Skip to main content

Has diplomacy run out of cards to play to end the Nile dam dispute?

The round of negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia end in Kinshasa, Congo, with no resolution in sight.
Mariam al-Mahdi

CAIRO — The round of negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam between the Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian ministers of water and irrigation concluded April 6 without agreement in Kinshasa, Congo. No consensus was even reached to continue the diplomatic process to settle the unresolved disputes over the filling and operation of the dam.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Hafez said in a press statement after the meetings ended, “The meeting has not achieved any progress and will not result in an agreement on relaunching the negotiations. Ethiopia refused the Egyptian and Sudanese proposal to form an international quartet led by the Democratic Republic of Congo as mediator between the three countries.” He also said, “Ethiopia also refused a proposition that Egypt made during the closing session and Sudan supported to resume negotiations under the wing of the Congolese president and with the participation of observers.”

He added, “The Ethiopian stance once again proves the lack of Ethiopia’s well-intentioned political willingness to negotiate. It is stalling and procrastinating, and it is clinging to a formal and ineffective negotiation mechanism.” 

The round of talks was held in Congo because the country now heads the African Union Commission. The three-day talks between the ministers of water and irrigation of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia began April 4 after Ethiopia insisted on proceeding with the second stage of filling the dam reservoir during the flood season in July and retaining around 13.5 billion cubic meters of water.

The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs blamed Sudan and Egypt for the failure of the talks and seeking to "undermine the AU-led process and take the matter out of the African platform," adding that the scheduled second filling of the dam will proceed as scheduled.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi released statements that directly threatened and warned against any measures that infringe upon Egyptian interests in Nile water.

The talks aimed at determining the approach, process and timing of negotiations, in addition to mechanisms ensuring commitment to them to secure constructive negotiations and overcome the stalemate that has cast a shadow over the talks since the sponsorship of the African Union began in June 2020. The objective was to reach a comprehensive and legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam in a way that would ensure the interests of the three countries and maintain the rights of the two downstream countries, avoiding the creation of risks or damages for Egypt and Sudan when the dam stores water.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said during the first session of the Kinshasa talks April 4 that the negotiations “are the last chance to reach an agreement on the operation and filling of the dam before the next flood season.”

An Egyptian technical source who participated in the Kinshasa meetings told Al-Monitor, “The Egyptian delegation attended the Kinshasa meetings based on instructions from the political leadership to offer several alternative solutions to the remaining points of contention through serious dialogue and diplomatic means. The Egyptian suggestions were backed by Sudan and observers participating in the meetings.”

The source added on condition of anonymity, “A detailed report about the meetings and their outcomes will be presented, and the situation will be assessed, given the failure to reach an agreement and the Egyptian political leadership’s halt of negotiations. Moving forward, Egypt has several scenarios to deter any attempts to impose a fait accompli and sabotage the Nile water.”

During the talks, Sudanese Foreign Minister Mariam al-Mahdi had warned against unilateral measures that Ethiopia might take in filling the dam reservoir. In statements cited by the Sudan News Agency, she said Ethiopia's first filling of the dam "unilaterally resulted in a week of thirst, and it negatively affected irrigation and the animal wealth needs. By proceeding with the second filling despite Sudan’s warnings, Ethiopia would be achieving short-term political gains.” She said, “Sudan refuses any unilateral filling of the dam because a conflict over resources would mean an unwanted future for Africa.”

Mohamed Nasreddin Allam, a former Egyptian minister of water resources, told Al-Monitor, “If Ethiopia proceeds with the second filling without Egypt and Sudan’s approval, it would be somewhat declaring war.”

Hani Raslan, an expert at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “Ethiopia has made its own bed by proceeding with the second filling in any case. Egypt is unlikely to accept that another state controls the fate and lives of 100 million Egyptians. The Ethiopian leadership is responsible for dragging the region into an unjustified conflict.”

Raslan said, “There were many opportunities to reach consensual solutions to cooperate in the eastern Nile and achieve the interests of all parties by generating electricity to Ethiopia and not harming the water supplies of Egypt and Sudan, thus avoiding a conflict that would be costly for all. However, Ethiopia has dealt with the GERD issue as a zero-sum game, without caring about peaceful coexistence with its neighbors.” The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is also known by its initials, GERD.

He said any decision to launch a military attack on the dam could strengthen Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration "amid the conflicts and divisions inside Ethiopia, particularly with the nearing elections.”

With the failure of the negotiations, international law expert Musaed Abdel Aty told Al-Monitor, “Egypt and Sudan have a legal commitment to return to the Security Council, under Article 7, and brief it by giving a unified speech that includes a legal and technical narration of what happened during the negotiation rounds under African Union auspices. Their briefing must describe the current situation in the region and Ethiopia’s clear and direct threats to peace and security, and it must urge the council to fulfill its role and issue a decision to stop the second filling until a satisfactory agreement that guarantees the interests and rights of the downstream countries is reached.”

He added, “The Kinshasa talks revealed the Ethiopian recklessness and foiling of any chance at peaceful settlement of the conflict by refusing international mediation. This is a violation of the rules of international law.”

Before the meetings, Sisi had addressed the Congolese president in a letter in which he said Egypt was striving for an agreement to be reached fairly quickly, before the flood season.

Abdel Aty said, “Sisi’s discourse carried several connotations about Egypt’s respect for the African Union’s efforts and quest to solve the dispute through diplomatic and peaceful means.”

Coincidentally with the meetings of the ministers of water and irrigation in Kinshasa, the chief of staff of Egypt's armed forces, Mohamed Hegazi, was in Sudan attending the end of air maneuvers of the Nile Eagles 2 exercise, in which top Egyptian fighter jets participated, at Merowe air base. The exercise follows the Nile Eagles 1 maneuvers held in November. Hegazi said, “Egypt stands by the Sudanese army. We are in the same boat, and we look forward to a promising and secure future.”

More from Ayah Aman

Recommended Articles