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Ethiopian dam talks jammed with no compromise in sight

Another meeting between Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia on the massive Nile dam ended in an impasse, leaving many questions about its construction unanswered.

CAIRO — After 18 hours of talks, another tripartite meeting about the controversial dam being built on the Nile River ended in deadlock. Attendees might have been disappointed, but they couldn't have been surprised.

The foreign ministers, irrigation ministers and heads of the security and intelligence agencies of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia met April 6 in Khartoum, Sudan, for the latest round of talks, but failed to make a breakthrough on several outstanding issues, mainly the findings of technical studies on the impact of the dam and filling the water reservoir behind it. Officials of the three countries have been arguing about the dam for years.

In a brief statement on the sidelines of the meeting, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry confirmed no agreement was reached.

“The meeting touched on several issues without yielding any specific course of action or definitive results,” Shoukry said. "New efforts to find solutions will be resumed in 30 days in a bid to break the stalemate.”

Meanwhile, Sudanese Prime Minister Ibrahim Ghandour said, “The controversial issues need more time to be resolved and are left to the technical committees of the three countries to deal with. We have yet to set a new date for another round of talks at the political or security level.”

This month's talks were supposed to have been held one month after the January tripartite summit, but the talks were postponed because of unrest in Ethiopia that led to the resignation Feb. 15 of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and the arrival two weeks ago of Abiy Ahmed Ali in his place.

The failure of the most recent negotiations comes as Cairo is finding no solution to protect its current share of the Nile River, which exceeds the quota set in a 1959 agreement of 55.5 billion cubic meters. The problem is compounded by Egypt's water deficit of about 20 billion cubic meters (16.2 million acre feet), despite the government’s efforts to expand wastewater reuse and desalination projects. The Nile's annual flow is over 80 billion cubic meters.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia has been taking further steps on the ground by speeding up construction, paving the way to start filling the reservoir during the Nile flood season beginning in July.

A diplomatic source with the Egyptian delegation to the meeting told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The return to the negotiating table is proof that the Egyptian administration has faith in consensual and political solutions without the need to escalate the situation or for clashes. We have been extremely flexible. We were supposed to return with specific results, but, given Ethiopia’s intransigent position, our proposals and visions for solutions did not go through.”

Technical negotiations that had been going on since contracts were signed with French technical consultancy companies BRL and Artelia in September 2016 came to a halt in November 2017, following a dispute over the preliminary report on the likely hydraulic, economic and environmental impacts of the structure, known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, on downstream countries Egypt and Sudan.

Both Sudan and Ethiopia rejected the baseline reference set by the consultants and demanded amendments. Egypt in turn rejected the amendments, arguing that they would affect the studies' results, and in late December took its plight to the international community, demanding that the World Bank get involved in the talks.

Since then, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has opted for calm. During the presidential summit with his Ethiopian and Sudanese counterparts in January, he called for a return to the negotiating table, ahead of Egypt's presidential election.

The same source added that during the round of talks this month, "The Egyptians touched on ways to complete the technical studies to prove the Renaissance Dam's negative impact on Egypt’s water security and its current shares of water, and the salinity rate in the Nile Delta land. Egypt also wanted guarantees that Ethiopia will stick to the outputs in the studies.”

The source added, “The water deficit has exceeded 20 billion cubic meters. Egypt cannot afford having to deal with the consequences of any unilateral decision or imposition of a fait accompli on the part of Ethiopia."

Ethiopia aims to store 74 billion cubic meters of water in the dam and generate 6,450 megawatts of electricity; construction started in April 2011 without consulting Egypt in a move violating international law providing for prior notice to downstream countries that might be affected by a dam project.

For Ethiopia, the latest talks came following political changes in the country with the arrival of the new prime minister. Ahmed is the country's first Oromo prime minister and had long opposed the Ethiopian government. The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia.

If the Ethiopian administration fails to reach an agreement with Egypt, or if there is any disruption of the dam construction or operations, the Ethiopian government will find itself in a very sensitive position. The Ethiopian people are pinning great hopes on the dam in terms of development.

An Ethiopian official who participated in the talks told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Ethiopia is keeping the negotiations going, which indicates that we are keen on cooperation to reach an agreement with the two downstream countries, stressing that the dam will benefit the three countries. There is no text law that binds Ethiopia to stop the construction or water storing. Our plan to fill the reservoir is in line with the interests of all concerned parties and is being implemented in such a way as to have the least damage [possible].”

Despite previous rapprochement between Egypt and Sudan at the political and security levels and the warm welcome of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in Cairo on March 19, Sudan’s position during the negotiations was neutral. Sudan tried to narrow the gap between Egypt and Ethiopia without taking sides.

Egypt's official position regarding the failure of negotiations is still under consideration.

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