“It was a totally unexpected step,” commented Diaaeddin Al-Kousi, an expert on water issues and former adviser to the minister of water resources and irrigation, in reaction to news that Egypt wants the World Bank to give technical advice on the building of the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
In a meeting with his Ethiopian counterpart Workneh Gebeyehu in Addis Ababa last week, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri proposed the involvement of the World Bank as an impartial third party in meetings of the technical committee studying the effects of the construction of the dam on downstream countries.
The one-day meeting between Shoukri and Gebeyehu aimed to break the impasse regarding the work of the tripartite technical committee made up of representatives of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.
Ethiopia is attempting to prolong negotiations on technical matters in order to sidestep a report stating that the dam will harm downstream countries until after the completion of the dam’s construction, Al-Kousi added.
Involving the World Bank has several advantages, as it was the party that initiated the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in 1999 on the management of the River Nile’s water and thus has ample experience in this regard.
The NBI was a partnership initiated by the Nile Basin countries as a platform for dialogue and joint work on sharing the river’s resources, promoting peace and stability in the region.
According to the international laws governing international rivers, differences between countries should be settled via direct negotiations between the involved parties followed by involving a third party or more. If the mediation fails, the issue can be referred to international organisations like the United Nations.
Al-Kousi added that the bank has experts who have long experience in mediation issues. “I cannot describe it as 100 per cent unbiased, but they have the skills and the ability to read, understand and analyse the issues,” he said.
Mohamed Hegazi, former assistant to Egypt’s foreign minister, agreed. “During the difficult technical and political negotiations, World Bank experts assisted the involved countries in solving various legal hurdles and proposing the proper legal solutions to many problems that came up in the negotiations,” he said.
Hegazi pointed to the role played by the World Bank in the difficult negotiations between India and Pakistan which had led to the historic signing of the Indus Water Treaty in 1960.
This was signed after nine years of negotiations between India and Pakistan with the help of the World Bank, which is also a signatory to it. It lasted until December 2016, when India wanted to build various hydroelectric projects on the river, to which Islamabad raised objections.
The competition for water in the Indus River Basin has noticeably increased since the treaty was signed, necessitating the need for renegotiation of it. Delegations from India and Pakistan met at the World Bank headquarters in Washington in September last year for a round of talks on the issue.
After they had failed to agree, Pakistan requested the World Bank to fulfil its obligations by establishing a court of arbitration to settle the dispute in the light of the Indus Water Treaty.
Based on the success of previous third-party mediation in water-sharing issues, Egypt then suggested to Ethiopia last week that the World Bank be included in the River Nile negotiations.
“The failure of the technical committee to agree on the preliminary report submitted by the consultancy firms will impede the continuation of the studies on the impacts of the dam on Egypt and Sudan,” Shoukri told his counterpart in Ethiopia.
According to the Declaration of Principles signed in March 2015, the studies should be conducted before the dam filling process starts.
Assuring his country’s commitment to the Declaration of Principles and its determination not to cause harm to Egypt, Gebeyehu promised to study the Egyptian initiative and respond at the earliest opportunity.
Shoukri stated that he would submit the same initiative to Sudan within the next few days. The World Bank has not reacted to the Egyptian initiative, and no one was available to comment on the issue.
Negotiations between the three countries on the GERD broke down last November after the 17th round of technical talks was held in Cairo and attended by the irrigation ministers of the three countries.
After the meeting, Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Ati declared that the technical track was facing deadlock. Egypt approved the preliminary report, but Ethiopia and Sudan demanded major amendments to the proposed studies. They failed to reach a compromise.
“It is strange that Ethiopia did not accept the preliminary report,” Al-Kousi said. “It is even stranger that Sudan did not either, although it signed an agreement with Egypt stating that both states should follow the same policies regarding Nile water issues,” he added.
The draft preliminary report was produced by a French consultancy firm in March last year. It includes studies to be conducted by the firm on the hydrological, hydraulic, environmental and economic impact of the dam.
During last week’s visit to Addis Ababa, Shoukri also met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to discuss the upcoming visit by Desalegn to Cairo later this month in addition to bilateral relations and the challenges facing the technical track on the dam.
The involvement of the World Bank, Hegazi added, would be likely to provide a catalyst for establishing a framework for regional cooperation in which a multi-purpose project integrating water, power grids, railway and road network between the three countries could be drawn up.
“International financial institutions like the World Bank and other donors will certainly favour supporting a multi-dimensional project that involves many countries, in which water is just one factor in a multi-faceted cooperation programme,” he said.
The construction of the GERD has been a source of tension between Ethiopia and Egypt for some years. The dam, begun in 2011, is due for completion in the middle of this year. It will hold a massive 79 billion cubic metres of water and will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa.
Ethiopia argues that there will be no reduction of water downstream, as all the Blue Nile water will be cycled through the dam and eventually reach the downstream countries on its way to the Mediterranean. It also claims that more water will be available overall because there will be less evaporation.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly