The Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian water and foreign ministers are meeting in Washington on 28 and 29 January, to finalise a comprehensive agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Representatives from the United States and the World Bank will also be present.
A preliminary agreement was reached earlier in January. It does not outline how long it will take to fill the dam, or the minimum amount of water that Ethiopia will allow to flow downstream, but it does state that the dam is to be filled in stages and only during the wet season. During the first stage, Ethiopia can fill the dam up to a point 595 metres above sea level, which will also allow it to begin producing hydroelectricity. The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, suggested that the preliminary agreement only outlines the conceptual framework for the final agreement and that his government is ‘cautiously optimistic’ that such an agreement will be reached.
Ethiopia originally planned to have the dam completed by 2018, but it is running behind schedule. The government is understandably keen to have it filled and fully operational as soon as possible, ideally within four years. Egypt is concerned, however, that the rapid filling of the dam would reduce the amount of water flowing downstream. Cairo prefers that the dam is filled over a period of at least seven years. The Egyptian delegation reportedly requested an extension of at least 12 to 21 years on the filling of the dam. The Ethiopian Minister for Water and Energy, Sileshi Bekele, ruled that out, however, stating that such a request indicated that the Egyptian delegation: ‘… was in no spirit of reaching an agreement’. Aside from that temporary diplomatic misstep, the negotiations continued in good faith.
Egypt sources 90 per cent of its water from the river and about 57 per cent of that from the Blue Nile. Once filled, the reservoir behind the GERD will hold 74 billion cubic metres of water – more than the annual flow through that point of the river. Cairo wants to ensure that it has enough water to be able to continue to generate electricity at the Aswan High Dam and also provide its agricultural sector with the water necessary to maintain irrigation systems.
Some other transboundary water treaties presume that the amount of water available in a river basin does not significantly change from year to year. That is not likely to be the case in the Nile basin. To overcome this, a Nile water sharing agreement could consider the social, economic and changing weather conditions in the Nile basin and create a more flexible treaty; one that can evolve with changes in the region. Setting a percentage allocation or requiring Ethiopia to provide a minimum flow to downstream countries, would ensure that Sudan and Egypt receive a fair and predictable allocation of water. Holding regular technical meetings between country representatives would also ensure that any discrepancies or concerns are aired and disagreements worked through. It would also allow amendments to be made, based on prevailing conditions and subject to mutual agreement.
If Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia can agree to a Nile water treaty (and uphold it), the likelihood of a water conflict on the Nile will be reduced. The rate at which the dam is to be filled, the amount of water that will be allowed to flow downstream and how flexible the agreement is in relation to changing regional conditions, remain as contentious points, however, and could weaken the chances of such a treaty being signed. The three countries do appear to be committed to reaching an agreement and, even if they fail to reach one at this meeting, it is likely that they will eventually find enough common ground to establish a workable water sharing mechanism.