Legend has it that in Pharaonic times a young virgin was sacrificed to the river god Hapi. The purpose was to appease Hapi and ensure the annual Nile flood, and it all happened in August. Fast forward to 2023, and August was once again a month of optimism as far as the Nile is concerned for last month saw the resumption of long-stalled negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), involving Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia.
Hopes surrounding the resumption of negotiations that stalled in 2021 were short lived. The two-day talks, held on 27 and 28 August in Cairo, yielded no progress. According to Ministry of Water Resources Spokesperson Mohamed Ghanem, the discussions “did not witness any new developments”.
Cairo opposes any unilateral action that impacts the flow of the Nile as a violation of the 2015 Declaration of Principles. Ethiopia, on the other hand, insists on asserting its right to utilise Nile water for the development and water security of its people and talks about a “friendly” entente rather than any legally binding agreement. According to Salah Halima, former senior Egyptian diplomat and Arab League envoy in Sudan, Sudanese concerns centre around the safety impacts of GERD on its own dam networks. Both Sudan and Egypt are also focused on securing agreement over a dispute resolution mechanism.
As negotiations stumbled on for more than a decade Ethiopia completed significant work on the dam’s construction and began filling the reservoir in the absence of an agreement. A visit by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to Cairo in July fanned hopes that an agreement might be reached when it was announced that a four-month-long negotiation would be launched to find a resolution to the ongoing dispute.
Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s former water and irrigation minister and the current Ethiopian ambassador to the US, was reinstated as chief negotiator on transboundary rivers and GERD. According to Bekele, the two parties exchanged views on ways to reach a win-win solution. He also posted on X (formerly Twitter) that some progress was made.
“We have discussed several clauses and continue negotiations to reach a full agreement,” he said. Notably, he did not provide specifics on the shape of any potential agreements or details of the remaining differences.
The dispute over the GERD dates back to 2011 when Ethiopia began construction of the massive hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile. For years, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia engaged in intermittent negotiations brokered by the African Union (AU) but the talks collapsed in April 2021. An attempt to mediate differences, facilitated by the US, ended in failure in February 2020.
In the meantime, Ethiopia completed the first three fillings of the dam and is on course for a fourth which will take the water stored in the reservoir to 32 billion m3. But while the dam is expected to generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity, which will be a major boost for Ethiopia’s economy, it is also expected to impact on the water supplies of Egypt and Sudan, which rely on the Nile to provide 80 per cent of their water needs.
It is unclear on what basis the next round of talks in Addis Ababa, scheduled “within a few days”, will be held given there has been no noticeable shift in the positions of the protagonists.
Abu Dhabi has in the past hosted negotiation rounds between the three countries, and unconfirmed reports suggest the Cairo talks discussed an Emirati proposal. UAE President Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed visited Ethiopia on 18 August, and earlier in the month met with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in Alamein City.
In Addis Ababa, Bin Zayed welcomed the decision by Egypt and Ethiopia to resume negotiations and expressed hope that they would lead to a satisfactory solution for all parties and support regional stability, according to a statement by the UAE news agency.
The night before the talks in Cairo, a minister of state in the UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Shakhbout bin Nahyan, issued a statement expressing optimism about the possibility of an agreement between the three countries.
Last year, when Egypt officially protested to the United Nations Security Council about Ethiopia filling the dam without consultation with downstream nations, the UAE called for the continuation of diplomatic dialogue and negotiations to resolve any disputes, rejecting the internationalisation of the issue and arguing discussions should continue within the AU framework. Ethiopia has considerable influence within the AU, and the UAE’s stand was viewed as supporting Addis Ababa’s position.
Halima believes that the next round will revolve around two main issues: cooperation on development projects, and the setting of detailed rules for the filling and operation of the dam to be incorporated in a binding legal agreement rather than the vague “friendly” approach Ethiopia has until now favoured.
“Initial indicators suggest caution about the likelihood of significant breakthroughs,” he said.
“We just hope the negotiations are not an attempt by Ethiopia to buy time to complete a fourth filling.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly