Negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) started on Sunday for a week in order to set out a time frame and framework for renewed talks.
The irrigation ministries of the three countries are attending the talks in Sudan under African Union (AU) sponsorship. At the end of the week, the parties are supposed to present a report to the AU on ways to make tangible progress in negotiations that have been stalled since August.
“Unless there is a clear timeframe to reach a deal, there is no point in resuming the negotiations. The parties will merely be allowing Addis Ababa to procrastinate and to waste time,” said one diplomat on condition of anonymity.
This week’s round will be decisive, according to Mohamed Hegazi, a former deputy to Egypt’s foreign minister. “We are in between two flooding periods of the Nile. During the first flood, Ethiopia filled the dam’s reservoir with 4.9 billion cubic metres of water. We definitely cannot allow Addis Ababa to continue filling the reservoir next summer,” he said.
Sudan has repeatedly expressed its rejection of another round of negotiations using the same approach that led to a deadlock in August. But a statement from the Sudanese Ministry of Water Resources last week noted that a clear and detailed agenda would be agreed upon at this week’s meeting, along with a specific timetable for negotiations and a clear list of the outputs that must be reached with the help of observers.
“Sudan has stated that the outcomes to be reached in this round are different than those of previous rounds. Judging from the previous rounds and Ethiopia’s intransigence in reaching a binding agreement, we cannot pin much hope on more rounds. But we will have to wait and see,” the diplomat said.
Sudan will try to bring the parties to agree to allow experts attending the talks a bigger and more effective role. The present talks are sponsored by South Africa and attended by observers from the US, the European Union, and the AU.
Setting strict lines for the talks is a must, Hegazi said. Experts should play a more active role in reconciling the demands of the different parties on controversial issues. And it should be clearly mentioned that an agreement must be reached soon.
“We accepted the first filling operation, although it was a unilateral act that contradicted previous agreements. But we cannot wait until next summer or allow Ethiopia to start the second stage of the filling of the reservoir,” he explained.
The resumption of the negotiations was partially prompted by US President Donald Trump’s remarks last month blaming Ethiopia for the failure of the negotiations and describing Cairo’s concerns in the dispute as legitimate.
In a call with Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, while announcing that Sudan and Israel would normalise relations, Trump told reporters last month that the dam dispute was a “dangerous situation because Egypt is not going to be able to live that way, and they’ll end up blowing up the dam.”
He added that Washington had stopped giving aid to Ethiopia as a result of its actions.
Addis Ababa reacted angrily to Trump’s remarks, describing them as an “incitement to war”.
Trump’s remarks had served to show which party was impeding an agreement, Hegazi said. “They cast light on the danger of the present regional situation and show that it is a threat to international peace and security. Besides, the fact that the UN Security Council has referred the issue to the AU does not mean that we cannot refer it to the Security Council again and take further escalatory measures if negotiations fail,” he said.
A few days after Trump’s remarks, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and chairman of Sudan’s Sovereign Council Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan stressed their countries’ adherence to a binding deal over the filling and operation of the Dam.
“The meeting saw discussions over the GERD, with a consensus reached over the water issue facing both countries, deeming it a national security issue,” Egyptian Presidency Spokesman Bassam Rady said after a meeting of the two leaders in Cairo last month.
Egypt stated that it was willing to re-start the negotiations because this was the only way to reach an agreement and resolve the GERD issue. However, it reiterated its firm stand.
Mohamed Abdel-Ati, Egypt’s minister of irrigation and water resources, said that whatever the agenda of the negotiations Cairo would not compromise on its demand for a legally binding agreement that specifies the details of the GERD’s filling and operations, especially during periods of drought and severe drought.
Ethiopia has not opposed the resumption of the talks and had expressed a will to resume the talks after they faltered in August. It declared then that 14 September could be a possible date to resume the talks, but Khartoum was then unwilling to resume talks that had been going round in circles without approaching an agreement.
The first filling of the controversial dam took place this summer, despite the failure to reach a binding agreement. The move angered Egypt and Sudan, who saw it as a violation of the Declaration of Principles (DoP) signed in Sudan in March 2015 that states that the three countries must first agree guidelines and rules on the operating process of GERD before filling the reservoir.
The last round of negotiations held in August ended with a failure to reach a unified draft agreement that includes each of the country’s proposals.
It was held based on the outcomes of an African mini-summit headed by the water ministers from the three countries to discuss reaching an agreement. During the summit, held in July, the leaders agree to hold AU-sponsored tripartite talks to be monitored by the US and EU.
Washington had brokered a tripartite discussion between the three countries, in the presence of the president of the World Bank from November last year to 27-28 February, when Ethiopia refrained from attending the last session of the negotiations that was supposed to see the signing of an agreement.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.