US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday that it could be "months" before the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is resolved.
Pompeo's statements came as a surprise considering that only a few days before, following the conclusion of the latest round of negotiations in Washington on 12 and 13 February, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a joint statement issued by Egypt, Ethiopian and Sudan, the US Department of the Treasury and the World Bank had said that “The United States, with technical support from the World Bank, has agreed to facilitate the preparation of the final agreement for consideration by the ministers and heads of state for conclusion by the end of the month”.
Pompeo, speaking at a press conference Tuesday in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, said "a great deal of work remains, but I'm optimistic that over the coming months we can resolve this". Pompeo was on a three-nation Africa tour that also included Senegal and Angola before he was scheduled to head to the Middle East.
“The talks in Washington saw a serious attempt to reach a final agreement. But it is obvious there are still differences, something the Ethiopian minister of irrigation underlined when he stated more work is needed for the agreement to be ready by the end of this month,” said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
The foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are scheduled to fly back to Washington by the end of this month to sign the final agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
During the most recent round of talks the ministers of the three countries reviewed progress achieved by their technical and legal teams and reaffirmed the importance of transboundary cooperation in the development of the Blue Nile and their commitment to concluding an agreement.
A statement issued by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said the final agreement would be prepared by the US and the World Bank and presented to the three countries. It is expected to include details of the filling of the dam and its operating process in times of drought.
In earlier talks, scheduled in Washington for 28 and 29 January but which were extended for two extra days, the participants had agreed that the technical and legal committees should continue to meet to hammer out outstanding differences and prepare a final agreement to be approved by the parties’ foreign ministers and ministers of irrigation on 12 and 13 February and signed by their governments by the end of the month.
The two most controversial points in negotiations have been the timetable for filling the dam’s reservoir and its operating protocols. Ethiopia wanted a four-year timetable for filling the dam, Egypt said this would be too short, especially in the event of drought, and argued that a minimum amount of water reaching Sudan and Egypt must be set.
When tripartite negotiations failed to produce an agreement in October Egypt reiterated its calls for international mediation. Ethiopia initially resisted the idea: it was only when Washington stepped in and offered to host the talks that Addis Ababa agreed.
A roadmap was drawn with the three countries which provided for four meetings to be attended by the US Treasury and the World Bank as observers. It set mid-January as the deadline for an agreement.
On 15 January the US Treasury Department announced that the three countries had reached a consensus on principles. After three days of intensive talks in Washington the ministers also agreed the filling of the reservoir should be executed in stages during the wet season, generally from July to August, and undertaken in a cooperative manner that takes into account the hydrological conditions of the Blue Nile and potential impact of the filling on downstream reservoirs.
They also agreed to include mitigation measures for Egypt and Sudan during dry years, periods of drought and prolonged drought.
Issues that the parties still need to agree include details of the dam’s operation during periods of normal rainfall, precise mechanisms to guarantee the implementation of the final agreement and a mechanism to resolve disputes.
“The operation of the dam will be an ongoing process for years to come. It is important to agree a mechanism for resolving differences that might occur over the implementation of the agreement in the future. Given the role that they have recently played, the US and the World Bank are widely considered as suitable arbiters,” said the diplomat.
Disputes over the filling and operation of the dam began in 2011 when Cairo expressed fears that GERD would restrict the flow of Nile water on which Egypt is almost entirely dependent.
Addis Ababa repeatedly denied the dam would harm Egypt though no impact studies were undertaken, and insisted GERD was essential to Ethiopia’s economic development.
A number of historic agreements protect Nile water rights. A 1902 agreement obliges Addis Ababa “not to construct or allow any work to be constructed across the Blue Nile which will arrest the flow of water” except in agreement with Britain and the government of Sudan.
A 1959 treaty stipulates Egypt’s share of Nile Water at 55.5 billion cubic metres and Sudan’s at 18.5 billion cubic metres. The treaty reaffirmed Egypt’s right to veto any construction projects that could impede the flow of Nile water.
In 1993 Ethiopia pledged not to harm Egypt’s water interests and in 2015, following a series of tripartite talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, the three countries signed the Declaration of Principles stating they will cooperate to reach an agreement on guidelines for filling the dam’s reservoir and its annual operation.
Following yet more rounds of talks, Egypt declared negotiations had failed in October last year.
The dam will begin partial operation by July this year. Ethiopia hopes to complete the dam by 2022.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.