resolve the issue.
Egypt, under President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, entered in serious negotiations with Ethiopia based on its solid position according to international law. In addition, Egypt adopted the principles of transparency, honesty, trust and good faith based on the concept that the negotiations were aimed at reaching acceptable solutions to both parties that achieved the interests of Egypt and Ethiopia.
The negotiations resulted in the Declaration of Principles, signed by Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in Khartoum in March 2015. The declaration was meant to usher in a new era for the three countries to achieve prosperity and development and establish the foundation for a phase of cooperation, understanding and coordination to achieve mutual interests and end conflicts.
It is noteworthy to mention that the Declaration of Principles comprised 10 points perfectly suitable to end the problem altogether. The principles, in their entirety, revolved around mutual interests, cooperation, good faith, exchange of information, and understanding the water needs of the downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan.
One of the items of the Declaration of Principles is binding to Ethiopia to continue implementing the recommendations of the international experts committee on the safety of the dam. It is important to point out that the declaration is binding, since its preamble states that the three countries have committed themselves to the 10 principles of the declaration.
With the signing of the Declaration of Principles, the practical phase, based on the mutual interests agreed by all parties, began. But Ethiopia remained intransigent, ignoring the binding principles, and showing no flexibility in the negotiations ongoing since 2015, resulting in a deadlock, particularly concerning the filling of the reservoir and operation of the dam.
Egypt’s political leadership had no choice but to search for other alternatives to preserve its water rights.
President Al-Sisi took the GERD case to the international community. During his speech at the 74th round of the United Nations General Assembly in September, President Al-Sisi said the GERD negotiations reached a deadlock, announcing it was time for international mediation to pressure the other parties to forego their intransigent positions. He stressed that to Egypt water was a matter of life and existence.
More recently, after the failure of the tripartite meeting of water ministers held in Khartoum, President Al-Sisi ascertained that Egypt was going to adopt the political procedures necessary, within the framework of international law, to preserve its Nile water rights, adding that the River Nile would remain the geographical and historical link between the south and the north.
It is noteworthy to mention that the positions President Al-Sisi announced focused on international law and political actions to preserve Egypt’s national water security. This proves that the Egyptian political leadership is still adopting in its foreign policy the principles of good neighbourliness, mutual cooperation and common interests to avert futile conflicts.
Egypt’s chairmanship of the African Union in its current round was a turning point for the union. President Al-Sisi is focussed on resolving conflicts between African countries, pushing the continent towards peace and development, and demanding the support of the international community towards this cause.
Balanced US position
The US gave a quick and positive response to the Egyptian demands concerning international mediation on the GERD crisis. The White House released a statement supporting negotiations on the GERD and demanding the parties reach an agreement on the filling and operation of the dam in a way that achieves the common interests of the three countries, preserves their rights to development and respects the other parties’ rights to water.
In my opinion, the US statement is balanced because it expresses the same position Egypt adopts, which is achieving common interests and water rights.
The long period of time Egypt gave to the negotiations on the GERD is proof of its good intentions and its desire to reach a political solution acceptable to all parties involved. However, since the negotiations reached a deadlock, Egypt had to move in another political direction, seeking international mediation, which is also one form of negotiation but with the introduction of an additional party that can present new, accepted solutions and that can play a more positive role that leads to finally ending the problem, taking it from a phase of conflicts to a phase of achieving mutual interests. This is the stance Egypt still adopts while insisting that the Nile water is a matter of life and existence.
It is expected the coming period will witness a new mechanism for negotiation with international mediation. All the parties have to enter this phase with transparency, openness and positivity, particularly Ethiopia, so that resolving the GERD issue becomes a successful African model for cooperation between Egypt and Ethiopia and achieves their common interests without taking away any of their rights.
This article was published first in: The Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, The Gran Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Crisis: dimensions, Repercussions and Future Courses, Especial Edition, October 2019.