Delegations from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan will head to Washington later this week to sign a final agreement for the filling and operating of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
The agreement, says Abbas Sharaki, a professor at Cairo University’s Institute of African Research and Studies, is unlikely to tackle every point of difference between the detainees and will avoid details that may remain contentious.
“After nine years of marathon negotiations it was important to reach an agreement. Even if there are differences, they can be resolved later. What I expect is that the final agreement will reinforce the six points disclosed in the joint statement issued on the 15 January,” he said.
One diplomat who preferred not to mention his name was less relaxed about the situation: “Should we rush to reach a deal that does not organise the filling and operating process in detail or work harder to reach a more comprehensive deal as soon as possible,” he asked.
“The statement issued in mid-January suggests the deal is likely to tackle the initial filling but leave subsequent re-fillings to a mechanism that has yet to be agreed. Nor will an effective coordination mechanism or provisions for the settlement of disputes be outlined in the agreement. They will be established later.”
This week saw clear signs of a concerted push to sign an agreement by the end of this month, the second deadline set by the US.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met Hailemariam Desalegn, the special envoy of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in Cairo to review what has been agreed upon so far in the tripartite talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.
President Al-Sisi stressed Egypt remained committed to the success of the tripartite talks sponsored by Washington, Presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi said in a statement issued after the visit.
Desalegn delivered a letter from Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed to Al-Sisi in which he expressed his country’s interest and keenness to develop cooperation with Egypt.
Sharaki sees the Desalegn visit as one of the achievements of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Addis Ababa last week.
“The fact that Desalegn, who as the former prime minister, was involved in the tripartite talks and who signed the Declaration of Principles with Al-Sisi in 2015, was designated to come to Cairo indicates Washington’s willingness to take all measures necessary to guarantee that Egypt and Ethiopia reach a final agreement,” he said.
Pompeo’s visit to Addis Ababa last week was a sign of how hard Washington is pushing for an agreement. He discussed the final draft agreement on operating and filling the new dam with the Ethiopian prime minister and told reporters “a great deal of work remains but I’m optimistic that over the coming months we can resolve this”.
During his visit Pompeo stressed that US President Donald Trump considers it a priority to continue working with Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in order to reach an agreement satisfactory to all three countries.
“Our mission is not to impose a solution but to monitor and bring the three countries together. We see each country is interested in the concerns of the other two countries,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo also discussed political reform with Ahmed and US plans to provide “substantial financial support” to strengthen the reforms.
Ahmed has promised free and fair elections in August and Washington has mobilised $37 million to support Ethiopia’s elections board.
“Pompeo mentioned US financial support to Addis Ababa. This is a way for the US administration to press Addis Ababa to seek a resolution to its dispute with Egypt over the dam and make concessions in the final deal,” said the anonymous diplomat.
Sudan has recently made positive noises about reaching a final agreement.
Irrigation Minister Yasser Abbas issued a press conference this week saying a draft deal prepared by the US Treasury Department on the filling and operating process of the dam had been sent to Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia for consideration ahead of the next round of negotiations due in Washington on 27 and 28 February.
Abbas said the three countries had reached a consensus on nearly 90 per cent of the details of the filling and operation of the dam and only technical points remain. These he expects to be resolved by the end of the month and the agreement to be signed by March.
Ethiopia is less optimistic. Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew said progress in talks on the dam had been made but more negotiations are needed.
After the latest round of talks in Washington, held on 12 and 13 February, the three countries, the US Treasury and the World Bank issued a joint statement negotiations would continue until a final agreement is formulated by the end of February.
“The United States, with technical support from the World Bank, has agreed to facilitate the preparation of the final agreement for consideration by the ministers and heads of state for conclusion by the end of the month.”
In talks initially scheduled in Washington for 28 and 29 January but which were extended for two days the participants agreed the technical and legal committees should continue to meet to hammer out outstanding differences and prepare a final agreement to be approved by the parties’ foreign ministers and ministers of irrigation on 12 and 13 February and signed by their governments by the end of the month.
The two most controversial points in negotiations have been the timetable for filling the dam’s reservoir and its operating protocols. When tripartite negotiations failed to produce an agreement in October Egypt reiterated its calls for international mediation. Ethiopia initially resisted the idea: it was only when Washington stepped in and offered to host the talks that Addis Ababa agreed.
A roadmap was drawn with the three countries which provided for four meetings to be attended by the US Treasury and the World Bank as observers. It set mid-January as the deadline for an agreement.
On 15 January the US Treasury Department announced that the three countries had reached a consensus on principles.
The ministers of the three states agreed on six points, including that the filling of the reservoir be executed in stages during the wet season, generally from July to August, and undertaken in a cooperative manner that takes into account the hydrological conditions of the Blue Nile and potential impact of the filling on downstream reservoirs.
They also agreed to include mitigation measures for Egypt and Sudan during dry years, periods of drought and of prolonged drought.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly