By: Doaa El-Bey
Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian irrigation ministers met in Cairo this week for the second of four ministerial and technical negotiations. The latest round of negotiations was agreed in November at US brokered talks between the three parties in Washington.
“The first meeting tackled procedural matters. The second round needed to make some progress on outstanding issues for it to be anything other than a waste of time,” said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
On the first day of the two-day meeting Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Ati said Egypt hoped to reach a fair and balanced agreement on the filling and operation of the dam by 15 January 2020 and stressed the importance of continuing with the talks.
“Our goal is to reach a win-win agreement that enables Ethiopia to generate the hydropower it wants while protecting downstream countries from any major damage caused by a reduction in water supply,” said Abdel-Ati.
Sudan’s Irrigation Minister Yasser Abbas insisted the three countries are on the right track, saying, “if we manage to listen to all our concerns, it will pave the way to progress.”
Ethiopian Irrigation Minister Selci Bekele said the dam could furnish a blueprint for regional integration, stressing that while the Nile is important to Egypt and Sudan, Ethiopia too has a right to use the resources of the river.
“These technical meetings do not aim to discuss the legitimacy of the dam… what we have to do is find a solution to outstanding problems,” said Bekele. He added that the partial filling of the dam’s reservoir, which will begin in July, should take place in an atmosphere of mutual confidence.
The statements that emerged from the meeting, says the diplomat, suggest the parties are not yet in a position to inch towards an agreement.
Rakha Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, also worries the talks may turn out to be a waste of time.
“My fear is that the present round will fail to make progress and that the US, as an observer, will be unable to push the parties towards agreement. If that happens Egypt will be placed in the position of having to further internationalise the issue at a time when the dam will be virtually complete.”
Mohamed Hegazi, a former deputy to Egypt’s foreign minister, is more optimistic that the latest round of negotiations, held under the sponsorship of the World Bank and the US, will bear fruit. It is important, he says, to focus on the fact that “agreeing the filling time and the operating process of the dam is an attainable goal.”
Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Egypt Dina Mufti told the media last month that the Ethiopian government is also optimistic about the prospects of the talks.
The first of the four rounds of meetings was held in Addis Ababa last month. The talks addressed rules for filling and operating the dam, and how periods of drought should be dealt with, but nothing concrete emerged.
The third session will be held in Sudan later this month while the last session, expected to be the most decisive, is scheduled between 9 and 10 January in Addis Ababa.
Recent proposals put forward by Egypt for a flexible reservoir-filling process over seven years that guarantees an annual flow of 40 billion cubic metres have been rejected by Ethiopia which said the proposals echoed colonial-era laws that discounted the rights of upstream countries. Ethiopia offered to guarantee a flow of 31 billion cubic metres annually.
However important the timetabling for filling the dam is, it is not the most crucial consideration, says Hegazi.
“Egypt’s proposal to link the filling process to the hydrology of the dam allows for flexibility. The amounts can increase or decrease according to the level of rainfall in any given season,” explains Hegazi.
During November’s trilateral meeting in Washington, attended by US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and World Bank President David Malpass, the three countries agreed that should the four meetings not result in a breakthrough ministers of irrigation will refer the issue to their heads of state rather than resort to outside mediation. They also agreed to attend two meetings in Washington this month and next month to assess what progress had been made.
In 2015 Egypt and Ethiopia signed the Declaration of Principles which states that the three countries should cooperate to reach an agreement on guidelines for filling the dam’s reservoir and its annual operation. After four years of negotiations, agreement seems as far away as ever.
A 1959 treaty stipulates that Egypt’s share of Nile Water is 55.5 billion cubic metres and Sudan’s 18.5 billion cubic metres. The treaty reaffirmed Egypt’s right to veto any construction projects that could impede the flow of Nile water.