Date: Saturday, 03 February 2018
Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have ended Cairo’s freeze on negotiations on the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, opening the way for their resumption, reports Dina Ezzat
According to sources from the three countries, a one-month deadline has been set for laying out ways to break the deadlock on the negotiations, which could restart as early as next week depending on the agendas of each delegation.
The last time the three-party negotiations convened was in Cairo in November. Towards the end of the two-day round, Cairo announced its wish to freeze the talks given the failure to make serious progress.
This week, an Egyptian official suggested that the next round of talks would be hosted next week, “probably in Khartoum”.
The decision to give the talks another chance was taken this week in Addis Ababa during a three-way meeting that brought together President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalgne.
Al-Sisi had arrived in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, the seat of the African Union (AU), on Sunday to take part in the current African Union Summit. His meeting with top Sudanese and Ethiopian officials took place on the sidelines of the summit on Monday morning before he left for Cairo.
Following the summit, President Al-Sisi made an upbeat statement that contrasted to the previous sceptical tone in Cairo in which he expressed his faith in the ability of the negotiating teams to achieve a breakthrough that would help the three countries find a win-win solution.
Al-Sisi, Al-Bashir and Desalgne came out of the meeting holding up their hands. Al-Sisi said there was no crisis in the relations of the three countries and that there was a commitment to work together to serve the interests of all.
“Rest assured. Everything is going well. We are speaking as one nation, not as three,” Al-Sisi said.
His remarks in Addis Ababa this week offered a significant change from the more cautious line he adopted during a joint press conference with Deslagne in Cairo two weeks ago, when he stressed Cairo’s demand to see its worries over the possible repercussions of the construction of the GERD accommodated by Addis Ababa.
Cairo’s top concern is that the upcoming filling of this mega-dam, which has a reservoir capacity of 74 billion cubic metres of water, could come at the expense of Egypt’s already insufficient annual share of Nile water.
Cairo also has other concerns related to the possible negative environmental impacts of the GERD on levels of pollution in the Nile and the quality of the silt deposited on Egyptian agricultural land.
An independent body of consultants issued its first and overdue report late last year that partially shared the Egyptian concerns. The report was rejected by Ethiopia, with the support of Sudan.
Sudan, like Egypt, is a downstream state, but it does not share Egypt’s concerns over a possible drop in its share of Nile water as it has many other water resources.
The construction of the GERD started in late 2010 and is now nearing completion. Informed sources in Cairo have suggested that the filling of the reservoir could start later this year.
Cairo is hoping to get a commitment from Ethiopia that it will not start the filling of the reservoir prior to an agreement with Egypt, and that it will not pursue an aggressive policy that could cause great harm to Egypt.
However, Ethiopia, whose officials have repeatedly said that they will not pursue a path that could cause “grave harm” to the interests of Egypt, has not committed itself to an extended filling process. It has also not agreed to a flexible filling process that would take into consideration the volume of the annual flood.
Ethiopia, with the support of Sudan, has also declined to accommodate a proposal put forward by Egypt to include the World Bank as an independent arbitrator in the negotiations.
During a visit to Addis Ababa late last year, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri put forward the offer to his Ethiopian interlocutors. President Al-Sisi also stressed the proposal during his talks with Desalgne in Cairo earlier this month, but in Addis Ababa this week Egyptian officials spoke of the reluctance of Sudan and Ethiopia to follow the World Bank initiative.
According to an informed Egyptian source, President Al-Sisi decided to show “limited” flexibility on this issue.
“Our concern has been with the endless process of negotiations. In Addis Ababa the agreement was that one more month would be given to them,” the source said.
He would not share his assessment of the possible reaction of Cairo should the negotiations collapse. “We would not say they had collapsed immediately. Instead, we would exhaust this path, and then decide our next move. It was a top-level decision in Cairo to give a political boost to the negotiations to see what would come out of them,” he said.
Before his departure from the Ethiopian capital, Al-Sisi told the Egyptian press that “I want you to be reassured, and I want you to reassure public opinion in Egypt.”
Relations between Egypt and Sudan have suffered over the past few weeks because of an intensive media campaign against Sudan, essentially but not exclusively for having sided with Ethiopia against Egypt in the GERD negotiations.
In Cairo, there is a clear sense of realism about the prospects of the upcoming four-week negotiations on the dam. According to informed officials, a Plan B is being drafted, both on the political management of the situation and on the expected drop, at least for a few years, of Egypt’s annual water share.
According to agreements signed in the early decades of the 20th century, Egypt receives an annual share of 55 billion cubic metres of Nile water per year. Over 80 per cent of this comes from the Blue Nile on which Ethiopia is building its mega-dam.
Egypt is aware that the main purpose of the dam is energy generation, but it is still worried about a drop of no less than 20 per cent of its share of Nile water over five years to allow the reservoir to be filled.
During his talks in Addis Ababa with other African leaders on the sidelines of the AU Summit, Al-Sisi shared these concerns. He made a point of underlining his choice of showing flexibility in the hope of finding an agreement that would be satisfactory to the three countries.
He also appealed to his African interlocutors to encourage both Ethiopia and Sudan to be more responsive to Egyptian concerns.