Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan agree to delay dam filling

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have agreed to delay the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) until a final deal is reached, the Egyptian presidency said. (File/Reuters)
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Updated 27 June 2020

Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan agree to delay dam filling

  • In an interview, former Egyptian irrigation minister Mohammed Nasr Allam described the decision as a political victory for Egypt
  • Through the dam, Ethiopia is hoping to become a major power exporter for Africa

CAIRO: Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have agreed to delay the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) until a final deal is reached, the Egyptian presidency said on Friday.

The three countries decided to form a committee of legal and technical experts to draft a final deal, and will “refrain from taking any unilateral measures, including the filling of the dam, before the agreement is reached.”

The announcement came after an emergency African Union online summit of leaders of the three countries, chaired by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

In an interview, former Egyptian irrigation minister Mohammed Nasr Allam described the decision as a political victory for Egypt.

“Cairo demanded a halt to any unilateral decision taken by Ethiopia regarding the rules for filling the Renaissance Dam. The Ethiopian retreat came because they know Egypt has a prominent place in the Security Council. I expect the decision will be in the interests of Egypt,” he said.

Last week, Ethiopia said it would begin filling the dam in July, even without the approval of the two downstream countries.

However, on Saturday Ethiopia said it will reach a final agreement with Egypt and Sudan on “a few pending matters” over the disputed $4.8 billion dam within the next two weeks.

“Ethiopia is scheduled to begin filling the GERD within the next two weeks, during which time the remaining construction work will continue. It is in this period that the three countries have agreed to reach a final agreement on a few pending matters,” the Ethiopian prime minister’s office said.

Mohamed Besheer, a political studies and international relations expert, told Arab News the agreement is an important step “only if Ethiopia decides to comply with international law. It may be the start of a major crisis in the region if Ethiopia continues the policy of maneuvering and time wasting.”

He added that the statement issued on Saturday by the Ethiopian government differs from statements issued by Egypt, Sudan and the African Union.

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said that the three leaders have agreed to “postpone the filling of the dam until an agreement is signed.”

The technical committee will try to strike a deal within two weeks, as suggested by Ethiopia, said Hamdok’s office.

The committee will also include leaders of Kenya, Mali and Congo, as well as international observers, including the US, EU and South Africa.

Last week Egypt called on the UN Security Council to intervene in order to restart talks on the mega-project, and warned that filling the dam without a deal would “threaten international peace and security.”

Sudan joined Egypt in voicing concerns to the UN body, saying in a letter on Wednesday that the unilateral filling of the dam, located around 15 km from the Sudanese border, could “cause substantial risks” to Khartoum and endanger the lives of millions of people living downstream.

Through the dam, Ethiopia is hoping to become a major power exporter for Africa, while Egypt is concerned the project will significantly curtail its water supply if filled too quickly.

The arrival of the rain season is bringing more water to the Blue Nile, the main branch of the Nile, and Ethiopia sees this as an ideal time to begin its filling of the dam’s reservoir.

But Sudan fears the giant Ethiopian dam will put its own Roseires Dam at risk if it is not properly designed, filled and operated.

Egypt relies on the Nile for 95 percent of its fresh water. Experts and officials warn the dam will significantly cut the river’s flow, affecting Egypt’s share of water and causing agricultural damage.


American G20 ‘sherpa’ Chris Olson lauds strong, long-standing Riyadh-Houston links

Updated 30 September 2020

American G20 ‘sherpa’ Chris Olson lauds strong, long-standing Riyadh-Houston links

  • Chris Olson: It began with oil but developed into a cultural and economic exchange – a lot of Saudis ended up calling Houston home
  • Olson: I’ve been impressed by how Riyadh has taken the U20 concept and moved it forward

One of the aims of the U20 — the urban track of the G20 organization that formally opens on Thursday in Riyadh — is to bring together cities of diverse backgrounds and cultures to explore common interests and challenges, rather than focusing on what makes them different.

In the case of Riyadh and Houston, Texas, that process of familiarization has been underway for decades.

Christopher Olson, director of international affairs and global trade at the offices of the city of Houston, told Arab News: “There has been a long-standing and strong relationship between Houston and Riyadh, indeed the whole of Saudi Arabia, for a very long time.”

Olson reports to the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, but for the past year or so has been the US “sherpa” at the G20, under Saudi presidency this year.

The Riyadh-Houston affinity was based, naturally, on the oil and gas industry, with both cities owing much of their economic dynamism and growth to the energy business. Saudis and Texans share a unique heritage as pioneers of the crude business, and those links have grown and diversified over the decades.

“It began with oil but developed into a cultural and economic exchange. A lot of Saudis ended up calling Houston home,” Olson said.

Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s energy giant, has a big facility in the Texan city, and owns the Motiva refinery complex a short distance away on the Gulf of Mexico coast.

Until the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic hit, Saudis would travel in droves each year to the CERAWeek energy forum in Houston, the “oil man’s Davos,” not least to keep tabs on what their rivals were doing in the Texas shale industry.

Saudis also attend Texas universities in big numbers, and the Texas Medical Center — which Olson pointed out was the biggest medical facility in the world — treats Saudi patients in increasing numbers.

Oil and medicine came together during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Aramco gifted medical supplies and equipment to Houston. “We were incredibly fortunate in that. We got almost 1 million masks from benefactors, and Aramco made up a big proportion of that. It really was incredibly generous,” Olson added.

The virus outbreak led to the cancellation of CERAWeek this year, but the city hoped organizers would add some physical element to the planned virtual event in 2021, Olson said.

The city managed to avoid most of the early virulence of the pandemic that hit US cities such as New York and Los Angeles, but relaxed early restrictions, along with several American cities, in May, and suffered a resulting spike in infections, the official added. “Now the numbers are moving in the right direction — downwards. But as schools and economic activity restarts, there is the potential for a second wave.”

One of the major themes of the U20 is how big urban centers, such as Houston and Riyadh, can overcome the health and economic ravages of the pandemic. Some experts have forecast mass migration from big cities, partly to avoid infection, but also as working and social habits adapt to whatever post-pandemic “normality” emerges. There has even been talk of “the end of urbanization.”

Olson said: “We’re all going to have to adapt. For example, are we as cities still going to invest in big infrastructure projects to encourage mass transit systems? That is the thing to do from a sustainability viewpoint, but it creates a health challenge.”

The working environment also faces enforced change. “There may have been a reticence in the past about tele-meetings, but now they are ubiquitous. It’s going to fundamentally change the way business is conducted.”

Increased dependence on technology brings other challenges, which the U20 will also consider. The digital divide between those who have access to efficient communications, especially in education, has been brought into sharp relief during the global health crisis, and even impacted on affluent urban hubs such as Houston.

“But I believe the city as a concept will endure. We are urban and social animals. People will adapt, but the general concept of the urban environment will not change,” Olson added.

He said it had been “fantastic” working with his counterparts at the U20 in Saudi Arabia.

“I’ve been impressed by how Riyadh has taken the U20 concept and moved it forward. The U20 is still only in its third year, but Riyadh has solidified it as an engagement group, and created a format for an exchange of thought and ideas. This will help us come up with evidence-based proposals and solutions,” he added.

The climax of the U20 comes on Friday, when mayors from all the big cities come together virtually to approve a 27-point communique for delivery to the G20 leadership. That statement is still under wraps, but Olson said it was a “well-crafted” document that reflected the good relationships that had developed between the sherpas over the past year.

He would like to see the U20 track elevated within G20 proceedings in the future, especially in the way it addresses issues of more concern to younger people, and believes that Saudi Arabia, with its very young demographic, will assist that elevation process.

“The amazing work of Riyadh has built on what was achieved in Tokyo and Buenos Aires and has carried it forward.

“It’s the cities of the world that face the biggest challenges — such as climate change, human rights, and sustainable development. But the cities are also coming up with the solutions. That is where the opportunity lies,” Olson said.