Skip to main content

Egypt, Sudan refuse Ethiopian proposal on filling Nile dam reservoir

Egypt and Sudan refused Ethiopia's proposal for a partial agreement to form a mechanism to exchange data about the measures to implement the next stage of filling the GERD reservoir.
Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly (R) welcomes his Sudanese counterpart Abdalla Hamdok upon his arrival in Cairo, Egypt, March 11, 2021.

CAIRO — Following the failure of the Kinshasa talks — which according to Egyptian officials may have been the last chance to resolve the outstanding issues between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) — Ethiopian Water, Irrigation and Energy Minister Seleshi Bekele addressed April 10 Egypt and Sudan in two letters, calling on them to form a mechanism to exchange data about the measures to implement the next stage of filling the GERD reservoir in July and August.

As per Bekele’s letter, establishing a mechanism for data sharing will constitute a good opportunity to build trust among the three countries. His letter included a notification of holding some technical tests for the lower gates of the dam by releasing water amounting to up to 1 billion cubic meters to prepare for the second stage of filling.

Egypt refused the Ethiopian proposal. The statement of the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources stated April 10 that the Ethiopian proposal contradicts the main aim behind the negotiations, which is to reach a binding legal agreement that includes the filling and operation of the dam. The ministry noted, “The proposal is just an obvious attempt to obtain Egyptian approval for the second phase of filling, even if the three countries do not reach an agreement.”

The statement underscored that “Egypt refuses any unilateral measures, and it will not accept any understandings or schemes that provide political and technical cover for Ethiopia’s attempts to impose a fait accompli on the two downstream countries.”

Sudan also criticized the Ethiopian proposal. The Sudanese Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources noted in a press statement April 10, “The Ethiopian offer for data exchange in the manner indicated by their letter implies suspicious selectivity and an unacceptable inclination to take steps that are convenient for Ethiopia only, without minding Sudanese concerns and demands.”

The Sudanese statement condemned Bekele’s letter and noted, “The Ethiopian offer has made the exchange of data a mere offering from Ethiopia, which it can give or take whenever it so pleases. This deeply jeopardizes Sudan’s national interests.”

The Sudanese statement justified Sudan’s refusal of the sudden and unilateral measures of Ethiopia with its release of 1 billion cubic meters of water through 48 lower gates in the GERD. The statement noted, “The notice period is quite short and insufficient to take protective measures to avoid any harm to the Sudanese dams. Besides, the Ethiopian measure reveals the partial start of the filling operation in May and June, in contrast to the exchanged schedules that confirm the storage would begin in July. This step will pressure the Sudanese electricity system and dams on the Blue Nile.”

Cairo and Khartoum are insisting on a unified request, which is to create a clear and binding legal framework to manage the operation and filling of the GERD, and not to leave the dam issue at the mercy of the whims of states, political changes and interests, or regional transformations.

Mustafa Ahmadi, an expert on African affairs and former Egyptian press attache in Ethiopia, told Al-Monitor, “The Ethiopian offer to nominate delegates to exchange data about the second filling is another way to gain more time and relieve the increasing pressure on the Ethiopian government as a result of the concerns of the two downstream countries.”

He said, “The exchange of information about the GERD is not the root cause of the disagreement, but the main problem remains in finding a binding legal agreement regarding the joint operation of the dam, as well as Ethiopia’s respect for the historic Nile water agreements related to the current uses of the Nile water in Egypt and Sudan.”

Ahmadi noted, “The proposal to exchange data appears to be another game from Ethiopia. It is presenting itself as a country ready to address the concerns of the two downstream countries and alleviate tensions that have reached the point of threatening to use force, according to Egyptian and Sudanese officials who said that all options are on the table.”

Water experts believe that technically avoiding the damages of the second filling of the GERD is possible in Egypt and Sudan, through the procedures of preparing the Sudanese dams on the Blue Nile and the High Dam in Egypt. The main dilemma remains in the way to manage the filling and operation of the GERD within a unified system of dams on the Blue Nile that ensures transparent data exchange.

Abbas Sharaqi, a professor of water resources at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor, “The main problem in Ethiopia’s monopolization of the filling of the dam reservoir is its imposition of a fait accompli and disregard for the negotiations.”

He noted, “The water damage as a result of the second filling can be accepted and its effects reduced if there is coordination between the three countries. However, the risk remains in Ethiopia’s free hand in the matter and its sole control of the Blue Nile. Egypt and Sudan cannot bear the brunt of sudden Ethiopian actions in managing the GERD.”

Sharaqi added, “The Ethiopian offer to name engineers from Egypt and Sudan to exchange data aims to provide information from one party only, without discussion or review of any of the Ethiopian procedures.”

The Ethiopian Water, Irrigation and Energy Ministry statement on the proposal to share the second filling data is in accordance with Article 5 of the Declaration of Principles Agreement signed in 2015, which provides for an agreement on a coordination mechanism and information exchange. However, the negotiations that took place since the signing of the Declaration of Principles have not reached any consensus on the implementation of the terms of agreement. Besides, the three countries did not take into consideration any of the results of the scientific committees.

After the Ethiopian proposal was rejected, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry addressed on April 13 letters to the UN secretary-general, the president of the Security Council and the president of the General Assembly, requesting that they be circulated as an official document that explains all dimensions of the GERD file, the various stages of negotiation and the latest developments. The letters emphasized the constant principles of the Egyptian stance and the need to reach a binding legal agreement governing the rules for filling and operating the dam. In addition, they highlighted the danger of Ethiopia’s continuing to take unilateral measures without reaching an agreement.

Despite the divergence in the positions of the three countries and Ethiopia's insistence on proceeding with the second filling of the dam, on April 13, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok called on his Egyptian and Ethiopian counterparts to hold a summit within 10 days, to assess the negotiations on the GERD after having reached a dead end.

On April 19, Shoukry embarked on an African tour — including Kenya, Comoros, South Africa, Congo, Senegal and Tunisia — to provide updates on the developments on the dam and to deliver a special message from President Sisi to his counterparts. 

Egypt’s and Sudan’s moves before the international community aim at exerting strong pressure on Ethiopia to prevent any additional unilateral measures that would initiate the second filling of the GERD, in the absence of a comprehensive and legally binding agreement governing the filling and operation of the dam, and to prevent any future conflicts in the Blue Nile.

More from Ayah Aman