Egypt treading cautiously in run-up to dam deal

Technical and legal teams from the three countries are to meet to resolve particulars of the issues agreed to in Washington.
Sunday 09/02/2020
Egyptian Water Resources Minister Mohamed Abdel Aati (2nd R) participates with a delegation in the Renaissance Dam trilateral negotiations in Khartoum, last October. (AFP)
Slow process. Egyptian Water Resources Minister Mohamed Abdel Aati (2nd R) participates with a delegation in the Renaissance Dam trilateral negotiations in Khartoum, last October. (AFP)

CAIRO - There is concern in Cairo about negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the latter’s Nile dam after the three countries were unable to reach a final agreement on the project.

The foreign and water ministers of the three countries, meeting in Washington to discuss the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, agreed on a schedule for a stage-based filling plan of it and a mitigation mechanism for its filling during droughts and dry years.

However, those were no more than preliminary understandings.

Technical and legal teams from the three countries are to meet to resolve particulars of the issues agreed to in Washington and prepare a detailed document before foreign and water ministers return to the United States for talks to meet an end-of-February deadline for a final agreement.

“These debates will be far from easy, especially in the presence of some sticky issues,” said water expert Nour Abdel Monem. “Agreement on these issues is important if Egypt will preserve its water rights.”

The dam is central to Ethiopia’s development and Addis Ababa stretched its financial resources to the utmost for finalising it. The $4 billion hydroelectric structure is designed for a capacity to generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity when fully operational. It is to begin operations by the end of this year.

Ethiopia said the project is necessary for its economic and social development and for the life of millions of Ethiopians prone to droughts and famine but the dam is an existential challenge for Egypt, densely populated and mainly desert.

Egypt depends on the Nile for 97% of its water needs. With annual amounts from the Nile of 55 billion cubic metres of water, Egypt is water poor already.

Egypt’s annual freshwater per capita has gone down to 560 cubic metres and was predicted to drop to 500 cubic metres this year.

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have been trying to reach a deal on the dam for more than five years. An inability to reach consensus led Egypt to invoke an article in a declaration of principles, signed by the three countries in 2015, allowing international mediators.

Egypt asked the United States and the World Bank to step in and their mediation apparently paid off, even as Cairo is treading very cautiously.

Egypt’s caution stems from tough times its delegation experienced during talks in Washington. At the end of the latest round of meetings, the countries’ delegations were to have signed a document containing all the points they agreed on during the talks but the Ethiopian delegation refused to sign.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said Egypt’s agreement to the same issues entailed many concessions.

He said that reaching an agreement with Ethiopia on filling the dam, the rules of filling and facility operation would be of utmost importance for Egypt.

The delegations of the three countries are to return to Washington February 12 to discuss the issues, including a mechanism for the annual and long-term operation of the dam in normal hydrological conditions, a coordination mechanism and provisions for the resolution of disputes and the sharing of information.

Shoukry said the dispute-resolution mechanism was important for preventing any waste of time, especially should Egypt run into a disagreement with Ethiopia over the dam when it starts operating.

On February 2, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said he expected negotiations between his country, Sudan and Egypt to end in a way that serves the interests of the three states. Nonetheless, the record of dam negotiations over the past five years adds to the Egyptian fear before the end-of-February deadline.

Ethiopia, Egyptian observers said, has been buying time to complete the project and turn it into an unalterable fact.

“Egypt should work hard to secure an agreement,” said Diya al-Qousy, a former adviser to the Egyptian minister of irrigation. “So far, Ethiopia has been very keen on talking but not signing anything.”

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