KHARTOUM, Sudan — Negotiations between Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum have entered a decisive stage in which the parties must express their final stance concerning the controversy and disagreement caused by Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam, which threatens Egypt’s annual share of the Nile waters. Meetings involving the parties’ foreign affairs and water ministers have intensified, as Ethiopia and Egypt are preparing by finding alternatives that speed up the implementation of the studies should the feud deepen and the negotiations fall through.
The future of the negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia on the New Renaissance Dam is hazier than ever as the political and technical deadlock persists.

On Dec. 11, the foreign affairs and water ministers met in six-party talks in Khartoum, after the failure of technical initiatives to break the deadlock over a mechanism to reduce the dam’s repercussions on Egypt and Sudan. These talks represent a new attempt at direct political negotiations to reach an agreement or a mechanism guaranteeing no harmful effects for Egypt and Sudan will come from the dam. However, construction is underway regardless of the results of the negotiations or studies, which are supposed to modify the construction standards if needed to mitigate the damage.

The parties exhibited anxiety and tension, especially the Egyptian and Ethiopian delegations, throughout the closed meetings on Dec. 11 and 12. The talks concluded with a brief statement read by Sudanese Foreign Affairs Minister Ibrahim al-Ghandur, who declared, “The parties did not reach any agreement, and meetings will be resumed on Dec. 27 and 28, at the same level of political and technical representation.”

The main problem between the Egyptian and Ethiopian delegations during the meeting concerned the clauses under discussion. While the Egyptian delegation demanded to speed up the technical studies of the dam’s effects that began more than 18 months ago with the formation of a tripartite technical committee, the Ethiopians stressed the importance of the technical studies, as per the Declaration of Principles.

The Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister demanded that the meeting focus on discussing a new mechanism to agree on the dam’s administration and operation policies and fill the reservoir directly, without wasting any more time to reach a written agreement.

The presidents of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan had signed the Declaration of Principles on the Grand Renaissance Dam in March. The declaration included 10 principles outlining the process of the negotiations between the three countries, leading to a potential solution for the feud. However, in the technical and political negotiations that followed, differences arose around their implementation and interpretation by each party.

Alaa Yas, a technical adviser within the Egyptian delegation, told Al-Monitor, “Our negotiations with Ethiopia are done according to the fifth article of the Declaration of Principles, stipulating mutual agreement on the policies concerning operations and the filling of the dam’s annexed reservoir.”

Yas added, “We are still awaiting Ethiopia’s answer to the demands of alleviating Egypt’s concerns over the construction of the dam.”

A source within the Egyptian delegation to the negotiations told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “We informed the Ethiopians that we refuse any further political or technical negotiations before reaching a clear agreement so as not to waste more time.” He affirmed, “The impossibility of the technical process and the failure of the studies of the dam’s effects are due to how Ethiopia dealt with the selection of the French and Dutch consultancies tasked with implementing the studies politically. However, Egypt was keen to collaborate technically and without bias to any of the consultancies through Egyptian experts within the tripartite technical committee.”

He added, “The Ethiopians’ intransigence and bias toward the French consultancy BRL so that it carries the studies alone without the participation of the Dutch Deltares leave us with many doubts. We are also skeptical about the acceleration of the dam’s construction, which makes us believe that Ethiopia is not serious about acting the results of the studies.”

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian side seemed to take a different view. The country’s ministers of foreign affairs and water were keen to highlight the political commitment announced by Ethiopia, consisting of avoiding damage and working to solve all the technical issues within the tripartite technical committee through finding alternatives that speed up the implementation of the studies. And since the Egyptian side voiced its rejection of the process, the Ethiopian foreign affairs minister asked to postpone the meeting for two weeks until an answer to the Egyptian demands is reached.

Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs Tedros Adhanom told Al-Monitor after the talks on Dec. 12, “We expressed our utmost commitment to the success of the negotiations during the meeting,” explaining that the two-week suspension of the negotiations is not due to new negotiation clauses. He said, “The debate is ongoing as to the consultancies that will implement the technical studies according to the recommendations of the international commission IOPER and the Declaration of Principles.”

Adhanom responded to Egypt’s demands regarding its determination to agree on the operations policy, saying, “These issues are still under discussion. Let’s wait for the next meeting and hope to make progress.”

A tug-of-war ensued during the two weeks Ethiopia requested to respond to the Egyptian demands.

Although the stakeholders are waiting for the next meeting’s results, refusing to release any statement regarding the success or failure of the negotiations, a new line of accusations has appeared in the Egyptian and Ethiopian media, especially after Oromo minorities intensified their demonstrations last week and Egypt was accused of supporting opposition movements to weaken the Ethiopian government’s development efforts. And as no Egyptian officials have responded to these accusations, discussion has been animated in the Egyptian media about this issue and on holding the Ethiopian government responsible for the deaths of the protesters.

Internally, the Egyptian parties concerned with the New Renaissance Dam issue are constantly holding meetings and communicating with international and regional institutions, working to come up with an escalation scenario in case the upcoming meeting fails and Ethiopia remains firm about not offering any compromises for the sake of Egypt’s water security.