Egypt relies almost exclusively on the Nile for its water needs. An acceptable agreement over the Renaissance Dam is essential to avert potentially disastrous consequences for Egypt. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi warned the project cannot begin operating as a result of the imposition of de facto realities.
Egypt has called for international mediation to help reach a “fair and balanced” agreement after tripartite talks with Sudan and Ethiopia over the operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) ended in deadlock.
Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s minister of water, irrigation and electricity immediately rejected the call.
“Why do we need new partners? Do we want to extend [the negotiations] indefinitely?” Bekele told the media after the latest round of technical and ministerial meetings in Khartoum.
Following the failure of the negotiations President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said Egypt was fully committed to protecting its rights to water from the River Nile.
“Egypt will take all the necessary political measures, within the framework of international law to protect these rights,” he wrote on his official Facebook page.
The latest two-day round of tripartite ministerial talks began last Friday in Khartoum and was followed by a four-day technical committee meeting. Both failed to reach agreement on a final timetable for the filling of the dam’s reservoir.
In August Egypt presented proposals for the filling and operation of the dam during a visit to Addis Ababa by Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Ati. Ethiopian officials said at the time that the proposals, which included a seven-year timetable for filling the reservoir and the guaranteed release of 40 billion cubic metres of water annually, would be discussed in the tripartite meeting. In the end, though, Ethiopia dismissed Egypt’s proposal as “impractical”.
“For four years now Addis Ababa has placed obstacles on the path to reaching any agreement,” said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity. “As a result, essential impact studies on the dam remain incomplete, and an agreement on filling times and rules appears as far away as ever.”
Following the latest round of tripartite negotiations, Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation Spokesperson Mohamed Sebaai issued a statement saying the talks had stalled “as a result of Ethiopia’s inflexibility and rejection of any suggestions that protect Egypt’s interests and avoid causing substantial harm.”
As a result, “Egypt has called for international mediators to help reach a fair and balanced agreement over the Renaissance Dam,” said the statement.
During the technical and ministerial meetings, held from 30 September to 5 October, Sebaai said Ethiopia had presented proposals which contradicted previously agreed principles and avoided any commitment to a minimum annual discharge from the dam or mention of ways to deal with future droughts.
Ethiopia, according to the Water Ministry’s statement, refused to discuss the dam’s long-term operating process, in violation of the Declaration of Principles signed in 2015 which requires Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to reach a long-term agreement in tandem with the dam’s construction, and instead insisted talks could only cover the filling phase. As a result, Egypt called for international mediation in the tripartite negotiations, as specified in Article 10 of the Declaration of Principles.
Though Egypt has not specified a mediator the presidency requested the US to play “an active role in this matter”.
It welcomed a statement issued by the White House this week which said Washington supports Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan’s ongoing negotiations to reach a cooperative, sustainable, and mutually beneficial agreement on filling and operating the dam. “All Nile Valley countries have a right to economic development and prosperity,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said. “The administration calls on all sides to put forth good faith efforts to reach an agreement that preserves those rights, while simultaneously respecting each other’s Nile water equities.”
During the UN General Assembly in New York last month President Al-Sisi called on the international community to play a “constructive role” and urged all parties to be flexible in negotiations over the dam so that an agreement can be reached that serves everyone’s interests.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri has repeatedly voiced Egypt’s frustrations with delays in the negotiations and the failure to reach any agreement. He raised problems over the dam in bilateral meetings with his European, African and Arab counterparts on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and expressed concern over the way negotiations had continued to stall.
Shoukri briefed Arab foreign ministers attending last month’s Arab League meeting in Cairo on the difficulties Cairo is facing in the negotiations.
Given tripartite negotiations have proved to be fruitless, says the diplomat, Cairo has little choice but to insist on international mediation. “But it needs to be done soon, and within a fixed time frame. More than 60 per cent of the dam is built, so there is no time to waste,” he said.
A classified document outlining the reasons for Ethiopia’s rejection of Egypt’s proposals which was leaked to the Ethiopian media concluded that “the Egyptian proposal… will prolong the filling of GERD indefinitely… GERD will primarily be there to compensate for the Egyptian water deficit by serving as a second back-up reservoir to Aswan High Dam”. It added that “the proposed permanent coordination mechanism infringes on Ethiopia’s sovereignty.”
Egypt has repeatedly expressed its concern that the dam, which is on the main tributary to the Nile, will drastically reduce its share of Nile water.
Several rounds of technical and political negotiations have taken place since the presidents of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia signed the Declaration of Principles in March 2015. None have borne fruit.
Negotiations on water issues are typically long and arduous. The failure of one round does not mean that we do not hold further rounds, says Mohamed Hegazi, a former assistant to Egypt’s foreign minister.
Hegazi says Cairo has little choice but to involve the international community, through states and international organisations, and that an Arab role in resolving the dispute, led by Gulf countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, might be helpful.
Egypt should also, he says, prepare a comprehensive dossier spelling out its legal rights to Nile water, and formulate a comprehensive regional development plan that links the management of dams in the three countries and includes future land, water and railway networks between the three countries.
Ethiopia imposing a de facto reality on the ground is completely unacceptable, adds Hegazi.
Though the dam was initially scheduled to be completed by 2020, in August 2018 Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced unforeseen delays which pushed the completion date back by several years.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.