Conflict Alerts # 357, 7 April 2021
In the news
On 6 April, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan failed to reach an agreement over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), after three days of talks in Kinshasa. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said: "This position reveals once again Ethiopia's lack of political will to negotiate in good faith." Similarly, the Sudanese Foreign Minister said, "Without a new approach to negotiations, there becomes space for Ethiopia to impose a fait accompli and put all the peoples of the region in grave danger."
On 4 April, the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and African Union Chairman commenced the latest round of talks between the three countries with their respective foreign ministers and irrigation ministers and African Union officials. On the same day, the President said, "I ask you all to make a fresh start, to open one or several windows of hope, to seize every opportunity." The Egyptian Foreign Minister said, "These negotiations represent the last chance that the three countries must seize to reach an accord."
Issues at large
First, a brief history of the Nile dam. Ethiopia began the construction of the dam over the Blue Nile tributary in 2011 and has a capacity of 74 billion cubic metres and a capacity of 6,500 megawatts. Ethiopia believes the dam will help in power generation for its entire 110-million strong population, when the construction is completed and starts operating by 2023. The power generation is also expected to address the problems of Ethiopia's neighbouring countries, including Sudan. In 2020, Ethiopia filled the reservoir for the first time and is planning to do the same in the monsoon of 2021.
Second, the contentions of the lower riparian countries. The two lower riparian countries, Egypt and Sudan, raised apprehensions that the dam will affect their water supply. They prefer that Ethiopia takes longer to fill the dam to prevent a dramatic drop in the river's water level. Further, Egypt, which depends on the Nile for 90 per cent of its water requirements, holds a sentimental and historical value to the river. Egypt and Sudan cite their rights to the river that were guaranteed to them in 1929 and 1959.
Third, new demands on mediation. The latest talks failed after the three countries disagreed on the process of mediation. Egypt and Sudan suggested that the US, EU, UN, and the AU to mediate the talks. On 15 March, the Sudanese Prime Minister also formally requested the four parties to mediate. However, during the latest talks, Ethiopia emphasized that the mediation should be African-led. Further, Ethiopia prefers the solution to be a set of guidelines, while Egypt and Sudan push for a legally binding agreement.
First, talks between the two countries have failed to produce a consensus for almost a decade. However, since 2020, Ethiopia has unilaterally operated the filling of the reservoir and is likely to continue the same in the coming years. Unless the three countries reach an agreement, Egypt and Sudan will be at the losing end.
Second, the involvement of external actors may complicate Ethiopia's position on the dam because the leadership is already facing pressure from the US, EU and the UN due to the ongoing internal conflict in the country.