The attention of many observers was riveted on Washington this week, where the foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met to iron out their differences surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project.
The meeting, sponsored by the US, was also attended by World Bank representatives, marking a precedent in the protracted negotiating process over the GERD.
The meeting appears to be an implicit response to a request by Cairo, as Addis Ababa has long resisted including a fourth party to help overcome the impasse in the negotiations between them. World Bank experts have considerable experience in resolving conflicts between countries that share transboundary rivers, and they work by a set of rules devised by the World Bank regarding the use of such international watercourses.
The primary principle is that no country on such a watercourse should engage in any hydraulic activity such as building dams, electricity generating facilities or irrigation canals, that might harm other countries on that river course without obtaining their prior agreement.
Egypt, which could be severely jeopardised by the GERD unless certain conditions are met, welcomed Washington’s invitation to the talks in the hope that the US, by dint of its close relations with both Ethiopia and Egypt, will be able to bridge the long-standing differences between them.
These differences centre around the schedule for the first filling of the GERD reservoir and the creation of a mechanism for coordinating the dam’s operations with those of downstream dams in Sudan and Egypt, so as to ensure that the water needs of these two countries are preserved in a sustainable way.
Egypt believes that an equitable balance must be struck to enable Ethiopia to achieve its electricity production needs for development while safeguarding Egypt’s water rights. Egypt’s water needs have climbed exponentially in tandem with its population growth and the consequent mounting demands on domestic agricultural production.
Egypt cannot sustain a sharp reduction in its historic quota of Nile water of 55.5 billion m3 a year, which is already short of its water needs. It is because of its current water deficiency that Egypt insists on an agreement over the number of years needed to fill the GERD reservoir, the maximum annual reductions in the flow of water, and measures to compensate for low flooding seasons.
These are all matters with which World Bank experts are familiar, which is why their opinions are so valuable. They can be expected to offer frank assessments of the problems, the legal situation, and possible remedies. This should strengthen Egypt’s position.
Ethiopia has the right to reject the proposals of the mediator or even the mediation itself; however, the World Bank’s participation in the talks could offer it an honourable way out if it accepts the World Bank recommendations without having to appear as if it had bowed to Egypt’s demands for a mediator that it had previously rejected.
Egypt entered the meeting in Washington armed with an arsenal of agreements that support its historic rights to the Nile and bolster its case. Among these are the 1929 Agreement between Egypt and Britain on behalf of its then colonies of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Sudan granting Egypt the right to veto any upstream project that could threaten to reduce or delay the arrival of its share of Nile water.
Two other agreements precede this. The first is the 1902 Agreement between Ethiopia and Britain, as the then occupying power of Egypt and Sudan, prohibiting the construction of dams on the Blue Nile, Lake Tana (the source of the Blue Nile), or the Sobat River (its southern tributary in Ethiopia) without Cairo’s approval.
The second is the 1891 Agreement between Britain and Italy, which occupied Ethiopia at the time, prohibiting any hydraulic project or facility on the Atbara River (the northern tributary of the Nile) that could reduce the flow. A century later came the 1992 Agreement between Egypt and Ethiopia to organise cooperation on the use of Nile water in accordance with international law and the principle of the avoidance of harm to the other party.
More recently, in 2015, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed the Declaration of Principles Agreement that states that the filling of the GERD reservoir should not begin before a tripartite agreement over the rules for the first filling and a mechanism to coordinate operations between the GERD and downstream dams in Sudan and Egypt, so as to ensure that the levels of water in the downstream reservoirs do not fall to levels that could impair their electricity production capacities.
The agreement also calls for the implementation of the recommendations of the committee of international experts on how to avert or remedy any potential detrimental effects the GERD might have on the environment or on the flow of the Blue Nile to Egypt and Sudan.
Another point is that the three countries should cooperate in the utilisation of Nile water in the framework of the principles of international law, on the basis of a mutual understanding of the water needs of all the parties to the agreement, and in accordance with the principle of the mutual avoidance of harm.
Under the agreement, the three parties are committed not just to averting harm, but also to taking all necessary measures to alleviate any damages that have occurred, including possible compensation to the damaged party. With this agreement, Cairo obtained a firm written pledge from Addis Ababa that it would not inflict tangible harm on Egypt’s acquired historical rights to the Nile water.
It is anticipated that the Washington meeting will result in an agreement to activate the 2015 Declaration of Principles Agreement and to resume talks between the six-member committee consisting of the three countries’ foreign ministers and irrigation ministers and attended by World Bank experts.
Alternatively, it might be agreed to hold a second foreign ministers meeting in Washington or to defer the resumption of trilateral talks in the above-mentioned committee until after consultations are held in the three capitals in order to deliberate possible concessions or other stances in advance of further meetings.
In the event of an agreement, a tripartite summit will be held to formalise it. At the very least, the tripartite committee of independent experts will resume its work, as Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed agreed on the side lines of the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi last month, but with a more open-minded and constructive attitude and with a firmer resolve to produce a final concept for the rules governing the filling of the GERD reservoir and the dam’s operations.
Whatever the case may be, the Washington meeting should shift the GERD negotiations out of their current standstill.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.