The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is 70 per cent built, and 15 January 2020 has been set as a deadline to reach an agreement over outstanding differences. Yet the first of four meetings, which the US and the World Bank are attending as observers, which convened in Addis Ababa on 15-16 November, failed to deliver much in the way of progress.
Egypt has not provided details on the outcome of the meeting though a Ministry of Irrigation statement issued a few hours after the meeting closed noted that the talks had involved technical discussions on the rules for filling and operating the GERD, as well as addressing how periods might be dealt with.
A diplomatic source close to the negotiations said it is too early to be able to assess how future meetings will progress.
“We have seen improvement in the ambiance of the negotiations and in the re-prioritisation of issues of agreement and those of difference.”
There are three more sessions and “perhaps the last session — to be held in Addis Ababa on 9 and 10 January — will be the most decisive,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Abbas Sharaki, a professor of political science at Cairo University, agrees it was unrealistic to expect a breakthrough in the first meeting.
“We now have a framework, timeframe and deadline for tripartite technical and political negotiations and Egypt has shown its willingness to take all diplomatic measures necessary to resolve current differences over the dam.
“The first meeting addressed the same issues that have been discussed for the last four years. Another way to waste time,” said another diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
Mohamed Ezz, from the Nile Foundation for African and Strategic Studies, thinks such a reading misses the mark. The Addis Ababa meeting was a positive step, he says, and came at a time when negotiations were on the verge of a serious deadlock.
“The meeting of the president and the Ethiopian prime minister in Russia partially eased the anger. This week’s meeting, and the meetings that will follow, provide room for reaching a formula that will benefit the three countries,” he said.
Egypt will host the next round of talks on 2 and 3 December.
In Addis Ababa, Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Ati reiterated Egypt’s commitment to reach an agreement in which all parties are winners.
Ethiopian Minister of Irrigation Selishi Bekele said that 69.37 per cent of the dam is now built and initial filling of its reservoir will start next year.
Sudan’s Minister of Irrigation Yasser Abbas sounded optimistic at the end of the meeting. He was quoted by the Sudanese media as saying Egypt, Ethiopia, and Khartoum had edged towards a “consensus” over “a period of up to seven years” to fill the reservoir.
He told the media that the talks in Addis Ababa had made progress on the six issues that were put on the table in the October GERD meeting in Khartoum which ended in stalemate.
The decision to hold four technical sessions to resolve differences over the dam was taken during the trilateral meeting between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan held in Washington earlier this month. The US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and World Bank President David Malpass attended the gathering.
The foreign ministers of the three countries reaffirmed their joint commitment to reach a “comprehensive, cooperative, adaptive, sustainable, and mutually beneficial agreement” on the filling and operation of the GERD and to establish a clear process for fulfilling that commitment in accordance with the 2015 Declaration of Principles.
Should the four meetings not result in a breakthrough, the three ministers of irrigation will refer the issue to their heads of state rather than resort to outside mediation. They also agreed to attend two meetings in Washington in December and January to assess and support progress.
The difference between Egypt and Ethiopia is mainly focused on the time needed to fill the dam’s reservoir and its operating protocols.
Recent proposals put forward by Egypt for a flexible reservoir-filling process over seven years that guarantees an annual flow of 40 billion cubic metres of water were rejected by Ethiopia. Addis Ababa said the conditions reflected colonial-era laws that discounted the rights of upstream countries. Ethiopia offered to guarantee the flow of just 31 billion cubic metres annually.
However important the filling time is, there are other crucial issues that must be addressed, says Sharaki. “Issues like the operating process are very important. The dam is supposed to have a lifespan of between 100 and 150 years. How to coordinate its operation is very important. And we need to reach agreement on the future building of dams given Ethiopia has plans to build more dams on the Nile.”
Two agreements, from 1929 and 1959, have controlled the use of Nile water. The 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty signed by the United Kingdom, the colonial power in much of East Africa at the time, and Egypt, which was under British occupation, allocated Egypt and Sudan an annual supply of 48 billion and four billion cubic metres, respectively.
A 1959 agreement increased Egypt’s share to 55.5 billion cubic metres and Sudan’s to 18.5 billion cubic metres. The new treaty also reaffirmed an essential provision from the 1929 agreement — that Egypt had the right to veto any construction projects that could impede the flow of Nile water.
Ethiopia started building the controversial dam in 2011. Egypt has repeatedly expressed its fears that the dam will diminish its water supply.
In 2015 Egypt and Ethiopia signed the Declaration of Principles which states that the two countries and Sudan should cooperate to reach an agreement on guidelines for filling the dam’s reservoir and its annual operation. After four years of negotiations, agreement seems as far away as ever.
In September and October two rounds of talks in Cairo and Khartoum ended in stalemate, prompting Cairo to seek international mediation.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed met on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia, in late October, partially easing tensions though they agreed to nothing more substantive than to allow the technical committee to continue its work. Their host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, pledged to help them reach agreement. The US proposal to host meetings in Washington then broke the deadlock.
International mediation is a positive step, according to Ezz, that “can help in reaching a compromise and result in a binding agreement”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.