Talks in Washington about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), held under the auspices of the US Treasury and the World Bank, fell short of easing Egypt’s worries about how the filling of the dam’s reservoir could reduce its share of Nile water.
Officials from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan said they have reached a preliminary agreement that should help clear the way for a final agreement on the filling and operation of GERD by the end of this month.
Cairo, though, expressed no more than “cautious optimism” about the prospects.
In Washington, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri told the Middle East News Agency that the understanding reached does not constitute an agreement but merely highlights issues to be included in the final agreement.
“The so-called preliminary agreement sets outlines for the final agreement. The important issues of filling and operating the dam are still being discussed,” professor of political science Tarek Fahmi told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The three countries agreed that the dam should be filled in stages during July and August, the rainy season in Ethiopia, continuing into September subject to certain conditions.
“The filling of GERD will be executed in stages and will be undertaken in an adaptive and cooperative manner that takes into consideration the hydrological conditions of the Blue Nile and the potential impact of the filling on downstream reservoirs,” read the statement issued by the three countries, the US and the World Bank after the meeting read.
Initial filling of the dam, according to the statement, will aim for 595 metres above sea level, allowing early electricity generation in Ethiopia but providing appropriate mitigation measures for Egypt and Sudan during times of drought.
The statement, said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity, used imprecise words like adaptive and cooperative, and vague phrases such as takes into consideration, which may cause trouble in reaching a final agreement and then implementing it on the ground.
Defining an effective coordination mechanism and provisions for the settlement of disputes are supposed to be included in the final agreement, he added.
Although it leaves important details undetermined the preliminary agreement is important given Ethiopia will start filling the reservoir in a few months, says Cairo University professor of political science Abbas Sharaki.
Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed to meet again on 28 and 29 January. The US and the World Bank will attend as observers.
Ahead of the meeting which is supposed to result in a final agreement, ministers of the three states are scheduled to hold technical and legal talks.
A statement issued by the Egyptian ministry of irrigation last said the talks would be significant in solving outstanding matters.
“Various legal and technical points, including cooperation on the rules of operation and the mechanism for settling disputes that may arise from re-setting the operation policy owing to changes in flood levels from one year to another are expected to be discussed in the two week before the Washington meeting at the end of January,” read the statement.
The final agreement, says Fahmi “must reassure Egypt that its water quota — on which it depends for over 95 per cent of its water needs – will not be affected, and there has to be a clear explanation of measures to be taken during periods of drought and severe drought.”
US President Donald Trump’s engagement with the Washington meeting last week — he met with the foreign and water resources ministers of the three countries to discuss progress on the dam talks — is being interpreted as a final attempt to pressure Egypt and Ethiopia to resolve their dispute.
During the meeting Trump emphasized US support for a cooperative, sustainable, and mutually beneficial agreement among the parties.
Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan convened in Washington for the third time last week, aiming to reach a deal before the mid-January deadline set during the first meeting in Washington last November.
According to the roadmap drawn then for GERD talks, the three countries agreed to hold four meetings to try to reach an agreement.
The first meeting was held in November in Addis Ababa, the second and third rounds were held in December in Cairo and Khartoum. The fourth and final round took place in Addis Ababa earlier this month.
All meetings ended without agreement.
In the meantime, Ethiopia has called for mediation from South Africa, the incoming chair of the African Union.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he had asked South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to mediate to find solutions to the disagreement between the three countries after the final round of negotiations ended in stalemate.
“We are willing to play a role in whatever agreement can be crafted, and we will remain supportive to finding peaceful solutions between countries on our continent,” Ramaphosa said.
Shoukri pointed out in his interview with MENA that the idea of resorting to a mediator other than the US had not raised last week’s Washington negotiations.
The dispute over the filling and operation of the massive dam began in 2011. Cairo has repeatedly expressed its fears that the dam will reduce the amount of Nile water flowing to Egypt. Addis Ababa denies the dam will harm Egypt and insists it is vital to its economic development.
Past River Nile agreements
The treaty between Great Britain and Ethiopia in 1902: In Article 3 of the treaty, emperor Menilik II of Ethiopia agreed “not to construct or allow to be constructed any work across the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, or the Sobat, which would arrest the flow of their waters except in agreement with Britain and the Government of Sudan.”
The 1929 treaty: The accord was between Egypt and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and gave Egypt and Sudan the right to utilise 48 and four billion cubic metres, respectively, of the Nile flow per year, and gave Egypt the right to undertake River Nile related projects without the consent of upper riparian states, and the right to veto any construction projects that would affect its interests adversely.
The 1959 treaty: Signed by Egypt and Sudan, the treaty stipulates that Egypt’s share of Nile water is 55.5 billion cubic metres and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic metres. The treaty also reaffirmed Egypt’s right to veto any construction projects that could impede the flow of Nile water.
The Cairo Cooperation Framework of July 1993: This framework was concluded between Egypt and Ethiopia. Both countries pledged not to implement water projects harmful to the interests of the other and consult over projects to reduce waste and increase the flow of water.
The Declaration of Principles signed by Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in 2015: It stated that the three countries should cooperate to reach an agreement on the guidelines for different scenarios of the first filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam reservoir in parallel with the construction of the dam, and an agreement on the guidelines and annual operation policies of the Renaissance Dam, which the owners can adjust from time to time.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Talks about talks