Cautious optimism

Attia Essawi , Wednesday 8 Jan 2020

Cautious optimism
(photo: AFP)

The fourth and last round of technical discussions between Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian water resources and irrigation ministers on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) began today (Thursday, 9 January 2020) in Addis Ababa. The meeting is part of the roadmap agreed during the tripartite foreign ministers’ meeting in Washington on 8 November 2019, a process that will conclude on 13 January in one of two ways: either an agreement is reached on the rules and schedule for filling and operating GERD, or a decision will be made to extend talks for another limited period of time after evaluating what has been accomplished during the technical discussions.

Since the November agreement in Washington three rounds of negotiations have taken place. The first round was held in Ethiopia on 15-16 November and the second in Cairo on 2-3 December. The third round was held in Sudan on 22 December.

Despite official statements and reports on the progress made during the last three rounds of technical talks, the latest two days of talks are not expected to conclude in a comprehensive agreement. The hope is that participants will agree on the broad outlines of an agreement preparatory to any final tweaks to be made in the expanded meeting on Monday 13 January that will also include the three countries’ foreign ministers.

If this fails a new phase will begin, bringing in Washington and the World Bank as mediators as per the November agreement in Washington. According to Article 10 of the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles signed between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on 23 March 2015, in the event the parties fail to reach an agreement through direct consultations or negotiations they can collectively request arbitration. The Washington meeting in November essentially set a deadline of 15 January 2020 after which, if the parties cannot agree, mediation kicks in.

Last week Egypt reaffirmed its determination to reach an agreement on rules for filling the GERD reservoir and operating the dam that not only observe the stakeholders’ respective interests but also, in keeping with Article 5 of the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles, encourages cooperation and development.

A spirit of optimism has prevailed since the meeting in Washington in November, when the US and World Bank acted as observers and US President Donald Trump told President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi that he was keen to see the talks succeed. The US president also met with the foreign ministers of the three countries to urge them to show the flexibility needed to produce an agreement.

At the end of their meeting in Cairo on 3 December the ministers of irrigation released a statement suggesting there was a convergence of views on the rules for filling the dam during years of heavy rainfall, and that the subject of the precautions each country needs to take during years of drought had been broached.

A second tripartite foreign ministers meeting was held in Washington in the second week of December 2019. The participants affirmed that progress had been made in the technical talks and that Addis Ababa was committed to implementing any technical rules and guidelines for filling and operating GERD that emerged.

On 22 December Sudanese Minister of Water Resources Yasser Abbas said, “the three countries submitted proposals concerning the filling and operation of the dam and progress had been made towards a convergence of views.”

According to Mohamed Abdel-Ati, Egypt’s minister of irrigation and water resources, Cairo has shown flexibility in the negotiations. Egypt listened closely to Ethiopian concerns and expressed willingness to reconsider certain positions, demonstrating the constructive spirit it is bringing to the process of working together with Sudan and Ethiopia. He noted that the three parties agreed that the filling and operation of the dam should be carried out in a cooperative and coordinated manner that takes into account the annual water yield of the Blue Nile.

In this spirit, the Ministry of Water Resources proposed an alternative formula linking operations of GERD and the High Dam to better promote the interests of both sides.

There are indications that Ethiopia is beginning to shift from the position it has held for the past three years over the timeframe for filling the reservoir. It now speaks in terms of four to seven years, a move towards the Egyptian demand of at least seven years.

Trump tasked his secretary of the treasury, whose department is responsible for overseeing foreign aid and grants, with monitoring the talks. It represents a veiled warning to the three countries to refrain from actions or behaviour that could impede the success of the negotiations. Washington is Addis Ababa’s main supporter, economically, militarily and in the fight against terrorism. Ethiopia received $1 billion in aid from the US in 2018. Washington is also a major supporter of Egypt. It is keen to see the three countries reach agreement on rules for filling and operating the dam. In this spirit it asked them to demonstrate good will by signing an agreement to uphold the right to economic development and prosperity (an Ethiopian demand) in accordance with which the signatory parties respect the other parties’ rights to Nile waters (an Egyptian demand).

The World Bank’s participation has lent further impetus to the talks. The bank oversees the implementation of rules that regulate transboundary water courses and prohibit the construction of facilities for the purposes of electricity production or irrigation without the assent of other countries on the same watercourse and in the absence of necessary precautions being taken to prevent harm being caused to downriver nations as a result of water shortages.

Sudan’s new Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s stances have also been encouraging. Sudan will not allow any harm to come to Egypt and shares Egyptian concerns over GERD because any impact from the dam will be felt by his country first, he told the daily Arabic Al-Ahram.

“Sudan’s interests align with those of Egypt on the dam," he said, stressing the importance of mutual understanding, exchange of information and joint management of the operations of the dam so as to avert harm to any party.

Hamdok’s remarks were reassuring to Cairo which had suspected Sudan of siding with Addis Ababa when Omar Al-Bashir was in power in Khartoum. 

On the other hand, and compounding Egyptian concerns, Sudan’s minister of irrigation recently said that his country only uses six billion cubic metres of the quota of 18.5 billion cubic metres of Nile water fixed by the 1959 Nile Water Agreement. He stressed the need to review laws and regulations governing hydraulic projects on the river so Sudan can take advantage of its full quota. Should this occur, Egypt will face a sharp reduction in the quantity of water flowing via the Nile.

Whether the general feeling of optimism will translate into movement on the ground is another matter. Egypt and Ethiopia remain far apart on some issues. The spokesman of the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources denied that any agreement had been reached during the last three meetings. He also refuted his Ethiopian counterpart’s claim that Egypt had agreed to a reduction in the flow of Blue Nile water to 35 billion cubic metres during the filling of the dam. Cairo continues to insist that the flow of the Blue Nile to Egypt should be sustained at at least 40 billion cubic metres a year. 

In mid-November 2019, Egypt’s Ministry of Water Resources spokesman affirmed that the Egyptian proposal for filling the GERD reservoir was based on data on the hydrology of the Blue Nile (including low flooding seasons and drought), the principle of avoiding harm to downstream nations and collective management of the operation of dams on the Nile. In remarks to Al-Shorouk newspaper he said that these principles were applied to all international river courses and were currently applied by Egypt and Sudan with respect to their dams on the Nile. The Egyptian proposal, he stressed, met the provisions of the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles, recognising Ethiopia’s right to generate electricity while minimising any impact on downstream states.

Mahmoud Abu Zeid, chairman of the Arab Water Council and a former Minister of Irrigation, believes that Egypt’s accommodations suggest an agreement is within reach, at least on issues that need to be resolved quickly. In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper he said that it was unlikely that Egypt and Ethiopia would not reach an agreement now that the US is sponsoring the process.

Former irrigation minister Mohamed Nasr Allam, in remarks to the same newspaper, did not share Abu Zeid’s optimism, putting the chances of an agreement at less than 50 per cent.

It is crucial that GERD operates in the framework of a unified hydraulic system for the Blue Nile which means coordinating its operations with those of Sudan’s dams and Egypt’s High Dam to ensure their ability to produce electricity efficiently. This entails an agreement that guarantees the amount of water released by the Ethiopian dam does not fall below 40 billion cubic metres annually and that the water level behind the High Dam is sustained at 165 metres above sea level, towards which end Ethiopia must take into account low flood and drought years and agree not to refill the GERD reservoir at rates that will lower the amount of water discharged from the agreed upon rates. Unfortunately, Addis Ababa has continued to reject these demands.

Ethiopia has long insisted on restricting negotiations over the filling of the GERD reservoir to its initial phase. If Egypt and Sudan agreed to this Addis Ababa would be able to do as it pleases when it comes to refilling the dam and there will be nothing to compel it to observe the needs of downstream nations in years of drought and low flood.

Any comprehensive agreement must not only include future management of the filling of the reservoir but incorporate a monitoring mechanism. It must be based on cooperation between the three countries, as stipulated in the Washington agreement, and be clear and detailed, leaving no room for abuse, circumvention or misunderstandings that lead to new disputes.

Under international law on transboundary watercourses, upper riparian states wishing to build new dams or other hydraulic projects must do so in a way that avoids harming the operation of dams and water installations previously constructed on the same watercourse. In our case, this means the High Dam in Egypt and the Merowe, Roseires and Sennar dams in Sudan. Under the Declaration of Principles Agreement of 2015 Egypt and Sudan are entitled to composition for any economic, environmental or social damage caused by GERD.



*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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