Skip to main content

Renaissance Dam talks snarl over drought

The third technical meeting on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam ended without reaching conclusive results, sustaining the dispute over the definition of droughts in the Blue Nile and how to deal with them.
The Irrigation Ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan take part in a meeting to resume negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on December 21, 2019. - Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan set last month in Washington a January 15 target for resolving the dispute over the construction by Addis Ababa of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile. The Nile is a lifeline supplying both water and electricity to the 10 countries it traverses. Analysts fear the three Nile b

CAIRO — A third round of talks on technical differences over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) ended in Khartoum Dec. 22. The debate over the disputed matters was again deferred to the fourth and last meeting, scheduled to be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Jan. 9-10.

The technical meeting was held as part of the road map that was agreed upon in Washington Nov. 6, hosted by US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and attended by World Bank President David Malpass. Jan. 15 has been set as a deadline to solve technical differences on the filling and operation of the GERD in four technical meetings at the level of water ministers and local experts, in the presence of representatives of the US government and World Bank. Article 10 of the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles, signed between the Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian presidents in March 2015, calls for mediation by a fourth party in case the dispute continues.

The Egyptian negotiating delegation’s position on the filling and operation of the GERD remains focused on several technical issues, including preventing Ethiopian measures that would lead to a drop of water levels in Lake Nasser to less than 165 meters or to a decrease of the minimum annual release of 40 billion cubic meters in the Blue Nile.

Nevertheless, the Egyptian delegation emphasized its flexibility in discussions of the Ethiopian and Sudanese proposals. Addressing the opening session in Khartoum, Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Abdel Ati said Dec. 21, “Egypt has pondered over the observations and concerns Ethiopia voiced, and is ready to reconsider some aspects of our position in order to see these concerns addressed.”

A technical source who attended the last meeting told Al-Monitor, “Egypt seeks a comprehensive agreement involving binding measures for all parties, particularly the Ethiopian side, regarding the management and operation of the GERD during drought and prolonged drought periods in a way that would ease the anticipated damage to Egypt.”

The source, who declined to be named, went on, “The Khartoum meeting involved a lengthy technical discussion of drought and prolonged drought in the Blue Nile … such as the extent to which drought could be measured and the mechanisms and measures that Ethiopia is required to follow in the operation of the GERD in times of flood or drought to avoid damage to Egyptian and Sudanese interests.”

The source affirmed, “At the meetings, the Egyptian delegation seeks to abide by an agenda that leads to a balanced agreement through which coordination between the GERD and the High Dam is possible based on the international standards and mechanisms on the management of shared river basins.”

He went on, “There are still many pending issues that need to be settled after agreeing on a definition of drought," such as "emergency management in case of floods and droughts and guarantees of Egypt’s right to water resources during the filling or operation phases.”

The Ethiopian plateau has always been vulnerable to drought. In 1984, one caused a famine that killed nearly a million Ethiopians. Studies and climate forecasts have revealed that droughts led to a decrease in the Blue Nile's water flows of up to 20% over the past 10 years, and some say Ethiopia is Afriac's most vulnerable country to increasing droughts and shortages of rainfall due to climate change.

At the Washington meeting on Dec. 9, the foreign ministers agreed that the next two technical meetings should be focus on the development of technical rules and guidelines for the filling and operation of the GERD as well as drought mitigation measures in order to reach an agreement before Jan. 15.

Sudan’s Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Yasser Abbas tried to portray the Khartoum meeting positively, but his statements at a press conference were conflicting. He said, "The three countries expressed converging views on the first filling and operation of the GERD," but added, "Egypt and Ethiopia continue to disagree on some points that were postponed to the Addis Ababa meeting," and “One cannot say a consensus has been reached over specific issues since all technicalities are related to each other.” 

Former Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Nasr Eddin Allam told Al-Monitor, “It is necessary to agree on a definition of drought and prolonged drought in the river by determining the average water flow from the Blue Nile within one year or several consecutive years, which can determine whether the river is going through a state of drought or flooding.”

He noted that there is no common theory that can be used to resolve these definitions between countries, as each river and river basin is distinct.

Allam added, “We can overcome this dispute by agreeing on a more flexible operational policy, but the problem is that there is a dispute in the priorities between the negotiating parties.” He explained, “Egypt seeks a comprehensive and detailed agreement that protects its rights after filling the dam, but Ethiopia aims to pressure Egypt, end the filling process without committing to any operational policies with Egypt, consume time and present Egypt with a fait accompli.” 

Ethiopian Water Minister Seleshi Bekele announced in his speech during the opening session of the Khartoum meeting that the first phase of filling the GERD lake would begin in July 2020, expressing hope that all parties concerned would agree. In a press conference upon his return to his country on Dec. 24, Bekele said, “For our part, we believe that there is no need to negotiate as we have started to fill the dam reservoir.”

Spokesperson for the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed al-Sebai refused to comment on Bekele’s statements. He told Al-Monitor over the phone, “There is still room for dialogue during the fourth technical meeting within the road map agreed upon in Washington, and we hope to reach a fair agreement to fill and operate the GERD in a way that fulfills the interests of all three countries.”

As the three technical meetings since the Washington agreement on Nov. 6 have ended without resolving any of the contentious issues, most experts predict a fourth party will emerge as mediator in the negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said as much in a Dec. 7 press statement, saying, “We are waiting for January to either reach an agreement or include a fourth party in the negotiations.”

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in