Egypt, Ethiopia approach negotiations over filling Renaissance Dam reservoir

As the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) nears completion, both Egyptian and Ethiopian sources say that the most significant outcome of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s three-day visit to Cairo in early June was reaching a direct understanding with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on beginning to draft a legal agreement pertaining to filling the dam’s reservoir.

The water reservoir is projected to be filled with approximately 75 billion cubic meters in three phases, and upon completion will generate a massive electricity supply for Ethiopia. The construction of the dam commenced six years ago, and the Nile Basin country is expected to mark the launch of the first filling phase later this year with mass popular celebrations.

Egypt is concerned that filling the reservoir too rapidly would affect its water share, which it already claims is insufficient. But since construction began, Ethiopia has reiterated that the project — whose projected cost is approximately US$4.2 billion — is vital to the development of the country and to meeting the needs of its population, which is nearly as large as Egypt’s.

Although Ahmed was friendly during the three day visit, which ran from June 10 to June 12, and repeatedly expressed that Ethiopia completely “understands” the significance of the matter of the Nile water to the Egyptian people and, consequently, the implications of “any big setbacks” in that regard for “[Sisi]’s situation,” he was also clear that his country is determined to begin the first filling phase this coming fall, sources speaking on condition of anonymity tell Mada Masr.

An Ethiopian diplomatic source who is well-informed of the negotiations says, “The exchange between the two leaders was very positive. Still, the Ethiopian prime minister and the Egyptian president represent the interests of two countries. Their talks were, therefore, friendly, though as candid as they could possibly be.”

At the end of the three-day visit, Sisi saw Ahmed off at the Cairo International Airport, an Egyptian diplomatic source says. The send-off was meant to demonstrate Egypt’s conviction that the two countries are equal, in an attempt to resolve grievances that Ethiopia had voiced to mediators, including the United Arab Emirates, Israel and several European countries. According to the source, the grievances revolved around the belief that Cairo was addressing Addis Ababa with an unfounded sense of superiority. Meanwhile, Ethiopia has been receiving support from other countries in the Nile Basin, including one other downstream country: Sudan.

Ahmed visited Uganda and Sudan in the weeks preceding his Cairo visit, garnering endorsements of Ethiopia’s right to proceed with the dam.

The Ethiopian diplomatic source says that Sisi and Ahmed acknowledged that it was time to begin seeking an understanding on filling the reservoir. According to an Egyptian diplomatic source, on the other hand, the two sides agreed to begin “negotiations” rather than seeking “an understanding.”

Such an agreement is intended to cover all the technical details related to different timetables for and approaches to filling the reservoir.

According to Egyptian sources who spoke to Mada Masr over the past few months, the filling timetable is the only matter that Egypt will continue to push back on, despite having already legally waived all reservations on the construction of the dam by signing the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles with Ethiopia and Sudan in 2015 in Khartoum. The declaration constitutes Egypt’s acknowledgement of Ethiopia’s right to construct the dam without any conditions on its construction, filling or operation.

According to a second Egyptian government source, “It was proposed and considered that Egypt takes steps to void the Khartoum agreement, especially as it was never approved by the legislature at any point. The executive branch, however, refused unequivocally. It also refused to take legal or political steps on an international level to pressure Ethiopia. Now we have to proceed with drafting this [reservoir filling] agreement with as much caution as possible.”

As such, the Egyptian sources predict that the negotiations to draw up the parameters for the filling of the dam will not be easy, not only due to the complexity of the technical details, but also the disparity in the proposed timetables. Addis Ababa has proposed a period of three years, while Cairo is angling for between seven and 10, having initially come to the table with a proposal of 20 years.

Ethiopia is adverse to linking the amount of water pumped into the reservoir each year to the country’s annual rainfall, preferring instead to measure the rate to fill the reservoir against an average precipitation level, which would be agreed upon, and the water level in Lake Nasser. Egypt, however, is not comfortable with this proposition, as there is a real possibility of lower precipitation in coming years, which would render it and its share of Nile water extremely vulnerable.

This vulnerability is further aggravated by the fact that, in addition to its share of approximately 55 billion cubic meters annually, Egypt has also been receiving Sudan’s annual share of approximately 18 billion cubic meters for years on account of the latter not using it. Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian sources tell Mada Masr that Khartoum disclosed this information to Addis Ababa several months ago.

Sudan has supported Ethiopia’s construction of the GERD, support which President Omar al-Bashir refuses to withdraw unless Cairo acquiesces to Khartoum’s request to start direct negotiations, or accepts international mediation over the contested Halayeb Triangle, which Sudan insists is Sudanese territory, according to the second Egyptian government source. Egypt has steadfastly refused both of these proposals, suggesting instead that the area become an industrial integration zone.

“The Ethiopians,” the source also says, “wasted years on negotiations, shows of good faith and making promises without any concrete commitments on paper. They even accepted some demands set forth by the Egyptian delegation during some negotiation sessions, only to later refuse to sign what they accepted.”

“We will see what they will do about the filling,” the source adds.

Ethiopia was planning on erecting a different dam, with a different design and storage capacity, the source notes. However, it introduced major changes to the design to expand the storage capacity several times over without consulting Egypt. Therefore, nobody can say for certain that similar developments may not happen again, the source says.

The agreement regarding the filling of the GERD’s reservoir could be Egypt’s last hope, if it continues to insist on details that minimize the threat to its water supply, a third Egyptian source poses. However, if it caves to Ethiopian pressure, it could also be its final submission the source adds, as the reservoir would be filled without reaching an agreement.

Egypt’s acknowledgment of Ethiopia’s right to construct and operate the dam forms the grounds for this pressure, “not only under the 2015 Khartoum agreement, but also according to several statements made by high-profile Egyptian officials,” says the source.

As the filling agreement is drafted, Cairo is making high-profile diplomatic and political calls to ensure a positive Ethiopian response to prolonging the filling process, especially the first phase.

Cairo also seeks to lay the foundations for joint cooperation with Ethiopia and Sudan, intended to improve its relationship with the two countries, according to sources.

The Ethiopian diplomat and his Sudanese counterpart both say that their respective countries are keen on cooperating with Egypt. However, they also expect Cairo to display an understanding of Addis Ababa’s demands, primarily regarding the complex nature of Egyptian-Eritrean relations. Addis Ababa’s objection to Egypt’s military presence in Eritrea, which it views as unjustified, should also be taken into account. Sudan hopes for a similar Egyptian understanding regarding the matter of the Halayeb Triangle and Shalateen and the management of the border.

The Ethiopian source says that technical teams from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia will meet to look into the technical details of the reservoir filling and provide clear proposals to the official delegations. Their scheduled meeting was postponed, however, reportedly due to delays from the French technical consultancy company that is preparing a report on the situation. The official delegations, which include the ministers of foreign affairs and water and the directors of intelligence services from the three countries, will meet again, according to the Ethiopian source. “This will likely take place in late June,” the source says.

These meetings were convened following the through the nine-party meeting convened a few months ago.

It is expected that a preliminary version of the filling agreement will be drafted in Cairo, with the involvement of the competent authorities. It will be submitted to the president and, if approved, proffered as Egypt’s official proposal in the ongoing negotiations, alongside another from Ethiopia.

Asmahan Soliman 

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