The Egyptian Foreign Ministry — before the Egypyian-Ethiopian-Sudanese meeting in the US — dotted all the necessary in the statement it released following the last round of talks in Addis Ababa in which Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan failed to reach an agreement over their pending differences on the rules and principles governing the filling of the reservoir and the operations of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The fault for the failure is certainly not Egypt’s.
Egypt’s guiding principle throughout has been that any agreement should ensure the interests of all parties. Egypt has no problem with the construction of the Ethiopian Dam as long as it does not jeopardise Egypt’s water rights, which is why it has engaged in so many rounds of negotiations in recent years.
In March 2015, Cairo, Addis and Khartoum signed the agreement on the Declaration of Principles, outlining 10 major principles to which the signatory parties committed themselves. Egypt’s stances and demands have remained consistent with these principles in all the negotiating rounds ever since.
When negotiations broke down earlier this year, seven years after they had begun, Egypt felt compelled to appeal to the international community to intervene, which President Al-Sisi did in his address to the UN General Assembly in September. When the US offered to help, Egypt accepted willingly. It then welcomed the outcome of the US-sponsored negotiations and faithfully adhered to the terms of the agreement that was reached in Washington on 6 November. There followed four negotiating rounds between the three countries’ technical committees, during which Egypt worked as best as it could to overcome the impasses. Afterwards, Egypt was forced to announce that the negotiations did not produce results commensurate with its demands, initiating a new phase in a process involving a life and death issue for the Egyptian people.
The spokesman for the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation said that the negotiations showed that Ethiopia had no sincere desire to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement and that Addis was actually bent on acting unilaterally in filling the reservoir and operating the dam, in violation of international law. He stressed that Egypt cannot accept this and that it remains determined to safeguard its quota of Nile waters as stipulated under previous agreements.
Contrary to the Ethiopian claim, Egypt has not insisted on a specific number of years for the filling of the GERD reservoir. But it does oppose Ethiopian attempts to impose a de facto reality, to assert its control over the Blue Nile, and to fill and operate the dam without concern for the welfare of downstream nations, and Egypt in particular, the last country on the Nile before it reaches the Mediterranean. Ethiopia should not be allowed to treat the Blue Nile like the other transboundary rivers it has sought to control to the detriment of neighbouring countries.
Over a year ago, Cairo, Khartoum and Addis agreed that the filling of the GERD reservoir should proceed in stages based on the annual flow of the Blue Nile. Egypt has proposed that this process should take place over six to seven years in the event of average or above average flooding levels, so as to avoid harm to downstream nations. It also proposed that, in the event of significantly lower than average flows from the Blue Nile headwaters, Ethiopia could reduce electricity production at the dam to 80 per cent of its capacity, meaning that Addis would only have to shoulder a minor burden due to the drought.
Regardless of whether the next round in Washington produces positive results, or whether Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agree to extend negotiations for another limited period, or whether they opt for an international mediator, Egypt will continue to insist on its full and undiminished rights to Nile waters, on the principle of avoidance of harm to any party, and on the need for a consensual mechanism to operate the new dam. These principles are not negotiable. No country can stand by while its main source of water is exposed to risk, jeopardising the lives of over 100 million people.
Ethiopia is now trying to buy time and gain an edge over the other parties by spreading falsehoods to the effect that Egypt is intransigent. Such behaviour is indefensible and does not stand to reason in light of the constructive and flexible approach that Egypt has consistently brought to the negotiating process, to which there is ample testimony.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly