The virtual meeting between the foreign and irrigation ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on Sunday, the second in less than a week, failed to move forward negotiations on the filling and operating the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
A statement by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry identified “differences over how to resume the talks and procedural aspects related to the negotiating process” as the cause of the impasse. Sudan, the statement added, had insisted on delegating AU appointed experts to suggest possible solutions to the outstanding points of difference.
“We cannot continue this vicious cycle of round talks indefinitely,” Sudanese Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Yasser Abbas told the Sudanese media.
Both Addis Ababa and Cairo have reservations over the Sudanese approach. The AU experts “are not necessarily specialists in the technical and engineering aspects that relate to water resource management and the operation of dams” noted the Foreign Ministry statement.
Ethiopia said that Sudan had rejected proposals put forward by South Africa to meet separately with AU experts.
Sudan has made an expanded role for the AU and enhanced terms of reference for experts a prerequisite to agreeing to a new round of talks, and has threatened to boycott meetings until Egypt and Ethiopia comply.
William Davison, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, believes that the parties should stick with the AU-mediated talks while giving its experts more room to facilitate an agreement.“Given the failure over many years to reach a tripartite agreement, an increased role for AU experts in producing a compromise text to be negotiated over by the parties seems like the best way forward,” he said.
“In an ideal water-sharing negotiation, neutral experts should have a bigger say,” said Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University, Sweden.
The GERD dispute is very complicated, notes Swain. “In taking an independent stand and insisting on changing the methodology of the negotiations Khartoum is trying to find its rightful place in talks that have been primarily dominated by Egypt and Ethiopia.”
The way negotiations have been moving for several months now leaves Swain with little hope that in their current form they will result in an agreement. Both intra-basin politics, and uncertainties at the regional and international levels are responsible for this, he adds.
Given there are six months to go before Ethiopia can embark on a second filling of the reservoir, Swain believes it is probably better to hold until the change of AU presidency and the inauguration of the Biden administration before resuming talks.
In addition to insisting on a wider role for AU experts, Khartoum also objected to the letter Ethiopia sent the AU last week saying it would resume filling the reservoir in July with 13.5 million cubic metres of water, whether an agreement is reached or not.
Sudan skipped a meeting in last week’s round of talks to protest against the absence of a response to its demand of bilateral meetings between AU experts and each of the three countries’ representatives separately to identify points of differences ahead of the resumption of trilateral meetings.
Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, argues that now the AU-mediated talks, which were supposed to last for few weeks, have been dragging for seven months, a major shake-up is needed.
“Egypt — together with Sudan — should present a joint memo to the UN Security Council. That memo should include details about all the negotiations’ phases, including the AU-mediated talks,” he said.
South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor is due to present a report on the latest round of talks to South Africa’s president in order to determine the next steps.
The AU-mediated talks that started in July have been observed by representatives from the EU, the US, the AU, as well as legal and technical experts.
In November Sudan withdrew from the talks called by South Africa, the current chairman of the African Union, claiming the current negotiating approach rendered talks useless. Sudan’s absence in November resulted in a six-week halt in negotiations.
The talks resumed last week with a six-party ministerial meeting which was supposed to be followed by trilateral technical talks to reach a legally binding agreement.
The dam, 15km from the Ethiopian border with Sudan, has been a source of contention between the three countries since construction began in 2011. The first filling of the dam’s reservoir took place last summer despite the absence of a binding agreement, a move that angered Cairo and Khartoum, both of whom saw it as a violation of the Declaration of Principles (DoP) signed in Sudan in March 2015. The DoP states that the three countries must first agree on guidelines and rules for the operating processes of the dam before filling the reservoir can commence.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.