Nile dam talks end in Cairo with no deal

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are to meet in Washington and then Khartoum.
Sunday 08/12/2019
The Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation headquarters in Cairo, which hosted the meeting between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the disputed Nile dam, December 3. (Reuters)
The Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation headquarters in Cairo, which hosted the meeting between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the disputed Nile dam, December 3. (Reuters)

LONDON - A round of talks among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over Ethiopia's controversial Nile dam ended with no deal but the three countries’ water ministers agreed to meet in Washington and Khartoum for further deliberations and technical talks.

The negotiations, December 2-3 in Cairo, focused on the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) reservoir, a subject hotly debated between Cairo and Addis Ababa.

The dam, which Ethiopian officials say is crucial for the country’s economic development but is seen by Egyptian officials as a threat to their country’s water supply, has been a point of contention among the three neighbouring countries for nearly nine years. The parties pledged to reach a deal by January 15, with US and World Bank mediation, but significant issues remain unresolved.

"These are difficult negotiations," said Abbas al-Sharaky, a water resources professor at Cairo University. "The Ethiopians will not give in to Egyptian demands easily."

Ethiopia began constructing the $4 billion dam in 2011, with the aim of having it generate electricity by 2020 and be fully operational by 2022. Once completed, it is expected to generate 6,450 megawatts of electricity per year.

However, in water-poor Egypt, which relies on the Nile River for 55.5 billion cubic metres of water every year, there is a concern the project could exacerbate water scarcity, including derailing the country’s agricultural sector and increasing the probability of drought, experts said.

At the latest negotiations, Egyptian Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel Aty pointed out that the water Cairo uses from the Nile is 21 billion cubic metres below national need, forcing it to import 34 billion cubic metres of water annually.

"This is why we need to profoundly discuss the rules of operating the dam and filling its reservoir," Abdel Aty said. "Egypt is keen on reaching a fair and balanced deal."

Egypt has failed to bring in more water for hundreds of years, even as its population, now 100 million, grew.

Bracing for tough times, Egypt has invested billions of dollars on constructing sewage treatment plants and seawater desalination projects but it counts the Nile as a central part of its water supply.

During the recent negotiations, the countries discussed how to accommodate Egypt’s water needs and ensure the operation of the High Dam in Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost province.

Egypt is requesting that Ethiopia release 40 billion cubic metres of Blue Nile water from the dam every year while it fills the GERD reservoir.

"Egypt cannot accept less than this," Sharaky said. "Filling the reservoir over a 3-year period proposed by Ethiopia would mean that Egypt will lose two-thirds of the amount of water it receives every year, which will be devastating to it."

Ethiopia has been reluctant to accept the condition, especially with Blue Nile revenue not yet certain.

The Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation said technical talks in Khartoum, scheduled for December 21-22, would aim to reach common ground between the three countries on how the dam reservoir would be filled and operated.

"This comes within Egypt's desire to reach a balanced and fair deal," the ministry said.

To reach a realistic compromise, the United States and World Bank would need to step in and exert pressure, analysts said.

"I believe there is a will in the United States for easing the negotiations and pushing for a deal," said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at Cairo University. "By all means, Egypt will not accept the dam to be a reality on the ground without taking its interests into consideration."