Nile dam talks bear fruit in Washington but deal yet to be clinched

Egypt wanted Ethiopia to release 40 billion cubic metres of water from the dam every year during its reservoir filling but Ethiopia objected.
Sunday 19/01/2020
In this file photo taken on December 27, 2019 a general view of the Saddle Dam, part of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia. (AFP)
In this file photo taken on December 27, 2019 a general view of the Saddle Dam, part of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia. (AFP)

CAIRO - Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan reached an agreement on filling and operating the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a project that has caused increased tensions among the three countries since the project started in 2011.

The foreign and water ministers of the three countries agreed the reservoir of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) would be filled in stages that consider hydrological conditions of the Blue Nile and effects on downstream reservoirs.

The ministers, meeting in Washington under mediation by the United States and the World Bank, said in a statement that they agreed the dam would be filled during the July-August wet season.

The project has been contentious because it is important for Ethiopia’s development but challenges Egypt’s water supply from the Nile. After years of failed negotiations, Cairo sought international mediation through a 2015 Declaration of Principles. US officials and the World Bank agreed to mediate.

Last November, the US Treasury Department and the World Bank asked the three countries to agree on technical and hydrological issues and return to Washington to sign a deal by January 15.

No deals were reached, however, even after four rounds of talks. The countries’ water and foreign ministers started meetings in Washington January 13 and were to finalise the deal the following day. They ended up extending talks through a third day.

The framework agreed to by the three countries met key Egyptian demands, Egyptian analysts said.

“This is a major step on the road to reaching an agreement that is binding to all parties,” said Ayman Salama, an international law professor at Ain Shams University.

Following the meetings in Washington, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said Egypt was optimistic that US and World Bank mediation would help the countries reach a final deal but cautioned they are not there yet.

“They are an attempt to discuss all important issues and relevant points,” Shoukry said.

Apart from filling the reservoir in stages and during the wet season, the ministers agreed to make the initial filling stage of the dam quickly reach 595 metres to permit generation of electricity.

During this stage, Ethiopia is to provide mitigation measures for Egypt and Sudan, especially in case of severe droughts.

Subsequent stages of dam filling would be done through a mechanism determining the amount of water released from the dam, the ministers said in a statement.

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are expected to agree on an effective coordination mechanism and establish provisions to settle disputes before the ministers return to Washington January 28-29 to sign a final agreement on the dam.

Egypt and Ethiopia had accused each other of causing the talks to collapse. Cairo accused Addis Ababa of being reluctant to sign a binding agreement giving Cairo assurances that the dam filling and operation would not deprive it of a sizeable amount of the water it gets from the Nile.

Egypt, badly in need of water, gets 55.5 billion cubic metres of water from the Nile each year. However, that is more than 25 billion cubic metres of water less than annual national needs.

Cairo wanted Ethiopia to release 40 billion cubic metres of water from the dam every year during its reservoir filling but Ethiopia objected. However, Egypt can fulfil its objectives if Ethiopia approves details of the framework agreed to in Washington.

Some Egyptian analysts said they were sceptical a final deal was in sight.

“I have fears that Ethiopia will not sign a final agreement by the end of the month,” said water expert Diaa al-Qousi. “It has been trying to waste time since the beginning of the negotiations.”

It is not clear how the United States and the World Bank would respond if any of the three countries refused to follow through with the final agreement.

If talks collapse, Shoukry said the three countries would resort to articles on conflict resolution in the 2015 Declaration of Principles.

“The Declaration of Principles determines the commitments of each country on the road to reaching a deal,” Shoukry said. “I hope we do not reach this point.”

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