Before a partial last-minute breakthrough on Monday in technical negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a state of despair had clouded the atmosphere of negotiation. Egypt was not expecting any progress, and observers expected the talks to collapse at any moment or at least reach a dead end. A Sudanese initiative began on 9 June and was scheduled to end 13 June but was still running until Al-Ahram Weekly went to press.
By the end of the fifth day of negotiations on Monday, Sudanese Irrigation Minister Yasser Abbas announced progress on 95 per cent of the issues, such as the first filling of the reservoir during regular floods, drought and extended drought, long-term operation, safety of the dam, data exchange, environmental studies and the Technical Committee for Cooperation. However, he revealed the continuing disagreement on the legal aspects, especially on making the agreement binding and on mechanisms to amend it and dispute settlement.
Ethiopia has been throwing a spanner into the negotiating process over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) by submitting proposals that it knows in advance that Egypt and Sudan will reject. Its plan is to force these countries to choose between a de facto reality or to make concessions on the filling of the reservoir and the operation of the dam.
After refusing to sign the draft agreement proposed by Washington with the aid of the World Bank in February, Addis Ababa now wants to renegotiate points that it had previously agreed to and that had informed that draft agreement. It now aims to secure the right to unilaterally alter the rules for filling and operating the dam based on the amount of electricity it produces and Ethiopia’s water needs.
It wants Cairo and Khartoum to recognise its exclusive and unconditional right to utilise the water of the Blue Nile as it likes, unrestricted by any solid guarantees to meet the needs of downstream nations during periods of drought and extended drought or any safeguards against the significant harm that might befall them during the filling and operation of the dam.
“The Ethiopian proposal stipulates that it has the absolute right to change and modify the rules for filling and operating the Renaissance Dam unilaterally in the light of the rates of electricity production at the dam and Ethiopian water needs with no regard for the welfare of downstream nations,” said Mohamed Al-Sibaai, spokesman for the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, in a press statement on Saturday.
He added that he had little hope for a breakthrough or progress in the talks, explaining that while Egypt had showed further flexibility and accepted the compromise paper prepared by Sudan as a basis for negotiation, Ethiopia had submitted a “disturbing” proposal that was “technically and legally flawed”. Presented to the tripartite meeting on the dam on 11 June, the proposal had demonstrated once again that Ethiopia lacks the political will to reach an equitable agreement and that it is bent on securing a free and unrestricted hand in the utilisation of transboundary water resources with no concern for the rights and interests of downstream nations, he added.
Al-Sibaai said that Ethiopia had made it clear during the meetings that it was determined to jettison previous agreements and understandings it had reached with Khartoum and Cairo in the course of negotiations that had dragged on for nearly a decade. These included the agreements that had resulted from the talks sponsored by Washington and attended by the World Bank. “This is unacceptable,” Al-Sibaai said, adding that the Ethiopian aim was to confront Khartoum and Cairo with an impending de facto reality and force them to choose between signing a document that would put them at Ethiopia’s mercy or watch as Ethiopia proceeded to fill the dam without having reached an agreement with them.
The Ethiopian Irrigation Ministry once again fell back on the refrain that Addis Ababa had refused to abide by treaties signed in the colonial era on the grounds that it had not been a party to those agreements. The 1902 Nile Waters Agreement was signed by Ethiopian emperor Menelik II and Britain, which at the time occupied Egypt and Sudan. The agreement that Menelik signed in the full possession of his sovereignty prohibits the construction of dams on the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, and the Sobat River without Egypt’s approval. In 1992, Ethiopia and Egypt, then of course both independent nations, signed an agreement to cooperate in the utilisation of the River Nile water in accordance with the provisions of international law and the principle of the avoidance of mutual harm.
Ethiopia has insisted that it will only sign an agreement based on the Declaration of Principles signed between the three countries in Khartoum in 2015, and it has blamed Egypt for “clinging to an agreement on the distribution of Nile water that deprives Ethiopia and other source countries of their natural rights.” The irony is that the 1959 Agreement referred to here is between Egypt and Sudan and pertains to the relatively small quantity of water that reaches the two downstream countries and amounts to barely 4.5 per cent of the 1,870 billion m3 of rainfall that the Nile source countries receive each year.
As for Ethiopia’s claim that it seeks an agreement based on the 2015 Agreement on the Declaration of Principles, this is a positive development and nearly sufficient to serve as a basis for negotiation and a comprehensive and just agreement, but only on the condition that Ethiopia abides by the agreement to the letter and stop interpreting certain points in a manner inconsistent with its text and spirit.
The 2015 agreement clearly provides that Cairo and Khartoum should be partners with Addis Ababa in the drawing up of the rules for filling the GERD reservoir and operating the dam so as to avert unsustainable shortages or delays in the arrival of water to the two downstream countries. The agreement calls for the creation of a tripartite mechanism to coordinate the operations of the Ethiopian dam with those of Sudanese and Egyptian dams downstream so as to ensure that water levels remain high enough to sustain their electricity generating efficacy.
It also calls on the three countries to cooperate in the utilisation of Nile water in accordance with the principles of international law and an understanding of the water needs of all the parties.
DISPUTES AGREEMENT: Another important feature of the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles is its provision for dispute settlement.
This states that disputes should be settled firstly through mutual consultations, followed by negotiation, third party mediation, and then reconciliation. Its central guiding principle is the avoidance of significant harm to any of the three parties, and it states that they should take all appropriate measures to avert or minimise harm and study methods for compensation should harm nevertheless take place. Finally, it calls on the parties to implement the recommendations of the international panel of experts concerning the findings of the impact studies on the environment or on the flow of the Blue Nile water to Sudan and Egypt.
With that agreement, Egypt obtained a written pledge from Ethiopia not to inflict tangible harm on its acquired historical rights to the Nile water. In exchange, Addis Ababa obtained an Egyptian-Sudanese approval to go ahead with the construction of the dam while they awaited the final impact reports from the international panel of experts. That approval released the international funding that Addis Ababa needed for the construction of the dam.
Al-Sibaai released his statement to the press some hours after Egypt and Sudan had announced their reservations on the 13-point Ethiopian proposal that constituted a total repudiation of the agreements and understandings made during the Washington talks sponsored by the US Department of the Treasury and attended by the World Bank.
According to an Ethiopian Foreign Ministry communiqué, the Ethiopian proposal calls for new negotiations over the guiding principles and rules for the first filling and annual operation of the dam. It holds that international observers should do no more than observe and contribute their expertise only when solicited, and that the baseline for negotiations should be the document that served as the basis for the 12 and 13 February session in Washington. It thereby seeks to scrap the compromise solution subsequently formulated by the US Treasury Department and World Bank experts on the outstanding points of difference based on the discussions between the three delegations up to that point.
Ethiopia has agreed to resume the talks, but on condition that they are attended by observers from the European Union and the African Union, plus one US observer and no representative from the World Bank. It insists that the observers should remain silent unless their input is requested, while Egypt wants them to play a facilitating role to overcome differences and propose solutions. More importantly, Ethiopia wants to begin filling the dam reservoir and continue the talks at the same time, which both Egypt and Sudan naturally oppose.
Such positions and behaviour can only mean one thing: Ethiopia is not serious about reaching an agreement and merely wants to fritter away the time until the rainy season so that it can begin to fill the dam reservoir and force Cairo and Khartoum to face a fait accompli. Or, in the best-case scenario, it wants to resolve the dispute, but only in a way that serves its own interests alone. It plans to build other dams for electricity generation purposes on the Blue Nile, and it wants to remain free of any restrictions on how it fills and operates these structures that take into consideration the welfare of downstream nations, whether during normal flood seasons or during periods of drought or extended drought.
CAIRO’S POSITION: If Cairo has insisted on the draft agreement that was the product of the Washington negotiating process, it is because the text is fair and equitable. It allows Ethiopia to realise its development aims, while safeguarding the rights of Sudan and Egypt. Cairo has stressed that Addis Ababa must not take unilateral steps in breach of its legal obligations, especially with respect to the provisions of the 2015 Agreement on the Declaration of Principles.
As it fears that the Ethiopian behaviour may precipitate a critical situation in the region as a whole, Cairo has stipulated several conditions to ensure that Addis Ababa becomes more serious and committed to reaching a fair agreement. These are that Ethiopia must refrain from any unilateral steps to fill the dam reservoir until the negotiations are concluded and an agreement is reached, that the 21 February 2020 documents prepared by the US and the World Bank and initialed by Egypt should serve as the baseline for talks, and that the role of observers should be to facilitate the negotiations and help to overcome obstacles.
When the tripartite meetings resumed on 9 June, Egypt made it clear that the negotiations should have a time limit so that Ethiopia does not turn them into an instrument for procrastination or the evasion of its commitments under the 2015 agreement. Following a meeting chaired by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, the Egyptian National Security Council stressed that Cairo had agreed to resume the negotiations to demonstrate good faith and to test the other’s political will to reach an agreement.
Sudan echoed Egypt’s opposition to any Ethiopian unilateral action before the three parties reach a final agreement on the first filling of the dam and its operation. Khartoum also rejected an Ethiopian proposal to sign a partial agreement on the filling of the reservoir, reminding Addis Ababa of the technical and legal aspects that should be incorporated into such an agreement, and it rejected the Ethiopian proposal to continue negotiations while the first filling of the reservoir is in progress. On the other hand, Khartoum also reiterated its position, as expressed in the compromise solution it presented to Cairo and Addis Ababa on 9 June, which is to use the 12-13 February document as the baseline for negotiations, which was an Ethiopian demand.
Hope for reaching an agreement will only come if Ethiopia radically changes its behaviour. A stronger Egyptian-Sudanese stance will be needed in order to compel Addis Ababa to cease its intransigence, to reciprocate the great flexibility that Cairo has shown, and to respond more constructively to the successive Sudanese efforts to bridge different points of view and reach compromise solutions.
It is to be hoped that similar degrees of firmness will be forthcoming from the US, which sponsored the Washington process, the European Union and African Union, which attended the negotiations as observers, and countries such as China that has large investments in Ethiopia. It is in the interest of all these parties to safeguard stability and peace and to promote development in the region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly