Ethiopia’s decision to reject an Egyptian proposal that the World Bank (WB) become a party to technical negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) closed the door on a possible breakthrough.
Negotiations over the dam came to a halt late last year amid disagreements on technical issues. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn did not present any tangible plans for resolving outstanding differences during his visit to Cairo, nor did he offer any reassurances on pressing matters, including the failure to complete impact studies of the dam and review the timetable for the filling of its reservoir, which are causing grave concern in Cairo.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri phoned his Ethiopian counterpart Workneh Gebeyehu to express Cairo’s concerns over Addis Ababa’s refusal to accept the WB as a party to negotiations after Desalegn was quoted by Ethiopia’s official news agency saying the World Bank should not play the role of arbiter.
Gebeyehu told Shoukri Desalegn’s statements “were taken out of context”, according to Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid.
Ayman Abdel-Wahab, an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said Ethiopia’s refusal was expected given that Addis Ababa wants to portray the dam crisis as a failure to agree on technical details.
Earlier international mediation, via a committee made up of two experts each from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia and four international experts chosen by Ethiopia and accepted by Egypt and Sudan, ended in a report issued in 2013 that concluded the studies Ethiopia had conducted on the dam were inadequate.
“Addis Ababa does not want to repeat this experience,” says Abdel-Wahab. “It is worried mediation by the WB, which has extensive expertise in such matters, would strengthen Egypt’s position.”
“Seeking professional support is one thing. Transferring [arbitration]to an institution is another which is why we told them that this is not acceptable to our side,” Desalegn was quoted as saying by an Ethiopian news agency following his return from Cairo.
Abbas Sharaki, a professor at the Cairo University’s Institute for African Research and Studies, also expected Ethiopia to reject WB mediation.
He, too, pointed to the report issued by the international committee in 2013 as the reason for Ethiopia’s rejection of mediation by the WB.
In their meeting last week President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Desalegn both appeared keen to contain the simmering dispute though no concrete plans as to how this might be achieved were unveiled.
Al-Sisi described Desalegn’s visit as “a clear sign to our peoples and to the entire world of our political will and determination to overcome all obstacles”. He pointed that the Nile should serve as “a source of cohesion and development, not of conflict” with Ethiopia before expressing “extreme concern over the continued stagnation of the tripartite technical track”.
During his visit Desalegn attempted to reassure his hosts that Ethiopia had no intention of harming Egypt. “We will not hurt your country in any way and will work closely together to secure the life of the peoples of the Nile Basin and take them out of the cycle of poverty,” he said.
Ethiopia regularly insists the dam will not impact negatively on Egypt though there are no studies to support this assertion.
While Sharaki did not expect Desalegn’s visit to result in any change in the Ethiopian position he says it has at least injected new life in the technical track. He believes “the next meeting will probably discuss the role that the World Bank or any other mediator could play”.
“From a practical perspective, we have to recognise that technical deliberations… have not [yielded]sufficient results to enable the process to move forward,” Shoukri told the media after visiting Addis Ababa last month. Gebeyehu told the same press conference he was looking for a win-win situation.
The technical committee had held 17 rounds of talks that ended without an agreement when Cairo declared the failure of technical negotiations in November.
Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan differed over the preliminary report produced by consultants assessing the impact of the dam in March 2017. Egypt accepted the report. Sudan and Ethiopia insisted on amendments which Egypt rejected.
“We should ring loud warning bells and harp on about the harm which could befall the region if the three parties fail to reach an agreement,” says Abdel-Wahab.
In the absence of any agreement over whether Ethiopia should continue construction work on the dam before negotiations about ensuring the flow of the Nile are concluded, a move which violates Aarticle 5 of the Declaration of Principles signed by all three countries in 2015, and no consensus over the timetable for filling the reservoir behind the dam, Abdel-Wahab suggests one way forward would be to form a tripartite team to oversee the dam’s operation. He also thinks it is useful to alert big regional investors of the risks of instability courted by the failure to reach any agreement, and points to the possibility of putting the entire issue to the African Union’s Peace and Security Department.
Whatever action is taken, he says, it will have to be before June when the season begins.
Sharaki stresses the dam is now a fact of life and coordination over filling its reservoir is essential.
“The parties also need to agree on any future water projects and commit not to build any more GERD-size dams on the Nile,” he says.