Nearly two months since the second nine-party meeting on Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), although a document was issued on a timetable for resolving pending issues, no steps from the outlined timetable have been implemented.
“We have charted a roadmap that, if successful, will be able to break the difficulties that we have been facing,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri told reporters after that meeting.
The nine-party meeting included the ministers of foreign affairs, irrigation and heads of intelligence of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.
“High-level talks were supposed to be held this week to discuss the details of establishing the joint fund on the timetable. But neither the ministerial nor the nine-party meetings, nor the high-level talks, have been held. It is obvious that the other parties are buying time while the building of the dam is going on,” said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
In their nine-party meeting in mid-May, the foreign and irrigation ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed in a document that the chairman of the National Technical Committee (NTC) on the dam would be required to make Sudan and Ethiopia’s observations on the preliminary report available to the French consultancy firm so it could reply within three weeks.
The reply was then to be discussed at the ministerial meeting due to be held back-to-back with the third nine-party meeting on 19 June.
They also agreed to establish a tripartite infrastructure fund that would bring together senior officials from the three countries to identify needed joint infrastructure and development projects.
Cairo was scheduled to host the fund’s meeting on 3 July, but the meeting did not take place until Al-Ahram Weekly went to press.
These meetings, Abbas Sharaki, a professor at Cairo University’s Institute for African Research and Studies, explained, depend on the reply of the consultancy firm to Sudan and Ethiopia’s observations.
“Why should the consultancy firm that has been working with the three countries for more than a year and submitted its preliminary report last May receive more observations,” he asked.
The second nine-party meeting, he added, opened the door for creating more bodies and holding more meeting that are likely to distract attention and distance the parties from resolving the pending issues between the three countries.
The document confirmed that leaders from the three nations would meet every six months for consultations and that attendees had agreed to set up a scientific study group to consult on the filling of the dam.
The second nine-party talks came shortly after a round of technical negotiations held in Cairo had failed to find an agreement between the three countries.
Last month’s visit by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to Cairo and his meeting with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was expected to lead to a breakthrough in the stalled negotiations.
“Egypt’s share of the River Nile will be maintained... and even increased,” Ahmed told a news conference after talks in Cairo. The two leaders agreed to adopt a common vision on the dam based on respect for each other’s rights.
“The last few weeks have seen friendly meetings and promising statements, but there is no tangible progress in the negotiations,” Sharaki said. The scientific study group was supposed to discuss scenarios related to the filling and operational rules of the dam in accordance with the principle of equitable and reasonable utilisation of shared water, while taking all appropriate measures to prevent the “causing of significant harm,” as the Declaration of Principles signed by the three states in 2015 had stated.
The group held two meetings last month behind closed doors. It is comprised of 15 members, five from each country.
“We do not know on what basis Egypt chose its five members and how this group differs from the technical committee that has held dozens of meetings that failed to bring agreement between the three countries,” Sharaki said.
According to the nine-party meeting document, the scientific group is supposed to hold nine meetings and report the outcomes of the meetings to the ministers of irrigation of the three countries by 15 August.
Egypt has voiced its concern that the dam will affect the flow of water and reduce its much-needed water quota from the Nile. Ethiopia has repeatedly said that the dam’s construction will not affect Egypt’s share of the water, as the dam is built to produce electricity.
However, there are no studies to prove that the dam will not affect Egypt’s water quota. In addition, Ethiopia refuses to acknowledge the 1959 agreement that specified the water quota for Egypt and Sudan.
The filling time of the dam is now the most pressing issue that needs to be resolved.
Ethiopia wanted to fill the reservoir of the dam in three to five years. It had plans to start as early as this summer. But there is no sign that the filling will start this year.
Egypt fears that during the filling too much of the Nile’s water could be retained, reducing its water quota and affecting its agriculture. It is trying to negotiate extending the filling time to seven or 10 years.
During their meeting, Al-Sisi and Ahmed agreed to start negotiations on the filling process. But no plans or starting dates have been disclosed so far. Disagreement over the preliminary report as well as over the filling time and operating process of the dam stymied the first nine-party meeting held in Khartoum in April.
The dam is now more than 65 per cent complete, according to Ethiopian Ambassador to Sudan Mawtada Zoudi. “It is a very large project, and we still have a lot to wait for, but the construction process is going well and has not stopped for a minute.
So far, we have completed more than 65 per cent of the construction, and very soon, maybe in less than a year, we will celebrate the completion of the dam,” Zoudi was quoted as saying last month.
While there seems to be little or no progress in the tripartite negotiations, some commentators welcomed UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan’s visit to Ethiopia last month with cautious optimism, seeing it as a possible breakthrough.
Given that Addis Ababa is an important African state and that its economy is promising, the UAE wants to maintain strong relations with it to balance the Turkish and Qatari presence in the region.
“The visit could put pressure on Addis Ababa to exercise flexibility in the dam negotiations,” a commentator said.
During the visit, the UAE declared that it would deposit $1 billion in Ethiopia’s central bank to ease the latter’s foreign-exchange shortage. That sum is part of a total of a $3 billion aid and investment pledge from the UAE to Ethiopia announced last Friday.
“Ethiopia’s foreign-exchange shortage is partially due to spending on infrastructure projects. Thus, it is not unlikely that Ethiopia will use that amount to complete building the dam,” Sharaki said.
Sharaki said that if there was coordination between Egypt and the UAE, the visit could contribute towards bridging the difference among the two countries.
The UAE could then act as an indirect mediator enhancing the negotiations.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: No breakthrough on the dam