Ethiopian PM pledges GERD cooperation but Egyptian concerns remain

Egyptian GERD

(The arab weekly): For many Egyptians, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is the most serious threat facing the country.

Egypt and Ethiopia have agreed to forge stronger cooperation but critics say the lack of a signed agreement committing Addis Ababa to protecting Egypt’s share of Nile waters could prove a sticking point.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, speaking at a news conference June 10 with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, announced a deal had been reached to turn the Nile into a source of life and cooperation.

“We agreed to work together to remove all hindrances, including on the road to reaching a final agreement that secures Egypt’s unquestionable right to its share of the water of the Nile,” Sisi said.

For many Egyptians, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is the most serious threat facing the country. The dam will significantly reduce the amount of water reaching Egypt, potentially devastating agriculture, threaten Egypt’s food security, force it to spend money on expensive seawater desalination and sewage treatment plants and cancel agricultural expansion plans.

Negotiations between Egypt and Ethiopia over the past seven years to address the effects of the dam failed to produce concrete solutions. In May, however, a nine-member committee from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan approved, in principle, a preliminary report on the technical effects of the dam on Egypt and Sudan.

Sisi said that approval needed to be translated into a written document that protects Egypt’s annual water share of 55.5 billion cubic metres.

Sisi, however, apparently could not convince Ahmed to formally sign a deal and instead asked him at the news conference to swear that Ethiopia would not harm Egypt’s water interests.

“Repeat after me,” Sisi said to Ahmed in Arabic, “I swear by Allah that we will not do anything that harms Egypt’s water share.” A smiling Ahmed swore the oath but analysts said that Sisi’s insistence on a public oath underscores the limited options available to Cairo regarding the dam.

“Such an oath has no value under international law, meaning that Egypt cannot hold Ethiopia accountable in case the dam harms the country’s water interests,” said Ayman Salama, a professor of international law at Cairo University. “Egypt is badly in need of a written document to protect its water share.”

Addis Ababa is placing major hopes that the GERD will improve the country’s economic conditions through sale of energy produced by the hydro-electric dam to neighbouring countries, transactions that could generate millions of dollars in revenues every year.

The dam will also, Addis Ababa said, protect large parts of Ethiopia against drought by storing as much as 74 billion cubic metres of water that previously would have ended up in downstream countries Sudan and Egypt. This dam reservoir storage area is at the centre of the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia.

“The storage capacity and the design of the dam are made to cause harm to Egypt,” said Egyptian water expert Hossam Reda. “The problem is that the dam construction has reached the stage where it is an irreversible fact on the ground.”

Egypt’s hope is to mitigate the effects of the dam. This, experts said, can only be achieved by convincing Ethiopia to agree to the filling of the reservoir over eight or ten years, instead of the planned three.

Cairo has tried to turn the GERD dispute into an opportunity for cooperation.

Sisi described relations with Ethiopia as “strategic” and said his administration turned mending fences with Ethiopia into a top priority in the past four years.

He agreed with Ahmed to take measures to expand cooperation, including by establishing an Egyptian industrial zone in Ethiopia, increasing agricultural cooperation and importing Ethiopian meat.

Sisi agreed with Ahmed to establish a joint fund for infrastructure projects in Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.

It is suspected that the fund could be used in Egypt to financially compensate Ethiopia should it agree to increase the period filling the GERD reservoir.

Ahmed vowed to work with Sisi to increase its Nile water share. However, with no signed document, there can be no guarantees.

“I assure Egyptians that nothing will stop their share of Nile water from reaching their country,” Ahmed said. “We want to have cooperation that benefits both Egypt and Ethiopia.”