During a meeting last week with his Ethiopian counterpart Gedu Andargachew, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri called for negotiations on the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to be speeded up and demanded accords already reached between Ethiopia and the downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan be respected.
Shoukri will call for a six-party meeting of Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian ministers of foreign affairs and irrigation to resume negotiations to “secure Egypt and Sudan’s interests and achieve Ethiopia’s development”, according to Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Hafez.
Shoukri and Andargachew met on the sidelines of the Ministerial Regional Partners of Sudan Meeting in Addis Ababa.
Similar calls to speed up negotiations were made in February following a meeting between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, his then Sudanese counterpart Omar Al-Bashir and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa on the sidelines of the 32nd African Union Summit.
At the time the three leaders stressed their commitment to abide by the 2015 Declaration of Principles.“Continuing negotiation delays are not in Egypt’s interest,” says Abbas Sharaki, a professor at Cairo University’s African Research and Studies Institute.
“Cairo needs to settle outstanding issues before the dam starts operating. It also needs to show it is open to negotiations even if the other parties are less keen.”
Mohamed Hegazi, a former assistant to Egypt’s foreign minister, is not optimistic about the prospects for progress.
“The turmoil in Sudan and the attempted coup in Ethiopia are not conducive to smooth negotiations on water resources,” he says. Yet, maintaining channels of communication is essential.
“We should give the technical negotiations a push even while politicians are busy with internal problems,” he argues.
While 60 per cent of the construction of the dam is now complete no date has been set to discuss how and when relevant impact studies will start. Equally worrying, there has been no progress towards an agreement on the filling period of the reservoir behind the dam.
“Negotiations should aim at reaching a flexible mechanism by which the filling rate is determined by annual rainfall and the volume of water stored in the High Dam as well as the Renaissance Dam. The amount of water to be stored behind the Ethiopian dam needs to be calculated annually, rather than a fixed timetable of so many years agreed,” says Sharaki.
Ethiopia wants to fill the reservoir in three to five years while Cairo is demanding a 10-to 15-year timetable to ensure no disruption to the flow of the Nile into Egypt.
The Nile provides more than 90 per cent of Egypt’s fresh water and the country is already facing major shortages. Of that, 85 per cent is sourced from the Blue Nile, and just 15 per cent from the White Nile. The two tributaries meet in the Sudanese capital Khartoum before the river moves on to Egypt.
Addis Ababa insists the dam will not affect Egypt’s water supply and is intended primarily to generate electricity, but there has been a woeful lack of studies to back up the assertion.
In March 2015, the heads of state of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia signed the Declaration of Principles which states that the reservoir cannot be filled without the prior approval of Egypt and Sudan and committed Ethiopia to commission independent impact studies of the dam.
In September 2016 a technical tripartite committee agreed to hire two French consultancy firms — BRL and Artelia — to undertake the impact studies, but in November 2017, after numerous meetings, talks broke down over the preliminary consultancy reports.
The Declaration of Principles will be rendered meaningless if the dam begins operating before an agreement is reached, says Sharaki. “What’s the point of negotiating a timetable to start studies on the impact of the dam when it’s already up and running,” he asks.
The dam was initially scheduled to be complete in 2017. Technical as well as financing problems have forced Addis Ababa to push the date to 2022.
In May 2018 the three countries reiterated their commitment to the Declaration of Principles and to establishing a mechanism for dialogue on the political, technical and strategic levels.
They also agreed to set up a scientific research group to discuss ways to enhance cooperation between the three countries and ensure “equitable and reasonable utilisation of shared water resources while taking all appropriate measures to prevent any significant harm being caused”.
“There is no room for one party to keep water from the others. They must work to manage the river in a way that permits all parties to maximise the benefits,” says Hegazi.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: GERD: Still no progress