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SEPTEMBER 2020

Ethiopian Dam Project Temporarily Suspended, Negotiations Fast-Tracked To Prevent Major Conflict With Egypt

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Ethiopian Dam Project Temporarily Suspended, Negotiations Fast-Tracked To Prevent Major Conflict With Egypt

The Nile is the lifeblood of Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, and may yet cause a devastating conflict between at least two of the neighbouring countries

On Friday 26 June the Egyptian president’s office released a statement to the effect that Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have agreed that Ethiopia will delay filling the Renaissance Dam as part of a comprehensive deal on the project that has raised tensions between the three countries and risks provoking a major conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt. However, although Ethiopia has agreed to a 2 week delay, the country appears determined to commence the final stage of the construction process before the onset of the pending rainy season whether an agreement is reached with Egypt or not.

Political tensions have been running high between Ethiopia and Egypt in particular after recent ministerial talks failed to produce a deal on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Ethiopia has repeatedly stated its determination to start filling the gigantic Nile River dam next month despite vehement opposition from downstream countries Egypt and Sudan, and the dispute is due to be considered by the UN next week.

Talks between the three main parties to the dispute  resumed earlier this month following a suspension in February after a series of meetings held in Washington under the auspices of the US, UN and World Bank.

Ethiopia launched the $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project in 2011 at a site 25 kilometres (15.5 miles) from its border with Sudan, and hopes to retain 4.9 billion cubic meters of water during the coming rainy season in July and August as part of the first-phase filling in order to test two turbines in 2021.

Egypt, which views the hydroelectric project as an existential threat, appealed last week to the UN Security Council to intervene in the dispute.

Ethiopia responded by sending a statement to the UN criticizing Egypt’s position, while Khartoum expressed its concern to the UN about Ethiopia proceeding with the project without reaching a comprehensive deal first.

Cairo fears the dam would severely cut its Nile water supply, which provides nearly 97% of the country’s freshwater needs, while Ethiopia claims that the dam is indispensible for its electrification and national development needs.

A minor breakthrough came late last week after an emergency African Union Executive Council virtual session chaired by South African president Cyril Ramaphosa. Other attendees included Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita of Mali, and President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who are members of the AU Bureau of Heads of State and Government, as well as Moussa Faki, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission.

Following the meeting Ethiopìa agreed to suspend the final stage for 2 weeks, giving a brief respite.

On Friday the office of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said that “a legally binding final agreement for all parties stressing the prevention of any unilateral moves, including the filling of the dam, will be sent in a letter to the UN Security Council to consider it in its session discussing the Renaissance Dam issue next Monday.”

Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok relayed in a statement that “it has been agreed upon that the dam filling will be delayed until an agreement is reached.

Sudan is one of the biggest beneficiaries from the dam and also one of the biggest losers if risks are not mitigated, thus it urges Egypt and Ethiopia to the impending necessity… of finding a solution.”

The Sudanese Prime Minister added that technical committees for all three countries will try to reach a conclusive deal within two weeks as suggested by Ethiopia.

However, somewhat contradictory statements from Ethiopia suggest that the preliminary agreement is only a temporary respite. Moreover, two days before the possible breakthrough was announced, Sudan had once again rejected efforts by Ethiopia to conclude a bilateral deal between the two countries, emphasizing that Egypt must be included in any agreement.

Ethiopia still would be able to start the first filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) as scheduled within two weeks, according to a statement made by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Saturday.

“Ethiopia is scheduled to begin filling the GERD within the next two weeks, during which the remaining construction work will continue,” said a statement issued by the Office of the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Ahmed’s office emphasized that the three countries have agreed to “reach a final agreement on few pending matters” during this two-week period.

The Sudanese government on Friday said the two-week time frame was proposed by the Ethiopian Prime Minister. Sudan also claimed that the meeting further agreed that “the filling of the reservoir should be postponed until the signing of an agreement” between the three countries.

According to the statement, during a series of meetings from 9 to 17 July the three countries agreed on about 95% of the technical issues related to the filling process, but they failed to agree on the legal binding character of the agreement. In particular, Sudan wants a coordination agreement between the GERD and its dam on the Blue Nile to guarantee its viability, while Egypt wants an agreement on the amount of water released during the first filling period.

Although the Security Council is scheduled to discuss the matter on Monday 29 July following a letter filled by Egypt on 19 June followed by similar letters by Ethiopia and Sudan, the African leaders in their statement of Friday underscored that the Nile and the GERD are African issues that must be given African solutions. LINK

While Sudan is doing everything possible to get the other two parties to reach an agreement, Ethiopia is determined to commence filling the dam during the next rainy season, which commences imminently, and may risk provoking a major conflict with Egypt to do so. Indeed, many in Egypt are already calling for war if Ethiopia proceeds with the final phase of construction before an agreement is reached, a call that could be difficult to resist given the importance of the Nile to Egyptians. LINK

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