Last week’s meeting followed what Mohamed Hegazi, a former assistant to Egypt’s foreign minister, called “positive signs” which began last month when Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent a message to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi expressing Addis Ababa’s willingness to resolve outstanding issues around the dam.
Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Atti’s visit to Ethiopia last week provided an opportunity to explain Egypt’s position.
“Egypt has a clear scenario for resolving pending issues, including creating a regional authority to oversee Nile water-related issues,” Hegazi told Al-Ahram Weekly.
During the meeting between Abdel-Atti and his Ethiopian counterpart Frehiwot Woldehanna, Egypt reiterated its concerns that the filling of the dam’s reservoir threatened to reduce the flow of Nile water to Egypt. Such concerns have been lent greater urgency by the recent announcement that Egypt’s annual share of Nile water has fallen by five billion cubic metres this year.
The meeting also laid the groundwork for a later — the date has yet to be revealed — six-party gathering of foreign and water and irrigation ministers from Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Intelligence heads of the three states may also attend.
Egypt’s concern over its share of Nile water came to the forefront when Ethiopia started building the dam in May 2011. A series of tripartite talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan began in 2014. A year later the three countries agreed the Declaration of Principles.
“Under the declaration specialist consultants were supposed to review various scenarios for the filling period of the reservoir and its socio-economic and environmental impacts. This hasn’t happened yet, though the filling process is likely to start next year,” says Nader Noureddin, professor of agriculture and irrigation at Cairo University.
Ethiopia is pressing for a five- to six-year timetable to fill the dam. Egypt is insisting on a longer filling period so as not to disrupt the flow of the Nile.
According to Noureddin, Egypt is already facing a 42 billion cubic metres shortfall in its water needs.
Egypt requires 104 billion cubic metres annually. Yet existing water resources are limited to 62 billion cubic metres, 55.5 billion of which come from the Nile, 5.5 billion from subterranean supplies and 1.3 billion from rainfall.
Last month President Al-Sisi received a letter from Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, delivered during Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs Gedu Andargachew’s brief visit to Egypt. The letter confirmed that Addis Ababa is keen to resume trilateral negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan to implement the Declaration of Principles.
Ahmed’s letter to Al-Sisi also reiterated Addis Ababa’s commitment to enhancing relations with Egypt and its keenness to see Egyptian investments in Ethiopia increase.
In June, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri called on Sudan and Ethiopia to speed up negotiations during a meeting with Andaragachew. Shoukri also said he intended to call a tripartite meeting between the three countries’ foreign and irrigation ministers to continue talks on the dam.
The issue was last discussed at summit level on the sidelines of the African Union (AU) presidential summit in Addis Ababa in February when the leaders of all three states expressed their commitment to arrive at a “joint vision” concerning the dam’s operation.
Two nine-party meetings — including ministers of irrigation, foreign affairs and heads of intelligence — were held last year.
The first, held soon after Ahmed came to power, concluded without any tangible outcome. A month later, however, the second nine-party meeting ended with an agreement to work on a mechanism for dialogue on the political, technical and strategic levels and to establish an Independent Scientific Research Study Group to examine ways of building greater understanding and cooperation between the three countries.
Given the clear political will to resolve outstanding issues, Hegazi believes an agreement to form a regional body to oversee the Nile is now within reach.
“This body will be expected to work on the summit, ministerial, technical and experts’ levels, as well as on infrastructure,” he says.
Noureddin is less convinced. He argues that outstanding issues need to be resolved before further cooperation can begin. Addis Ababa, he says, has tried to renege on all the commitments contained in the Declaration of Principles, placing Egypt in a difficult position.
“Unless Ethiopia clearly abides by the Declaration of Principles Egypt should consider resorting to the UN or the AU. Both bodies have experts who can study the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the dam and work out a fair timetable for the filling of the reservoir and the dam’s operating processes.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: GERD revisited