The negotiating marathon over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) moved closer to the finishing line when in Washington Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia agreed a timetable for filling the dam’s reservoir and two mechanisms for handling periods of drought.
The foreign and irrigation ministers of the three countries were taking part in US sponsored negotiations to put the final touches to an agreement for the framework of filling and operating GERD. The meeting, scheduled for 28 and 29 January, ran for two extra days, concluding on 31 January. Not that everything has been agreed.
The technical and legal committees will continue to meet over the coming days 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.
That Egypt signed the draft agreement prepared by the US while Ethiopia did not implies the agreement took most of Egypt’s concerns into account. Evidently, the Ethiopian delegation needed to consult with officials in Addis Ababa before signing. The same applied to the Sudanese delegation, but this is no cause for worry since there are no major differences between Khartoum and Cairo over the filling and operation of the dam.
Apparently, the Sudanese delegation felt it must consult with officials back home because of existing Sudanese-Ethiopian agreements over GERD signed during the Omar Al-Bashir regime.
From the joint statement released by the Egyptian, Ethiopian and Sudanese delegations on Friday it appears that they have agreed to separate two issues: a mitigation mechanism for filling GERD during periods of drought, prolonged drought, and prolonged dry years, and a mitigation mechanism for the annual and long-term operation of the GERD in drought, prolonged drought, and prolonged periods of dry years.
The result is more precision and clarity which helps alleviate Egypt’s concerns over the initial filling of the reservoir and its refilling after the dam is in operation.
US President Donald Trump felt certain the parties were close to a final agreement: in a phone call to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Trump expressed optimism that an agreement was near and would benefit all parties involved, according to a White House spokesperson.
The call was probably a way to reassure the Ethiopian leadership that the terms of a final agreement would not be detrimental to their country and to alleviate any dismay at the failure of negotiators to reach a final agreement after four days of intense talks in Washington.
While it is important not to understate the outstanding differences they are clearly less than they were before Washington and the World Bank stepped in to broker the negotiations.
The parties still need to come to terms over how to operate the dam during normal periods and finalise mechanisms for monitoring the implementation of the final agreement, coordinate information exchange systems and agree a dispute resolution mechanism.
Studies also need to be performed on the structure of the dam and its environmental and socioeconomic impacts on Sudan and Egypt. The three countries have already acknowledged the need to reach an agreement on such matters.
They need to agree on the arbitrating authority they will turn to in the event disputes arise during implementation of the agreement. The US, the World Bank, international arbitration and the International Court of Justice are all candidates. What is important is that they do not repeat the mistake of the agreement on the Declaration of Principles of 2015 which contained no precise provisions for recourse to arbitration.
If the technical and legal committees are unable to resolve their differences before 12 February the foreign ministers and ministers of irrigation will need to come up with solutions when they convene. They may even be required to extend their meetings beyond the scheduled two days, during which they will undoubtedly come under pressure from Washington which will be unwilling to accept defeat after all the effort it has invested in promoting a comprehensive, just and lasting agreement. Nor should we rule out the possibility of a tripartite summit, with Trump acting as host to coax them into summoning the necessary resolve to overcome any remaining hurdles and make the compromises necessary to reach a final agreement.
Progress in a negotiating process that had floundered for years could not have been made without Washington’s sponsorship of the talks and its active intervention at the highest levels to minimise obstacles. Nor could it have been made without the World Bank’s extensive expertise on questions related to the management and utilisation of transboundary watercourses.
But it should also be stressed that the flexibility Egypt has consistently shown during the negotiations and the concessions it has made helped smooth the way, as Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri told a journalist on a satellite news channel after the latest round of negotiations concluded in Washington.
Egypt had long argued for the mediation of parties with influence and expertise such as the US and the World Bank. Despite the 2015 Agreement on the Declaration of Principles stating that in the event of the parties failing to reach agreement through consultation and negotiation they may collectively appeal for mediation, Ethiopia resisted this. It was not until Washington stepped in with an offer to host the talks that Addis Ababa finally agreed.
On 15 January, the US Treasury Department announced that ministers of foreign affairs and water resources of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan had reached a consensus on principles. After three days of intensive talks in Washington the ministers reaffirmed “their joint commitment to reach a comprehensive, cooperative, adaptive, sustainable, and mutually beneficial agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”.
According to the joint statement posted on the Treasury Department’s website the ministers noted that “the filling of the 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.”
The statement also said that “the filling will take place during the wet season, generally from July to August, and will continue in September subject to certain conditions.”
It added that “the initial filling stage of GERD will provide for the rapid achievement of a level of 595 meters above sea level and the early generation of electricity, while providing appropriate mitigation measures for Egypt and Sudan in case of severe droughts during this stage.
“The subsequent stages of filling will be done according to a mechanism to be agreed that determines release based upon the hydrological conditions of the Blue Nile and the level of GERD that addresses the filling goals of Ethiopia and provides electricity generation and appropriate mitigation measures for Egypt and Sudan during prolonged periods of dry years, drought and prolonged drought.”
One of the positive points of the agreement is that in principle it focused on the need to address the potential impacts of the filling and operation of the dam on Egypt and Sudan during periods of drought, a condition that Ethiopia had previously refused to consider. It also underscored the need for flexibility and cooperation between the three countries in the processes of filling and operating the dam in a manner that averts harm to downstream dams and cut off avenues for Ethiopian evasiveness, procrastination and attempts to buy time in order to impose de facto realities on Egypt and Sudan.
The agreement will have to be clearer with regard to mitigation measures during periods of dry years, drought and prolonged drought. Currently, ambiguous wording leaves the definition of appropriate measures open to dispute. Greater specificity is also needed with regard to filling the dam in the wet season, especially in September when rainfall is more unpredictable, and with regard to the “effective” coordination mechanism and dispute settlement mechanism mentioned in the joint statement.
Nevertheless, the negotiations that took place in Washington between 28 and 31 January dispelled much of the ambiguity surrounding these points, leaving much less for the technical and legal committees to deal with.
Under international law on the utilisation of transboundary watercourses, upper riparian states wishing to build new dams or other hydraulic projects must avoid harming the operation of existing dams and hydraulic installations on the same watercourse. In Egypt’s case this means the High Dam, and in Sudan’s the Merowe, Roseires and Sennar dams.
Our hope is that Ethiopia commits itself to abide by the rules of international law on transboundary watercourses and to an agreement that realises the welfare of all concerned parties.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Agreement in sight