So far the project has progressed unilaterally, with the building and the filling of the dam undertaken before an agreement with Egypt and Sudan, two countries very likely to be affected by the dam, was reached.
Two days before the announcement, Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Hani Sewilam warned that the continuation of unilateral measures regarding GERD can present an “existential danger” to 150 million citizens, that is the Egyptian and Sudanese populations combined.
Sewilam’s statement was made in the course of him addressing the opening plenary of the 2023 UN Water Conference, held in New York. In his address he stressed that Addis Ababa’s “unilateral” and “non-cooperative practices” in the operation of a dam of such exaggerated size can have a disastrous impact.
While he pointed out that Egypt is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, Sewilam cast light on the huge investments the country is making to raise the efficiency of its water system, which have exceeded $10 billion during the previous five-year plan. Such costs come on top of those needed to reuse water and import enormous amounts of food products worth about $15 billion.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, for his part, told the media two weeks ago that Egypt has the right to defend the capabilities and interests of its people.
“All options are open, and all alternatives remain available, and Egypt has its capabilities,” Shoukri told the media in reference to GERD. “We just declare all options open without defining specific procedures, and this serves Egyptian interest in keeping all available alternatives open.”
While he refrained from discussing the fourth filling of GERD, he said that Cairo is monitoring and following the situation closely. This is not the first time that Shoukri directed a warning to Addis Ababa. In his meeting with Kenyan Foreign Minister Alfred Mutua in early March, he vowed that Egypt would defend its people’s interests if Addis Ababa failed to ensure that no serious harm is caused to downstream countries by the building and operation of the dam.
In a press conference following the meeting, he pointed out that Cairo has always sought a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of GERD, he questioned whether Ethiopia has the political will to reach that agreement at a time when it is going ahead with plans to build the dam and unilaterally carry out the fourth phase of its filling this summer.
Initially, Egypt tried to reach an agreement with Ethiopia via bilateral talks. The two countries together with Sudan then signed the Declaration of Principles (DoP) in 2015, after which tripartite negotiations started in the hope of reaching an agreement on the operation of GERD. However, Addis Ababa continued its policy of wasting time while imposing facts on the ground. The various sessions of tripartite talks failed to bridge the differences between Egypt and Ethiopia, and Addis Ababa managed to intentionally thwart several African-Union mediated initiatives.
Given the good relations that tie the US with both Egypt and Ethiopia, Cairo later accepted mediation by former US president Donald Trump. A consensual and detailed agreement was prepared then and was ready to be signed, but the Ethiopian delegation made a no-show, and Egypt alone signed the agreement to confirm its good will. Sudan attended but declined to sign.
In the hope of breaking the deadlock in the negotiations, Egypt took its dispute with Ethiopia to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The council issued a presidential statement in September 2021 urging Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to resume negotiations, at the invitation of the AU chairperson, on the dam, “with a view to finalising the text of a mutually acceptable agreement on filling and operating the dam within a reasonable time frame”.
Last year, for the third year in a row, Egypt sent a letter to the international body that held Addis Ababa “fully responsible for any significant harm to Egyptian interests that may result from Addis Ababa breaching its aforementioned obligations”.
Preparations for the fourth filling indicate that it is going to be a big one. It is likely to have an effect on both Egypt and Sudan. Even if it does not, nothing can guarantee that there will be no effect on the downstream countries in the future, especially during years of drought. That is why Egypt should continue with its diplomatic campaign to highlight to the world the dangers and damage that the dam can cause. The two downstream countries should also insist on reaching a legally binding agreement that draws a timetable for the filling and operation of the dam without affecting Egypt’s share of water, or causing damage or flooding in Sudan.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly