The foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are set to meet in Washington on Wednesday 6 November with the aim of reaching an agreement on the operation and filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in a way that does not affect Egypt’s quota of Nile water.
Ethiopia and Egypt accepted a US invitation to put their heads together to attempt to reach a breakthrough in negotiations over GERD which came to a standstill last month.
The talks were set to be attended by US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Until Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, no further details on the meeting were available.
On Monday, following a phone call with US President Donald Trump, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi tweeted: “I express my personal gratitude and Egypt’s appreciation to Trump on the efforts exerted to sponsor tripartite talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in Washington.” He said he was confident the US meeting would break the stalemate in GERD negotiations.
According to a statement by the Egyptian presidency, Trump stressed his keenness on the success of the negotiations. He was scheduled to receive the foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in the Oval Office at the beginning of the talks.
For the first time since the beginning of the four-year negotiations over GERD, an outside party — the United States — has become involved.
Throughout the talks, the tripartite negotiations did not lead to any tangible progress. Early last month Egypt officially declared that negotiations with Ethiopia over the conditions for operating the dam and filling its reservoir had reached a dead end due to the “intransigency” of the Ethiopian side and that the need to involve an effective international mediator had become indispensable.
David Malpass, president of the World Bank, was also scheduled to attend the meeting. The World Bank has considerable experience in resolving conflicts between countries that share transboundary rivers. Before heading to the US, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said that Egypt hoped that the Washington meeting will result in “signing a binding legal tripartite agreement that preserves the water rights of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan”.
According to former irrigation minister Mohamed Nasr Allam, holding the meeting in the US capital was considered a success; Washington’s invitation to host the meeting encouraged Ethiopia to attend.
“Whether or not the meeting in Washington results in a mutual understanding, even if preliminary, it will be in Egypt’s interests. If no understanding is reached, at least the meeting will be an opportunity for Egypt to present its just cause to the world,” Hani Raslan, a well-versed Nile Basin expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said.
Allam echoed the same position. “This is the first step for Egypt to internationalise the GERD issue in search of a peaceful solution to the conflict in accordance with the UN charter and to clarify the causes and consequences of the crisis,” he said on his Facebook page.
Nevertheless, Raslan believes that the bar of ambitions and hopes should not be raised based on the outcome of the Washington meeting, but should be seen as “a step forward in a struggle believed not to be short-termed”.
As a result of the deadlock in negotiations, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation said in October that Egypt called for the implementation of Article 10 of the Declaration of Principles, signed between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in March 2015, to involve an international mediator in the GERD negotiations to help reach a fair and balanced agreement without prejudice against any party.
The Ethiopian position has constantly rejected external mediation. In 2017, Egypt suggested that the World Bank be brought in to resolve tensions with Ethiopia over the dam, but Ethiopia rejected the idea. Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to mediate between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed while both were attending the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi. The Russian offer, however, did not materialise into actual mediation.
“The US offer [to sponsor discussion] was the most appropriate because it is the main sponsor of the Ethiopian state and the so-called Ethiopian model of development and stability in the Horn of Africa,” explained Raslan.
For Ethiopia, the $4.8 billion GERD, announced in 2011, paves the way for its development because it is designed to be the centrepiece of Ethiopia’s bid to become Africa’s biggest power exporter. When completed in 2022 it will be the largest hydropower project in Africa, generating more than 6,000 megawatts.
Egypt has repeatedly expressed its openness to reaching an agreement with Ethiopia over GERD, saying that reaching a deal would help safeguard the interests of all parties involved and achieve Ethiopia’s development goals.
The Washington meeting was an opportunity for Egypt to show its flexibility vis-à-vis Ethiopian “intransigence” in the dam negotiations over the years. Now the dam is nearing completion despite the lack of adequate studies in terms of construction and hydrological, environmental, economic and social impact, Allam said.
The GERD, which is nearly 70 per cent complete, is being built on the Blue Nile, which accounts for 85 per cent of the Nile waters that reach Egypt. Among the major disagreements is that Egypt wants the filling of the reservoir to take place over seven years instead of three and has requested Addis Ababa to release 40 billion m3 of water per annum. Ethiopia has summarily rejected Egypt’s proposals, seeing them as a violation of its sovereignty.
The spokesperson of the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation said that the Egyptian offer, rejected by Ethiopia, presented an integrated proposal for the rules of filling and operating the dam that was fair and balanced and took into account the interests of the three countries involved.
In response, Ethiopia presented a new proposal during the Khartoum meetings in early October which was, according to the spokesperson, “a setback for all the principles previously agreed upon for the filling and operation of the dam”. The Ethiopian proposal did not specify a minimum amount of water to be released annually once the dam was complete. Nor did it include ways to deal with prolonged drought that might occur in the future, the spokesperson said, adding that Ethiopia refused to discuss the rules of operating the dam, and instead limited the negotiations on the filling phase and the rules of operation during the same stage.
This, the spokesperson said, violated Article 5 of the Declaration of Principles, and was not in line with international norms of cooperation in the construction and management of dams on shared rivers.
“The failure to reach an agreement on the filling terms of the GERD reservoir and operation would lead to a significant decline in the annual revenue of the Nile water reaching Egypt. This will render larger areas of fertile land uncultivable. Moreover, it would affect the level of underground water. And it would induce a rise in the salinity of the land in the Delta region as well as cause problems with river navigation because of lower water levels. And it will threaten fisheries in the river,” Allam said.
The former minister also believes that the presence of the World Bank in the meeting is positive because it includes experts who can later play a role as technical intermediaries, and also has the ability to fund and compensate for negative impacts, although he added that some effects cannot be compensated.
Raslan, meanwhile, believes that there is another significant dimension to the Washington meeting: a reference for dealing with any future dams, whether by Ethiopia or any other Nile Basin country.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.