Last leg in the GERD talks

Abdel-Mohsen Salama
Wednesday 19 Feb 2020

The crisis over the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is at last in sight of a solution acceptable to all the parties, writes Abdel-Mohsen Salama

At long last, and after an extremely gruelling and complex negotiating marathon, the crisis over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is nearing the finish line, with the last lap expected to conclude by the end of this month or the beginning of the next. 

Washington and the World Bank are working to finalise the wording of the legal provisions and hammer out a number of still pending points in order to have the final agreement ready for Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum to sign in Washington in the next couple of weeks.

In the round before last of the negotiations in Washington, the three parties agreed on a number of technical points concerning the rules for the first filling and operation of the dam. However, the Ethiopian and Sudanese delegations asked for time to consult with officials at home before the following round, also hosted in Washington and attended by the US secretary of the treasury, the head of the World Bank and ministerial delegations from the three countries concerned. 

According to a statement released by the US Department of the Treasury, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia agreed to continue the negotiations with an eye to reaching an agreement this month. The statement said that the US with technical support from the World Bank was ready to draft the final agreement and get it ready for signature by the heads-of-state of the three countries. 

I asked Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, in Washington at the time, whether the negotiations had concluded or whether there were still pending points. He told me that the negotiators had identified all the elements that needed to be included in the final agreement and confirmed that agreement had been reached over technical issues in the previous round and that the points would be added to the final agreement that would cover most of the other pending issues. These relate to the rules for filling and operating the dam, especially in times of drought, prolonged drought and years of low rainfall, as well as those that will apply to the dam’s operations in the long term under normal hydrological conditions. 

Shoukri said that the recent round of talks had centred on the legal framework, the review mechanism, the dispute-management mechanism and the technical follow-up mechanism needed to ensure the implementation of all the articles of the agreement. There remained some differences over the final formulas for these issues, even though Egypt and Sudan were largely in agreement on them, he said. 

Shoukri expressed Egypt’s confidence in Washington’s ability to facilitate the drafting of a final agreement that would safeguard Egypt and Sudan’s water rights, while simultaneously upholding Ethiopia’s right to development and prosperity. He noted how useful the talks in Washington had been in bridging the views between the three parties, bringing them to the point where they could see the components of a final agreement clearly. 

However, why had Sudan refrained from adding its signature to Egypt’s on the points that the three parties had agreed to in the round before the last one? Had Khartoum changed its mind on some point or other? Shoukri said that “Sudan is a brotherly Arab country with which we share common interests. Egypt and Sudan are like one country and one people. In the last round, Egypt and Sudan proposed a joint formula.”

 “We have great confidence in the Americans, who are eager for the talks to succeed and therefore have exerted enormous efforts to reduce any obstacles and make it possible for us to progress this far. We are certain that they will continue this work until we can resolve all the remaining points by the end of this month, so that we can finalise the text of an agreement that is objective and equitable to all three countries,” he added.

It has taken nine years to reach this last leg in the negotiations over a crisis that was set in motion when Addis Ababa began to act on plans to build the GERD at a time when Egypt was in the grips of the upheaval that followed the 25 January Revolution. 

The Egyptian governments that were formed in the post-revolutionary period made grave mistakes in their handling of the GERD, starting in September 2011 when then prime minister Essam Sharaf agreed with his Ethiopian counterpart Meles Zenawi on the creation of an international committee to study the potential impacts of the Ethiopian Dam. 

The committee was made up of ten experts, two each from Ethiopia, Sudan and Khartoum, plus four international experts. It took eight months for the committee to hold its first meeting in May 2012. However, this poor management reached its peak with a farcical “emergency meeting” of Egyptian political leaders convened by former president Mohamed Morsi that elicited ridicule at home and abroad and only complicated the situation further.

It was not until President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi assumed power that a serious and rational approach was brought to bear in the cause of safeguarding Egypt’s historical water rights in a manner that did not conflict with Ethiopia’s development aims. Al-Sisi has repeatedly stressed that the Nile’s water is an existential question for Egypt and the Egyptian people and that there is a vast difference between the right to life and the right to development. 

The first major breakthrough in remedying the crisis was the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles signed by Addis Ababa, Khartoum and Cairo on 23 March 2015 after arduous trilateral negotiations. Egypt signed the agreement as a way of affirming its good will towards Ethiopia, while the document itself stipulated certain obligations that fell on Ethiopia with respect to the downstream nations. 

The fourth principle in the agreement underscored the need for the equitable and appropriate use of water resources, which is very important to Egypt because of its water deficiency. Egypt is almost totally dependent on the Nile, in contrast to both Sudan and Ethiopia which have abundant water resources. Yet, Egypt’s current share of the Nile’s water already falls considerably short of its needs. Its per capita share is 700 m3, which is lower than the international water poverty level. Ethiopia, by contrast, receives 936 billion m3 of rainwater a year, and it has ten river basins in addition to the Blue Nile. 

Article 10 of the Agreement provides that the three countries should sort out any disputes arising from the interpretation or application of it through consultations or negotiations, and that if these fail, they can agree to ask for arbitration or mediation. This was the article Egypt relied on when it appealed to the US and the World Bank to intervene as mediators to help the three countries resolve disputes that had continued to defy solution for nearly five years after the signing of the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles. 

At this point, there was no other reasonable alternative but mediation in order to reach a just solution satisfactory to all sides.  

Applying the framework of international law on shared watercourses and the principles agreed on by the three parties in Khartoum in 2015, the US and the World Bank, with the help of international consultants, worked to hammer out technical criteria for the GERD’s operations that would guarantee Egypt’s water rights now and in the future and uphold Ethiopia’s right to produce electricity at the GERD. 

Thanks to these efforts, the GERD negotiations have neared the finish line, with only some technicalities remaining. The final hurdle will require good will from Ethiopia and clear Sudanese support for Egypt, which has reaffirmed its aspiration to forge a strategic partnership with Ethiopia and Sudan towards the realisation of a vision for transforming the Nile Basin into a basin of trust, cooperation, peace and prosperity. 

The writer is chairman of the board of Al-Ahram Organisation


*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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