By Hani al-Gamal – Cairo
Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have held a new round of negotiations on Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam, following weeks of suspension.
Talks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is constructed on the Blue Nile, the most important tributary of the Nile River, stalled a few weeks ago after the three states failed to reach agreement on the operation of the multibillion-dollar project. Cairo and Khartoum accused Addis Ababa of hampering the negotiations.
The talks resumed, however, last week, amidst hopes that negotiators on the three sides would be able to reach consensus on contentious issues. The talks resumed in the wake of remarks by US President Donald Trump in late October that Egypt may have to bomb the Ethiopian dam. Trump added in a phone conversation with Sudan’s interim Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok that nobody could blame Egypt for doing this.
Some essential issues still need to be addressed before an agreement between the three countries on the dam can take place, several analysts have concluded. One of these issues is the need for the three states to agree upon a mechanism for dispute resolution. “Each of the three states has a different vision on how disputes between them on the dam can be resolved”, said Ahmed Fawzi, an Egyptian professor of international law. Ethiopia pushes for an agreement on referring disputes with the two downstream states on the dam to a presidential panel from the three states. Egypt, however, wants disputes or disagreements on the dam to be resolved by referring them to a fourth party. Ethiopia, meanwhile, believes this fourth party has to play a consultative role only, something that Egypt rejects.
Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have been negotiating on the dam for a decade now. Egypt is concerned that the Ethiopian project, expected to be the largest in Africa, will negatively affect amounts of water flowing to it from the Nile, its only source of water. A decade of negotiations between the three states has succeeded in producing no results. This was why Egypt had to refer the issue to the United Nations Security Council in June this year.
The Security Council held a virtual hearing on the dam a short time later. South Africa, the current chair of the African Union, then stepped in to mediate a settlement to the conflict. However, South African efforts have borne no fruit so far because of what Egypt describes as Ethiopia’s insistence to buy time and evade a legally-binding agreement.
Caught in the middle
Apart from Egyptian concerns, Sudan is also in a tight position. The cash-strapped Arab-African nation is prone to recurrent floods from the Nile and the construction of the Ethiopian dam is expected to cushion it against some of these floods. In September this year, Sudan experienced its most devastating floods. The floods displaced hundreds of thousands of people in most of Sudan’s states and caused the deaths of hundreds.
The Sudanese government is concerned that Ethiopia is delaying matters by making an agreement on its dam difficult to reach. The Sudanese government presses for an agreement that commits Ethiopia to sharing information on the dam between Ethiopia, on the one hand, and downstream states, on the other.
Water and irrigation expert Ahmed al-Shennawi accused Ethiopia of intentionally avoiding the conclusion of an agreement with Sudan and Egypt. “Ethiopia is afraid that a binding agreement with the two countries will rein in its hopes for expanding the generation of electricity from the Nile”, al-Shennawi concluded.