Initially scheduled for 19-20 August, then postponed to 15-16 September, the six-party meeting between the foreign and water ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan produced little in the way of results.
There had been cautious optimism the meeting would see a breakthrough in the long stymied negotiations.
Mohamed Abdel-Ati, Egypt’s minister of water resources and irrigation, told reporters last month he had presented proposals outlining Egypt’s final vision of the filling and operation rules of the dam — including a seven-year timetable for the filling of the dam’s reservoir — to his Ethiopian counterpart Seleshi Bekele.
Though Bekele had agreed Cairo’s proposals would be discussed at this week’s meeting Addis Ababa later backtracked. Instead, the latest meeting focussed on procedural matters.
Egypt’s Ministry of Irrigation issued a statement following the two-day meeting urging Ethiopia to engage in serious technical negotiations as soon as possible. A further meeting between the three countries’ irrigation ministers has been scheduled for 4 and 5 October, preceded by a meeting of the independent scientific committee on 30 September.
“It was just another tripartite meeting during which Addis Ababa sought to buy time,” said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
Mohamed Hegazi, a former assistant to Egypt’s foreign minister, says that despite the disappointing results the time is ripe to make progress.
“Khartoum has recently formed a new government and political conflict in Ethiopia has waned. Egypt is also ready to reach an agreement that will protect the interests of the three countries,” he said.
Ethiopia began work on the dam in May 2011. Constructed on the Blue Nile, the source of 85 per cent of the water that flows into Egypt, the mega project raised immediate concerns in Cairo.
During this week’s Youth Conference, held on Saturday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said negotiations with Khartoum and Addis Ababa aim to maintain Egypt’s historic share of Nile water within the framework of an agreement that benefits all parties.
During a press conference with his Kenyan counterpart Monica Juma on Sunday, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said Egypt had presented Sudan and Ethiopia with a comprehensive plan based on earlier discussions that meets the interests of all three countries.
He added that Cairo continues to pursue an equitable agreement that precludes any party imposing its will on the other parties.
Shoukri expressed Cairo’s concerns over talks with Addis Ababa during the latest gathering of Arab foreign ministers at the Arab League, points that were echoed by Deputy Foreign Minister for African Affairs Hamdi Loza during a recent meeting with European ambassadors to Egypt.
Loza stressed the proposal Egypt has submitted to Ethiopia is based on earlier Egyptian-Ethiopian discussions of the dam’s operation and commitments stated in the Declaration of Principles signed in Khartoum in March 2015, and guarantees both Egypt’s water interests and Ethiopia’s power generation goals.
Last month the cabinet’s High Committee for Nile Water underlined the importance of tripartite negotiations being held to a fixed timetable.
The meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli and attended by Shoukri, Abdel-Ati and representatives from the Ministry of Defence, General Intelligence and the Administrative Control Authority, concluded by issuing a statement saying the proposal submitted by Egypt to Ethiopia ensured minimal disruption to Egypt’s water supplies while meeting Ethiopia’s stated electricity generating needs.
The timetable for filling the dam’s reservoir and its subsequent operating protocols remain the most contentious outstanding issues. Ethiopia is seeking to fill the reservoir in the shortest possible timeframe. Initially Egypt asked Ethiopia to adopt a flexible timetable based on annual rainfall in order to avoid any significant reduction in the water flowing to downstream countries. Last month’s proposal abandoned this request in favour of a compromise, a seven-year timetable.
“This is a concession on the part of Egypt. Any reduction in the amount of water flowing to Egypt will have drastic impact given Egypt is entirely dependent on the Nile water for potable water and for irrigation,” says the anonymous diplomat.
In March 2015, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed the declaration of principles which states the three countries must agree on the rules for the filling and operation of the dam.
Negotiations must continue, says Hegazi, so momentum is not lost.
“Talks should lead to a legally binding framework of cooperation between the three states that paves the way for collaboration in fields other than Nile water.”
The diplomat is far from optimistic the trilateral talks will progress.
“They’ve been going on since 2014 and have yet to produce anything tangible. Egypt needs to take the issue to international bodies like the AU or UN before construction on the dam ends and there are no issues to negotiate,” he says.
The dam was initially scheduled to be complete by 2020. In August 2018 Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced a delay. According to Addis Ababa’s latest timetable the dam will begin initial operation next year, and be fully operative by 2023.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title Dam negotiations bogged down