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.
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.”