Renaissance Dam discussions in Sudan expected to produce shared initial understanding

Diplomatic sources close to arrangements for the tripartite meetings on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that began on Wednesday in Khartoum say the portfolio of understanding that is expected to come out of the talks includes directions such as a partial reservoir filling of the dam by Ethiopia, Egypt’s resort to national water reserves and guarantees granted to Sudan for its development projects.

The diplomatic sources, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, say that there is “political will” on all sides for the meetings to result in positive initial understandings on the Ethiopian development project, which has strained relations between Khartoum, Addis Ababa and Cairo.  

Attending the two-day summit are the foreign ministers, irrigation ministers and intelligence chiefs from the three countries, who will focus on the effects of completing the construction of the dam and making it operational in the second half of 2018.  

An Egyptian source, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says the talks are expected to produce three main outcomes. Firstly, Ethiopia will fill the reservoir with just enough water to allow the first two turbines to become operational in the short term (this had been a point of tension previously, as Egyptian officials were concerned that Addis Ababa had begun “early filling” of the dam). Levels of water in the reservoir would then increase incrementally, along with the rise in the number of operational electrical turbines. Secondly, Egypt would ensure it has strategic water reserves in Lake Nasser. And thirdly, Sudan would receive guarantees that its neighbors would support its agricultural projects and other developmental projects it needs to boost its economy.

The water reserves in Lake Nasser will be a key factor in determining the timeframe for filling the dam’s reservoir and the scale of water cuts to Egypt’s annual allocation, Ethiopian and Sudanese diplomatic sources tell Mada Masr. But the benchmark for Egyptian water reserves in Lake Nasser remains a point of negotiation and will be determined based on the balance between Egypt’s need for irrigation and drinking water on one hand, and on Ethiopia’s need to fill the reservoir in phase one with enough water to start operating two of the total 16 electrical turbines on the other.

The two sources also tell Mada Masr that the amount of Nile water allocated to gradually fill the dam’s reservoir over the course of the coming years will be revisited annually to take rainfall into account, a development which is being presented in the meeting as a way to resolve Ethiopia’s insistence that the annual increases to the reservoir be set, a stance that Egypt has strongly rejected.

There are also a number of joint projects in irrigation, agriculture and electricity generation that will be agreed upon in parallel to discussions on the dam’s operations, according to the two sources. The projects would be brokered with the aim of establishing common interests in order to avoid a situation where one party might take measures that could harm the interests of another.

The diplomatic sources that spoke to Mada Masr say there are “out of the box” ideas that will be discussed during the meeting to deal with Cairo’s concerns regarding how beginning to fill the Renaissance Dam’s reservoir will affect Egypt’s water quota.

Despite the positive outlook on these outcomes at the start of the meeting, the source emphasizes that patience must be exercised until talks wrap up in Khartoum.  

A Sudanese source familiar with the details of the negotiations, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says there have been promising mediation efforts by the United States at the request of the three countries. A US diplomatic source confirmed the American mediation, saying that the US needs to ensure the stability of East Africa, particularly in the Horn of Africa.

The privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper reported on March 27 that a US delegation was in Sudan for a briefing on the GERD deadlock. The Sudan Tribune reported that “the purpose of the regional tour [by the US delegation] is to identify the positions of the three countries on the issue of the Renaissance Dam in order to form a neutral stance that contributes to providing the necessary assistance to create a common ground in order to reach understanding and solutions that satisfy all parties,” quoting Sudan’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson.

The nine-member committee is gathering for the first time since it was formed following a high-level meeting between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the sidelines of the 30th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa in January. Talks scheduled for February were postponed following the resignation of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who stood down as both the country’s leader and chairman of the ruling coalition on February 15 and was replaced by Abiy Ahmed, who was sworn in on Monday as Ethiopia’s new prime minister.

The sources say that there are a number of developments which have opened the prospect for positive initial understandings. Firstly, Cairo has completely backed down from its demand to postpone the start of filling the reservoir until after the completion of the consultancy studies. Egypt has also acknowledged — at least in principle — that the imminent completion of the dam’s construction has become a reality that Ethiopia will not back away from.

Ethiopia, in turn, has become aware that excessive pressure on Cairo may cause embarrassment to Egypt’s political leadership, a development Addis Ababa does not wish to pursue, according to the sources. Ethiopia is therefore ready to show understanding and flexibility in technical consultations with Egypt over the start of filling the reservoir and the beginning of the dam’s operation.

The sources’ general positive expectations for the meeting are backed by the auspicious outcomes of the meeting between President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir in Cairo on March 19. During this visit, the two parties discussed Cairo’s concerns over Khartoum’s unannounced plans to embark on water projects that involve constructing further dams. The two sides agreed that any such Sudanese projects would be developed in consultations with Egypt.

Asmahan Soliman 

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