The three countries in the middle of the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) have been meeting in Washington to find an equitable solution over how much Nile water each country will receive.
“The foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed that the strategic direction of the next two technical meetings should be the development of technical rules and guidelines for the filling and operation of the GERD, the definition of drought conditions, and drought mitigation measures to be taken,” a joint statement issued by the three countries, plus the United States and the World Bank, after meeting in Washington on Monday, said.
The meeting was one of two follow-ups designed to take stock of progress in the negotiations over GERD. They are part of an agreement reached in November, under US sponsorship, that the three countries hold four meetings to resolve technical issues on the filling and operation of the dam. The agreement includes two more meetings to be held in the US to follow up on the negotiating process.
“The rules and guidelines will include drought mitigation measures based upon the natural flow in the given year and water release rates from the GERD,” the statement added.
The meetings held so far, under US sponsorship, are mere introductory meetings that have not led to an agreement, according to Tarek Fahmi, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.
“Keeping the negotiations going on is a target. And although the US road map drawn last month put the negotiations on a certain track, so far it did not come up with results or certain stands that will help us reach an agreement before or in the last round,” he said.
Mohamed Hegazi, a former deputy to Egypt’s foreign minister, saw this week’s meeting as a manifestation of the commitment of not only the three countries, but also the US to take up its role as a third party.
“Now, the tripartite mechanism under the auspices of the US has proven to be successful. The continuous meetings have proven to be useful. But what is discussed has to be followed up in the presence of the observers by an agreement and an operational manual that will hopefully lead the three parties to sit together to reach what I call the new Nile Basin Authority that will coordinate relations in the future,” Hegazi said.
This week’s meeting was the first to be held in Washington after that between Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, the US and the World Bank last month.
The ministers agreed that the second meeting in Washington will be on 13 January 2020 to review the results of the upcoming technical meetings in Khartoum later this month and in Addis Ababa next month with the goal of finalising an agreement.
All the meetings have been held under the sponsorship of the US treasury secretary and the World Bank.
In another statement issued by Egypt’s Foreign Ministry after this week’s meeting, the ministers of foreign affairs and irrigation underlined the importance of engaging in the negotiations with the intent of realising the interests of the three states and guaranteeing the full implementation of the Declaration of Principles signed in 2015 in a way that allows Ethiopia to generate electricity without harming Egypt’s water interests.
On the sidelines of this week’s meeting, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri met his US counterpart Mike Pompeo. Shoukri expressed his appreciation for the positive and constructive role played by the US administration, especially with regards to the GERD negotiations, which reflects the strategic relations between Egypt and the US, while expressing aspirations that this would contribute to reaching a just and balanced agreement on the filling and operation of the dam, and in a manner that fosters stability and development in the East African region.
In another development, Ethiopian newspapers revealed this week that the country’s military will build a naval base on the coast of Djibouti, by the Strait of Eden.
In October, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed met Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Gelle during a visit to Djibouti where the two leaders discussed the building of the new naval base.
AUC’s Fahmi said that although the development was not directly related to the dam’s talks, the timing of it was significant. “Ethiopian media disclosed that matter immediately before the Washington talks,” he added.
In September and October, two rounds of talks in Cairo and Khartoum ended in stalemate, prompting Cairo to declare that the negotiations had failed, and to seek international mediation.
In an attempt to mediate, the US sent an invitation to the three countries to meet in Washington to resume the talks. Meetings were held with the ministers of foreign affairs and water of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. US Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin and a representative from the World Bank attended one meeting on 6 November.
The foreign ministers of the three countries reaffirmed their joint commitment to reaching a “comprehensive, cooperative, adaptive, sustainable, and mutually beneficial agreement” on the filling and operation of the dam and to establish a clear process for fulfilling that commitment in accordance with the 2015 Declaration of Principles.
The first round was held in Ethiopia on 15-16 November and the second in Cairo on 2-3 December.
The third round will be held in Sudan on 21 December while the last, expected to be the most decisive, is scheduled for 9-10 January in Addis Ababa.
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 have been rejected by Ethiopia which said the proposals echoed colonial-era laws that did not take into account the rights of upstream countries. Ethiopia offered to guarantee a flow of 31 billion cubic metres annually.
Egypt has also proposed linking the filling process to the hydrology of the dam. That means that amounts of water stored can increase or decrease according to the level of rainfall in any given season.
In 2015 Egypt and Ethiopia signed the Declaration of Principles which states that the three countries 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.
A 1959 treaty stipulates that Egypt’s share of Nile water is 55.5 billion cubic metres and Sudan is 18.5 billion cubic metres. The treaty reaffirmed Egypt’s right to veto any construction projects that could impede the flow of Nile water.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.