“Now we are in a critical situation. Seventy per cent of the dam is built and we are still holding time-wasting negotiations that are leading us nowhere. The presence of the US or the World Bank as observers does not seem to have positively impacted the negotiations,” said a diplomat who talked to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity on Monday.
After four rounds of talks held during the last two months had failed to come up with an agreement between the three countries, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri headed to Washington this week to participate in the second meeting on the dam to be held there as part of the US drawn roadmap. The plan had set 15 January as the deadline for an agreement to be reached.
During his visit, Shoukri met with US officials and experts in an attempt to resume negotiations over the dam.
Abbas Sharaki, a professor of political science at Cairo University, believes the failure of talks in Washington may open the door for the US and World Bank to become mediators rather than observers. “Both have the ability to come up with technical alternatives that can help resolve the differences,” he says.
Any negotiating process needs clear intentions and guidelines, says Mohamed Hegazi, a former deputy to Egypt’s foreign minister.
“We need to know Ethiopia’s goals for the negotiations. Obscurity, wasting time and moving from one phase of talks to another should not be allowed,” he said.
At the end of last week’s fourth round of talks Egypt and Ethiopia announced that the two-day discussions had ended in deadlock.
Egypt said it had attempted to create a convergence of views by submitting proposals that guarantee Ethiopia will be able to generate electricity continuously, even during periods of severe drought, without harming Egypt’s water share.
It is obvious, explained Sharaki, that in Washington this week the same differences continued to stand in the way of any agreement. “The statement issued by the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry before this week’s meeting in Washington seemed to suggest that Addis Ababa had decided the meeting will fail even before it had begun,” he said.
The diplomat agreed with Sharaki, adding that the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry’s statement didn’t seem intended to move negotiations forward.
“False allegations against Cairo will not create the right atmosphere for negotiations, let alone agreement,” he said.
“Under Egypt’s proposal it will take between 12 and 21 years to fill the dam, and Ethiopia will be liable to pay compensation for the cumulative deficit of water it uses to fill the dam’s reservoir,” claimed the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry.
Egypt denied the claims. The Egyptian d Foreign Ministry described the Ethiopian statement as “deliberately misleading and presenting an entirely false picture”.
“Egypt did not specify the number of years it should take to fill the reservoir. The three countries agreed more than a year ago to fill the dam in stages depending on the level of the Blue Nile. The Egyptian proposal was to fill the Renaissance Dam in six or seven years if the river’s level is average or above average. And during periods of drought the Egyptian proposal would enable the Renaissance Dam to generate 80 per cent of its electricity production capacity,” Egypt said in its statement issued last week.
Awol Allo, an Ethiopian professor at the UK’s Keele University, agrees the talks failed
primarily because of differences over the period of time necessary to fill the reservoir. In the latest round of talks, he says, Egypt proposed an even longer period, based on a new definition of drought while the Ethiopians stuck to previous proposals making progress difficult. “But the key difficulty,” says Allo, “is mutual distrust.
Both countries have legitimate concerns but have not been able to build the trust necessary to strike a deal on politically sensitive issues.”
Meanwhile, Ethiopia has called for mediation from South Africa, the incoming president of the African Union.
Hegazi doubts the Ethiopian call will help negotiations and questions what Addis Ababa can present in negotiations with South African mediation that it had not already presented in negotiations held with the US and World Bank as observers.
“Egyptian negotiators should be wary of the call. It looks like procrastination on the part of Addis Ababa which appears to want the Washington talks to conclude without achieving anything,” he said.
Allo does not believe Ethiopia’s call on South Africa is a serious invitation to mediate. “The Ethiopian prime minister mentioned it in a passing remark, in relation to South Africa’s incoming chairmanship of the African Union. Having more mediators is not consistent with the expressed wish of the Ethiopian government to keep the discussion between the three parties.”
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he had asked South African President Cyril Ramaphosa during a meeting in Pretoria this week to mediate to find solutions to the disagreement between the three countries after the latest 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.
In November last year the US invited the three countries to meet in Washington. The talks were attended by US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and World Bank President David Malpass as observers. The participants agreed to conduct four rounds of meetings in the presence of representatives from the US and the World Bank and Washington set 15 January as the deadline for the three parties to resolve their disputes over the dam.
The first meeting was held in November in Addis Ababa, the second and third rounds were held in December in Cairo and Khartoum last month. The fourth and final round took place in Addis Ababa last week. The meetings failed to produce an agreement on the filling and operating processes of the dam.
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.
In 2014 a series of tripartite talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan began. In 2015 they signed the Declaration of Principles, according to which the three countries would cooperate to reach an agreement on guidelines for filling the dam’s reservoir and its annual operation.
More rounds of talks were held, but Egypt declared the failure of the negotiations in October last year and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi called for international mediation to resolve the issue.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.