No dam compromise

GERD: DRC’s Tshisekedi does not get the hoped-for dam agreement

By Romain Gras

Posted on April 7, 2021 17:57

For his first mediation in his new role as chairman of the African Union (AU), Félix Tshisekedi chose to tackle a complex diplomatic issue: the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

The Congolese head of state, who visited Egypt and Ethiopia in recent months, hoped to set in motion “a new dynamic” to reach a “win-win” agreement. In his opening speech on 4 April, the Congolese President said that “the differences over the GERD should not be seen as inevitable.”

The three days of negotiations held at the Hotel du Fleuve Congo in Kinshasa showed that there is still a long way to go before an agreement is reached, and the obstacles are greater than Tshisekedi had hoped.

Initially scheduled to last two days, the meeting was extended by a few hours. However, this was not enough time for the three countries to find common ground.

The final communiqué, read on Tuesday, 6 April, by the Congolese foreign affairs minister Marie Tumba Nzeza, who appeared alone before the press at the end of the meeting, does not mention any particular progress.

“Unimaginable instability”

Led by the foreign affaires ministers of the three countries, and including their water ministers, the Egyptian, Ethiopian and Sudanese delegations were accompanied by a committee of experts. They talked behind closed doors.

The main sticking point: the schedule for filling the dam reservoir, the first phase of which was completed in August 2020. The second phase is scheduled for around July, when Ethiopia’s rainy season begins. But Egypt has said that without an agreement, this stage would generate many tensions and “unimaginable instability”.

The three countries have not agreed on the format of these discussions.

  • Ethiopia wants the AU, whose headquarters it hosts, to keep control of this thorny issue.
  • Egypt and Sudan, on the other hand, want greater involvement by the European Union, the United Nations and the United States.

“These three have, at this stage, an informal observer status, like other countries like South Africa,” explains a Congolese diplomatic source involved in the discussions. While the idea of organising a new summit before the end of April has been abandoned, “we will re-launch contacts in the hope of reaching a new meeting before the July deadline,” says the source.

10 years of tensions

For nearly 10 years, this mega-project, on which Ethiopia began work in 2011, has been a source of diplomatic tension between Addis Ababa, Cairo and Khartoum. Located in north-western Ethiopia, on the border with Sudan, the GERD is set to become the largest hydroelectric dam on the continent.

A central element in Ethiopia’s development strategy, the project is facing strong opposition from Egypt, which is extremely dependent on the Nile for its access to water, as is Sudan, which also believes that its interests are threatened if the project is carried out without an agreement between the three countries involved.

In recent years, numerous attempts at mediation have been initiated to try to ease tensions between stakeholders, who often use tough rhetoric to bolster their positions.

The previous US administration thought it had reached an agreement in February 2020, before Addis Ababa pulled out of the talks, accusing Washington of supporting Cairo.

The AU’s entry into the talks had raised hopes of an improvement. But its mediation attempt last January also ended in failure.

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