CAIRO — After the technical and legal discussions sponsored by the African Union ended July 13 without a consensus being reached between Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum over the rules for filling and operating the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Ethiopia published statements and pictures of the dam site showing that it has started filling the dam’s reservoir despite ongoing disagreements with Egypt and Sudan.
On July 15, Ethiopian state television reported that the process of filling the mega dam has begun, quoting Minister of Water and Energy Seleshi Bekele It also published an Amharic-language video report claiming that the dam's reservoir had begun storing water.
The unilateral Ethiopian move sparked angry backlash. The Sudanese Ministry of Water claimed July 15 that according to recent measurements, water levels had declined by 90 million cubic meters per day, definitively showing that the dam’s gates have been closed.
The statement said the ministry rejects “any unilateral measures taken by any party.”
Egypt requested an urgent clarification from the Ethiopian government regarding the matter.
Just two hours after the Ethiopian announcement, the Ethiopian Minister of Water and Energy backtracked on his statements and explained in a tweet, “The inflow into the reservoir due to heavy rainfall and runoff exceeded the outflow and created natural pooling.”
The official Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation edited its Facebook post and deleted the statement that the reservoir's filling had begun. In another post, it apologized for what it called a misinterpretation and said, “The construction of the Renaissance Dam is ongoing to protect the interests of Ethiopia. Filling the dam will be a natural process once construction works reach advanced levels.”
Abbas Sharaqi, a water resources and geology professor at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor, “The pooling of water behind the dam should not be assumed to mark the formal beginning of storage, as the rainy and flood season is still in full swing in the Nile technically ends in September, at which time the Ethiopian administration will announce whether it will close the dam gates or allow water to flow to Sudan and Egypt.”
“The water quantities flowing into Egypt from the current flood season are still limited because they are pooled behind the GERD, and the flood season in Egypt technically begins in August,” he added, explaining that the water quantities pooled behind the GERD will not cause significant harm this season as Egypt has enough water stored in Lake Nasser behind the High Dam.
After the conclusion of the AU-sponsored talks on July 13, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said in televised comments, “Any serious harm caused by the Renaissance Dam to the water security of Egypt and Egyptians is a red line, and Egypt and its apparatuses cannot stand idly by without responding to the damage caused.”
A diplomatic official familiar with the negotiations over the GERD told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The conflicting Ethiopian statements regarding the beginning of storage have embarrassed Ethiopia in front of the African and international community, especially amid the country’s continued intransigence and rejection of initiatives proposed by Egypt or Sudan to resolve the outstanding issues and achieve a comprehensive and binding agreement over the rules for filling and operating the dam. These were the points discussed by observers representing the AU and the international community during the lengthy negotiations that lasted for 11 days.”
The source explained, “In the event that the Ethiopian intransigence continues, Egypt will be prepared with technical, legal and political responses, but Cairo is awaiting the outcome of the summit scheduled to be held under the umbrella of the AU,” adding, “Chief among the options is returning to the UN Security Council, which has the final say in matters that threaten international peace and security.”
He went on, “In the event of a return to the Security Council, Egypt’s position will be stronger" after the AU will have unified other states on the matter.
Sudan's water minister said in a July 13 press conference the points of dispute remained unchanged during the latest negotiations, adding that they concerned “the annual volume of water discharge in the event of prolonged drought, the extent to which the agreement would be binding and whether it would be concerned with water sharing or limited to filling and operating the GERD." He said, "A binding mechanism to settle the conflict was also discussed. Ethiopia believes the issue should be limited to heads of state, while Egypt and Sudan believe a critical mechanism must be agreed upon among the three countries under international arbitration.”
On July 14, a statement released by Ethiopia’s Water Ministry raised new concerns. “The most [pressing] issue is the impact of the guidelines and rules on Ethiopia’s future water use upstream of the GERD. In this respect, the absence of a comprehensive treaty governing the relations of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan with regard to the Nile is the major factor that poses a challenge,” its statement read.
Asked about the conflicting Ethiopian positions, Rawia Tawfik, a professor of political science at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor, “The apparent Ethiopian confusion may be the result of efforts on the part of the Ethiopian political administration to convey two messages, one internal and one external. These positions are complicating matters."
Concerning the consistently unproductive efforts to reach a comprehensive and binding agreement with Ethiopia, Tawfik said, “This conflict should be understood in a historical context of mistrust between Addis Ababa and Cairo. Some Ethiopian policies are the result of accumulated animosity and attempts to settle historical scores as in the past Cairo has overlooked Ethiopian demands to be part of the quota-sharing agreement in 1959.”
Tawfik explained, “The problem now requires political decisions capable of achieving a historical breakthrough in order to change the course of the conflict. This, in turn, requires a strong leadership with popular consent at home, one that is not influenced by popular sentiment. The administration of [Ethiopian Prime Minister] Abiy Ahmed may not be capable of such leadership, given the escalating domestic tension plaguing Ethiopia.”
The Egyptian steps now depend on the results of the AU summit expected to take place next week.