How to get Addis Ababa to engage more constructively in talks on the future operation of the mega dam Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile, source of 80 per cent of Egypt’s annual share of Nile water, will top President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s agenda in the discussions he will have on the sidelines of next week’s UN General Assembly in New York.
“This is already high on the agendas of our embassies overseas and in the talks senior Egyptian officials have with their counterparts from all over the world,” said a cabinet official.
“It is an existential issue, and time is not on our side.”
Technical teams from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia are expected to meet in Khartoum on 30 September to discuss details of the future operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and its impact on Egypt’s water supply. While Cairo hopes the meeting will help resolve the crucial issue, past experience has taught Egyptian officials to exercise caution when it comes to any optimism on the matter.
On Monday, Cairo announced that a two-day meeting it hosted this week between Ethiopian, Sudanese and Egyptian officials, had ended on a deadlock.
The announcement was made by Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, and was not the first in the past two weeks that Cairo has voiced its growing concerns.
On Tuesday in Cairo, Shoukri said Egypt remained willing to work towards a deal but could not engage in an open-ended process of talks without results.
“We are very keen on our partnership with Ethiopia and with Sudan but there has to be progress, otherwise we will reach a position where reaching an agreement is simply no longer possible,” Shoukri said during a joint press conference with his French counterpart.
Shoukri echoed a similar concern during a meeting with his Kenyan counterpart during talks in Cairo on Sunday.
In the last two weeks Egyptian diplomats have shared Cairo’s concern on the fate of the negotiations with the heads of several diplomatic missions in Egypt and with visiting African officials.
“The negotiations have been in a fix for almost a year now. We are worried about such a prolonged delay on this very crucial issue,” said a government official.
The only chink of light, though it is only temporary, is that “Ethiopia is experiencing delays in completing the construction of the dam and installing some of the machinery necessary to start the first phase of filling the reservoir.
“We don’t know if the Ethiopians will be ready to start the filling process in 2020,” said the official. “What we do know is that trials have been conducted and time is passing by. We urgently need to agree on key principles to ensure our already inadequate annual share of Nile water is not cut.”
Egypt receives 55 billion cubic metres of Nile water a year, a figure far short of its needs, which is why the UN includes Egypt in its list of countries suffering water poverty.
Ethiopia insists GERD has been designed to generate the electricity necessary for its development plans, and that it will take just a few years to fill the dam’s reservoir. But the reservoir has a capacity of 74 billion cubic metres, and Egypt is in no position to shoulder any reduction in its annual share of Nile water.
The debate over GERD is not new. Plans for the dam were around more than 20 years ago. In the 1990s Egypt successfully blocked Ethiopia from accessing the funds needed to construct the dam. In 2010 Cairo pursued a similar strategy, arguing that Addis Ababa had failed to inform Cairo, as it was legally obliged to do, of its plans for the Blue Nile. Immediately following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak Egyptian diplomats continued on the same path.
“Following the regime change that happened in Egypt we were actually receiving more support from Sudan. Till then Khartoum can hardly be said to have been on our side,” says a former Egyptian negotiator who was in charge of the file.
The ousted Mubarak regime had been at loggerheads with the regime of Omar Al-Bashir, and Khartoum was keen to court the Ethiopians.
Ethiopia began work on the dam in May 2011 though it was not until the spring of 2015 that Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia signed the Khartoum declaration of principles which states the three countries must agree on the rules for the operation of the dam and the filling of its reservoir.
At the time Cairo officials justified signing the deal on the grounds that work on the dam had progressed so far that its construction was practically unstoppable and it was therefore better for Egypt to engage with Ethiopia and Sudan in a legal, contractual agreement, especially given that Sudan was still siding with Ethiopia.
Two years later, when Egypt realised Ethiopia was simply playing for time, Cairo contemplated withdrawing from the Khartoum deal. It eventually judged a withdrawal as politically impractical and opted instead to press for a committee of independent experts to formulate comprehensive plans for the operation of GERD in such a way as to minimise any ecological impact of the dam on the Nile and on Egypt.
The committee last met in September 2018. Its work, says Cairo, was made impossible by a lack of cooperation from the Ethiopian side.
As Al-Bashir faced growing unrest in Sudan, Khartoum shifted its position and started to side with Egypt. Al-Bashir was hoping for Cairo’s support, though it soon became apparent his demise was inevitable.
In April, Al-Bashir was ousted from power. In August this year Cairo submitted a comprehensive proposal for the operation of the dam to Addis Ababa. In meetings that took place in Cairo this week Ethiopia declined to even discuss Egypt’s proposal, though it had earlier indicated it would. As a result the meeting was restricted to procedural matters.
In technical meetings slated for 30 September in Khartoum, Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia are expected to make their own proposals which the technical teams will then attempt to mesh together. A meeting for the ministers of irrigation from the three countries will then take place on 3-5 October, followed by a meeting for foreign ministers.
Given the tortuous progress of past talks few people will be holding their breath for a positive outcome.
According to the cabinet source, Egypt is already preparing for a possible fall in its supply of Nile water by examining the possibility of using yet more recycled water for irrigation. There is also the far more expensive option of water desalination and a massive overhaul of agricultural practices and a shift to less thirsty crops.
But whatever the contingency plan, Egyptian sources agree, a political crisis with Ethiopia is in the making
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: ‘A crisis in the making’