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GERD politics: back to square one?

GERD politics: back to square one?

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the ambitious project which Ethiopia kicked off almost eight years ago, is once again raising tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt.

The latest raw begun few weeks ago when Egyptian media outlets report supposedly a statement issued by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi claiming the construction of the dam would not have been possible had it not been for the 2011 Egyptian uprising.

According to a report from Ahram Online, an English news website affiliated with Egypt's largest news organization Al-Ahram, President El-Sisi said on Saturday that “The dam on the Nile would never have been built had it not been for the impact of the 2011 uprising.”

 “In 2011 we were not ready for the major developments that took place… the country moved... however; platforms had already been set up... I stress that the very pure youths who went into motion wanted the best [interests] of the country,” he said. "I have not said this in public before," the president told to his youth audience.

This controversial statement from El-Sisi came just few days before a critical meeting between water ministers of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, after almost a year in termission. The Nile tripartite countries did not met for the past one year mostly because of political instability in Sudan.

The USD 4 billion dam was first announced to the world back in 2011. However, the plan to build the dam was initiated in 2006 under then Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi. In 2009 and 2010 a site survey was conducted and its design was submitted to the government in the same year.

Initially known as Project X, which was later renamed the Millennium Dam until it was given its current name, the GERD was kept in extreme secrecy up to its announcement in 2011.

Upon the announcement of the project in March, 2011, Meles stressed that Ethiopia needs no external financial support to build a dam on the Nile. Since then, billions were mobilized from the public through differ mechanisms.

The dam is located in the Benshiangul Gumuz Regional State, a place called Guba, 40 Kilometer east of the border with Sudan and 500 Kilometer northwest of the capital, Addis Ababa. The dam which is now still under construction has reached around 65 percent completion. Upon the commencement of the project, which was contracted to Salini Impregilo and Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC), a state owned military-led industrial conglomerate, the Dam’s construction was expected to be finalized within five years.

Yet, almost eight years after the commencement of the project, the government has already spent 98 billion birr. Moreover, METEC, in charge of the mechanical work of the Dam, is no longer there as it was decided by the government to snatch the contract from METEC and awarded it to other companies.

The understanding and agreement over the Dam, especially during recent years, which seemed stable when downstream riparian countries, Sudan and Egypt, have agreed to support Ethiopia proceed with the project. Nonetheless, some commentators allude this convergence towards the GERD might not have been based on a truly positive spirit from the downstream nation; perhaps it could be because they were out of options or looking at it from their own national interest perspective.    

On the side of Egypt, after the 2011 uprising which ushered in a Muslim Brotherhood-led government to power headed by the late President Mohammed Morsi, who was ousted by El-Sisi, it has always been committed to protecting its interest over the Nile.

During Morsi’s period, Egypt more or less took the position of openly advocating, detracting and sabotaging measures against the construction of the Dam.

For instance back in 2013, a televised discussion between Egyptian politicians and the then President Mohammed Morsi, showed various prominent members of the society entertaining sabotaging tactics to detract the construction of the GERD.

Moreover, Younis Makhyoun, the Chairman of Al-Nour Party, was heard openly suggesting the exploitation of the internal politics of Ethiopia such as creating unrest.

He was heard saying supporting different political factions that are fighting against the Ethiopian government would affect the construction of the Dam.

During Morsi’s era, the mood of cooperation over the GERD especially between Ethiopia and Egypt was at its lowest.

This mood somehow improved with the coming to power of El-Sisi. In March, 2015, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed a Declaration of Principles (DoP) on Ethiopia’s GERD in Khartoum. Moreover, El-Sisi arrived in Addis Ababa for an official visit.

More than anything, the DoP stressed on cooperation based on mutual understanding, followed by the principle of development, regional integration and sustainability. In addition, it also talks about not causing significant damage.

The signing of the DoP, especially by the Egypt of government, was considered to be a tacit acceptance of the GERD, something Egypt failed to do since the inception of the project. Since then, the issue over the GERD stayed relatively smoother. Most of the issues raised or discussed were mostly technical.

This suddenly changed a week ago following the meeting of water ministers of Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia.

Just a month before this meeting, Egypt presented a new proposal about GERD and sends it to their Ethiopian counterparts. This proposal was unilaterally made by Egypt and it was drafted by the time Sudan was in a political turmoil.

For instance, Egypt proposed a six-party meeting of foreign and water ministers of Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt, which Ethiopia declined to attend. According to experts, so far, the regular tripartite meeting was among the water ministers of each of the three countries and perceived to be purely a technical discussion, working towards a technical solution. Meanwhile, Egypt’s new proposal seeks to reverse this progress and bring politics back to the platform. And hence, the idea was met by a resounding “No” from the Ethiopian side.   

Apart from that, Egypt also proposed that the water filling process of the new Dam should make sure that Egypt’s High Aswan Dam did not drop below 165 meters. In addition, Egypt proposed a minimum annual release of 40 billion cubic meters of water from the GERD, while Ethiopia taking a stand not to go above 35 billion cubic meters.

Needless to say, Ethiopia officially rejected these new proposals from Egypt.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Sileshi Bekele (PhD), Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy, said that Egypt's plan including the volume of water it wants the Dam to release annually is inappropriate.

“Egypt from operational aspect asks for the minimum annual release of 40 billion cubic meters of water from the GERD, he said."This is inappropriate.”

“The proposal from Egypt was unilaterally decided...(it) didn't consider our previous agreements," he said.

The minister also labeled the new move from the Egyptian side as an affront to Ethiopia’s sovereignty. "An Egyptian expert can't control our dam," Sileshi said describing Egyptian plan as a potential violation of Ethiopia's sovereignty.

According the government, the Dam is expected to start power generation by the end of 2020 and become fully operational by 2022.

“This is a technical issue and will be solved technically,” said Sileshi adding that is not a political issue.

An expert, who is familiar with the recent meeting of the water ministers in Cairo, described Egypt’s new approach as a “move”, and an outdated one at that.

“They might think that at this moment Ethiopia is too weak and fragile to defend its interest and may be they are taking the internal political dynamics into account,” said the same expert. But, that is nothing but an outdated move.

Following these recent developments, there is going to be a meeting in Khartoum within few weeks where water ministers of those three countries will convene.

“We will prepare our counter proposal,” said Sileshe. “Sudan will also prepare its own.”