Before the Covid-19 pandemic absorbed all public attention, the negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) hit the headlines of global and local media - especially since the US government got involved as facilitator in the process – as one of the most pressing diplomatic and political dispute in the African continent. In 2011, the Ethiopian government began construction on the $4 billion Nile River dam, near the border with Sudan. The project which is both unilateral and fully domestically funded is being led by the Italian company Salini Impregilo. Once completed, the GERD will become Africa's largest hydropower dam, with a capacity of 6000 megawatts of electricity, both for domestic consumption and export.
Given its geopolitical impact, in 2015 Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed in Khartoum a Declaration of Principles to guide technical and political negotiations towards an agreement on the construction and operation of the GERD. At the end of last year, as Ethiopia prepared to fill the dam’s reservoir, diplomatic efforts ended in a stalemate, and Egypt requested the intervention of an external mediator. The stalemate concerned the timing of filling the reservoir and the flow of water that should be release to downstream countries; Egypt was asking a period of seven years allowing to release 40 billion cubic meters of water every year, while Ethiopia proposed 3 years in order not to delay its development plans. In the longer run, the main issues will be how to manage and operate the GERD under uncertain and shifting climate scenarios – the countries have yet to agree on baseline data and on the definition of key concepts like “severe drought”- as well as in coordination with other downstream dams, like the High Aswan Dam in Egypt.
Vladimir Putin offered his offices in a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at the Russia-Africa summit in October 2019. Later the US got involved: as such negotiations resumed in Washington in January 2020, facilitated by the US Treasury with the technical support of the World Bank. Speculations on the reason behind assigning the GERD file to the Treasury instead of the Secretary of State point at the financial capacity of the former – the World Bank’s main shareholder – to promote the reaching of an agreement between the three countries with economic aid and compensations. Two months of regular talks in Washington were not sufficient to reach an agreement, ending in a messy diplomatic deadlock. The US Treasury, whose role was formally a facilitator and not a mediator, proposed a draft text for the deal, warning at the same time Ethiopia that “final testing and filling of the dam should not take place without an agreement”. Ethiopia, which has traditionally been reluctant to involve external mediators forewent the final meeting in Washington, citing the need for more time to hold internal discussions and concerns that the US’ position was biased in favour of Egypt’s interests. Sudan joined the final meeting but did not sign the US sponsored text, leaving Egypt as the only one to subscribe to it.
Right after the failure of the Washington talks, the World descended into the Covid-19 lockdown. While it became harder for diplomats or water experts to meet, or for journalists to report from the field, public discourses sank into a nationalistic trap, especially in Ethiopia and Egypt. Meanwhile, the toxic “water war” narrative resurfaced in international media coverage of the Nile, nationalistic rhetoric and confrontational tones flooded domestic mainstream and social media.
The Ethiopian government plays the dam as a symbol of sovereignty and unity. A few days after withdrawing from the Washington talks, Ethiopians celebrated the anniversary of the battle of Adwa (1896), in which they defeated the Italian colonial invaders. In the government’s rhetoric and media speeches, the GERD has been portrayed as “the new Adwa”, symbolizing Ethiopian independence from foreign influence, reclaiming its place in African history, and leading the continent against colonial rule. This time its Egypt that is being accused of maintaining the colonial grip over the Nile, by defending the 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan, which allocates the river’s water between the two countries without taking into consideration the rights of upstream countries. In the past Ethiopian politicians presented the GERD as an African project, benefiting the entire region. Nowadays the nationalistic pride trumps all alternative narratives, as exemplified by the hashtag #ItsMyDam that went viral on social media after a declaration of Ethiopian Ministry of Water Seleshi Bekele, confirming in a press conference that there are no doubts that Ethiopia will commence the filling of the reservoir this summer during the rainy season. In a country deeply divided along political and ethnic lines, the GERD is the only topic that all Ethiopians seem to agree on. The success of the Ethiopian government’s propaganda on the GERD project are not without their limits: Abiy cannot make too many concessions on the dam without losing political legitimacy and popular support. On the other side he feels the pressure of one of his main sponsor, the US, to reach an agreement with Egypt.
As the main proponent of US mediation, the Egyptian government also finds itself in an unenviable position, and now looks to be the biggest loser from the diplomatic fiasco. Cairo is at risk of watching Ethiopia beginning filling the dam unilaterally without a binding agreement. Egyptian government might hope that the dam completion and filling will undergo further delays, but in the long run this will not provide a sustainable solution to their concerns. Alternatively, Egypt might sign a deal that will officially legitimise the right of upstream countries to use the Nile waters for their own development and that will certify a lower water flow reaching the country. For al-Sisi it is easier toplay the strong man fighting for the national interests in a polarized international arena, rather than being remembered for the one who sold Egyptian water security by signing an agreement.
The Sudanese position on the GERD is more ambivalent. Khartoum might lose part of its share of Nile waters but at the same time it will get the floods regulated to better manage irrigation of its vast plains, as well as cheap electricity imported from Ethiopia. Courted by both Cairo and Addis Ababa, Sudan has been sending mixed signals: while still considering the Washington text as “terms of reference” to reach an agreement, Khartoum also rejected an Arab League resolution sponsored by Cairo in support of Egypt and Sudan in the Nile dispute. Last week Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok also refused to sign an agreement proposed by Ethiopia and called the other two states to resume the negotiation. On June, 21 Sudan and Ethiopia agreed to hold a meeting with Egypt at the level of water ministers, to prepare for the resumption of talks on the filling of the dam, while tensions between Addis Ababa and Cairo were quickly escalating: few days before, President al-Sisi ordered the Egyptian armed forces to be on highest state of alert, while Ethiopia deployed anti-aircraft missiles in the proximity of the GERD. In the last months, however, the new Sudanese government had to invest considerable diplomatic and technical resources on a file that perhaps was not its top priority: indeed, more urgent reforms, also in the water sector, need to be implemented to consolidate the political changes prompted by the revolution.
The nationalistic lockdown cloaks an essential debate for a more just and sustainable sharing of the Nile: how is water distributed and used within each of the three countries? Whose economic interests are hegemonic and get presented as the “national” interests? Are there alternative development and water management models that would facilitate an international agreement? The diplomatic deadlock is a failure not only for the parties who have been involved, but also for the absent ones: institutions like the African Union and the Nile Basin Initiative whose core mission is multilateral and transboundary cooperation, or the many European countries that have engaged bilaterally in Nile water diplomacy. The European Union would have a story to sell to the Nile basin: how a group of countries pulled together the resources they used to fight each other for, to sustain an unprecedented epoch of peace in their continent.