Following a 19 November meeting between the Sudanese, Ethiopian, and Egyptian ministers of foreign affairs and of irrigation, Sudan’s Irrigation Minister Yasser Abbas announced that negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) had been “paused indefinitely”.
The announcement derailed plans to launch a new, 10-day round of negotiations on the dam this week.
Sudan’s decision to “pause” negotiations is the latest glitch in the seemingly endless rounds of tripartite talks that have so far failed to agree a protocol for the filling and future operation of the dam or a mechanism for resolving disputes.
Given that Sudan has repeatedly called for a change in the negotiating methodology and demanded a time limit be set for resolving differences the Sudanese announcement did not come as a surprise, says former minister of irrigation Mohamed Nasreddin Allam.
Khartoum wants either the AU and EU observers to actively mediate in the talks or negotiations to continue with the attendance of AU experts playing a greater role in bridging the gap between the three countries. Both are suggestions Egypt and Ethiopia reject.
Ali Al-Hefni, a former deputy to the foreign minister, argues that Khartoum is making a point of order rather than withdrawing from negotiations.
“Given that they failed to achieve any progress in the last few rounds of talks and the parties appear increasingly to be meeting for the sake of meeting, you can understand Sudan’s position.”
Unfortunately, Al-Hefni added, the most likely outcome will be even more delay. “It would have been better for the negotiations if both Egypt and Sudan coordinated their stands.”
Egypt issued an official statement at the close of 18 November meeting expressing its wish to resume talks as soon as possible in order to reach a “fair and balanced agreement”. The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, said Thursday’s meeting had concluded with an understanding of the need to “continue the negotiations on the filling and annual operation rules of the GERD”.
The AU-sponsored negotiations started in July after the negotiations sponsored by the US and the World Bank failed to produce an agreement in February.
Cairo was busy this week reiterating its commitment to a negotiated settlement of the ongoing dispute. Meeting with former Namibian president Sam Nujoma in Cairo, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi stressed that Cairo was determined to reach a legally binding agreement that preserves Egypt’s water rights and meets the development aspirations of the other parties.
Nujoma was recently awarded the Kemet Boutros Ghali (KBG) Foundation for Peace and Knowledge in recognition of his efforts to end conflicts in Africa, and for his long struggle to achieve Namibian independence.
During a meeting last week with Claude Nyamugabo, the Congolese environment minister, Egypt’s Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel-Ati underlined Cairo’s desire to continue negotiations with Ethiopia. Abdel-Ati also discussed the latest developments over the Ethiopian dam with Giampaoli Cantini, Italy’s ambassador to Cairo, and restated Cairo’s determination to continue with talks.
In addition, the Egyptian Embassy in London took the lead in organising a virtual meeting of water experts to review the latest developments in negotiations and underlined Cairo’s efforts to reach an agreement that preserves the water rights of the three countries.
The first filling of the controversial dam took place in July despite the failure to reach a binding agreement, a move which angered Cairo and Khartoum, both of whom said it violated the Declaration of Principles (DoP) signed in Sudan in March 2015. The DoP states that the three countries must first agree guidelines for the operating processes of the dam before the filling of the reservoir can begin.
With time ticking and the next flood season approaching, we should press for a breakthrough, says Allam.
We need genuine political will to exit the present deadlock, added Al-Hefni.
“Egypt and Sudan have repeatedly shown the will necessary to resolve the conflict and it is time Ethiopia did the same. Unfortunately, the domestic problems Addis Ababa is facing could delay any change in its position, or even worse, be used as a pretext not to change.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly