Future of GERD talks blurry as Sudan stands firm

Future of GERD talks blurry as Sudan stands firm

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An aerial view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River in Guba, northwest Ethiopia. (AFP)

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, under the auspices of the South Africa-chaired African Union (AU), are proceeding with great difficulty. The disputing parties agreed in their last meeting on Monday to hold another meeting on Jan. 10, but the difficulty lies in the pitfalls they face at almost every meeting.
The latest meeting witnessed the withdrawal of the Sudanese side. It refused to participate after receiving an invitation to continue with the direct tripartite negotiations instead of a bilateral meeting with AU experts, which it had requested. Sudan based its position on the outcomes of the tripartite ministerial meeting on the filling and operation of the GERD, which was held on Sunday.
The Sudanese government announced that the decision to withdraw was confirmation of its firm position on the necessity of giving a role to AU experts in the efforts to facilitate the negotiations and bridge the gaps between the three parties. Khartoum also affirmed its adherence to the negotiating process under the auspices of the AU based on the principle of African solutions to African problems, provided that experts play a more effective role in facilitating the negotiations.
The Sudanese position embarrassed the other parties, as Egypt is extraordinarily keen on the interests of the Sudanese people and Ethiopia considers Khartoum a great strategic ally in these negotiations. Addis Ababa does not want to lose a fierce fighter from its side, but on the ground it seems that Sudan is playing solo.
It was agreed to raise the matter with the minister of international relations and cooperation in South Africa in her capacity as the current president of the AU. It is hoped that future steps will be discussed during the six-party ministerial meeting scheduled for Jan. 10, especially since the course of negotiations requires the participation of all three countries when reaching a binding agreement on the rules of filling and operation of the GERD.
Sudan considers that progress was made in the last round, with the parties agreeing to discuss a compromise draft prepared by the AU committee of experts related to bridging the gaps between the three drafts submitted by Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia last August. This step, in Sudan’s view, means a transformation of the African committee of experts from a mere mediator to a facilitator, which will push the negotiation process forward and end the stalemate that has lasted for several years.
But there is a fundamental disagreement between Egypt and Sudan regarding the extent of the reliance on experts. Cairo believes that reliance could go beyond the AU, especially if Sudan’s technical priorities continue to be limited to water retention, periodic flow and other issues that Egypt deems important, rather than the most important and most demanding issues that need to be resolved.
The two countries also differ on periods of drought and prolonged drought, as Egypt proposes passing 37 billion cubic meters as a median figure between what Ethiopia was demanding (32 billion) and what Egypt was demanding (40 billion). But Sudan considers that adhering to the new number proposed by Egypt does not fit with Ethiopia’s efforts to fill the GERD reservoir in earnest. There is also a dispute over Ethiopia’s water-use plan: Whether it is for energy production, agriculture or other purposes.
Nevertheless, there is agreement between Egypt and Sudan on most of the legal issues facing Ethiopia, as well as on the binding nature of the deal that will be signed. There are also common ideas about establishing a dispute settlement mechanism regarding the operation of the dam and the filling of the reservoir. That will see a mediator chosen by each of the three countries and negotiations conducted between the mediators under a legal arbitration system until a decision is reached.
Egypt and Sudan also agree on opposing Ethiopia’s desire to convert the agreement into a deal on Nile waters quotas, thereby canceling the 1959 agreement between Cairo and Khartoum. They also oppose Ethiopia’s wish to demand prior approval for the establishment of other water projects on the course of the Blue Nile and to apply the GERD’s guiding rules on them.
On the technical level, Egypt pays great attention to the idea of linking the dams, the annual amount of flow, the quality of water, and the actions that will be carried out on them, while the Sudanese are primarily concerned with the need to develop a clear program for the continuous and permanent filling of the reservoir and the daily flow volume from the dam.

There is a fundamental disagreement between Egypt and Sudan regarding the extent of the reliance on experts.

Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy

The future of the negotiations is now blurry. The Egyptian government stressed, before the latest round of negotiations, the need to reach an agreement at the earliest possible opportunity, and particularly before the start of the second phase of filling the dam’s reservoir. It wants any deal to satisfy the common interests of the three countries and secure the rights and water interests of Egypt.
Strangely, this matter comes after hostile statements made by former Ethiopian diplomats, which amounted to accusations against Egypt. The source of these statements was a former Ethiopian ambassador to Cairo, who was a supporter of repairing the rift and was careful not to make statements that might provoke Cairo in any way while he was stationed there. Egypt did well by not responding to these hostile statements — it refused to be distracted from the main issue, which is the GERD.
One positive view on the future of the negotiations comes from the EU, which is optimistic a solution that satisfies all parties will be reached. It issued a statement welcoming the negotiations and expecting the talks to reach an acceptable basis for filling and operation. It added that the talks provide an important opportunity for the countries to move forward and agree on clear rules. Meanwhile, South Africa is working hard to reach a solution, as a deal would strengthen the AU in the long term.
Between the various positive and negative views on the issue of the GERD, there remain disputed points between the parties, which make us wonder who can solve them, given that the US, AU, EU and the UN Security Council — in their capacity as sponsoring the negotiations at several times — have all previously failed. So who can solve them? I think that the answer in this regard is one that does not change: Only the three countries that are parties to this crisis can solve it.

  • Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide. Twitter: @ALMenawy
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