Sources: US-proposed GERD deal sets Ethiopia water release at 37 bcm, major disputes remain

A draft agreement prepared by the United States and the World Bank regarding the construction and filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is expected to be sent to Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on Monday, according to a source in an international development organization close to the talks. The three sides will have around three days to review the terms and send their comments back to US officials, the source says.

The source, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says that the US-prepared proposal aims to bridge disputes over a number of key issues, including the annual release of water from the Blue Nile through the dam to the downstream countries of Sudan and Egypt, the latter of which has repeatedly expressed concern over water shortages that would result from the dam’s construction.

However, in order for the US-prepared proposal to become a reality, Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia must first make significant concessions, and even then significant issues of contention still remain.

Up to this point in the talks, Cairo had not been willing to concede to an annual release below 40 billion cubic meters per year, according to an Egyptian official who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. 

Ethiopia, however, has pushed for an annual release of 31 billion cubic meters, according to a leaked draft of a proposal submitted by Ethiopia. The massive dam project would provide Ethiopia with electricity for domestic consumption and export. Ethiopia submitted the draft, a copy of which Mada Masr obtained last month, at the close of the January talks in Washington DC. The draft, which also proposed a means of coordination and conflict mediation between the three countries to evaluate hydrological conditions, was one of three proposals submitted by the three parties in the January 28-31 meeting, according to the international development source.

The US is now pressuring both Egypt and Ethiopia to compromise and agree to an annual release of 37 billion cubic meters from the Blue Nile, according to both the international development source and a consultant to Egyptian authorities on the GERD.

While negotiations around the annual water share have all centered on an initial temporary period during which the GERD reservoir will be filled, Ethiopia is looking to have the 37 billion cubic meters become the permanent share of water it releases annually even after the filling period, according to the consultant. This prospect is unacceptable to Egypt and is a major source of contention, the consultant says.

Even with a potential agreement on an annual release of 37 billion cubic meters, other major points of contention between Egypt and Ethiopia still need to be ironed out.

According to the consultant and the international development source, Egypt did not get any traction on its demand for “equitable dams,” which it had proposed in the summer and would link the operations and water levels of both the Aswan High Dam and the GERD. Under the framework proposed by Egypt, if Lake Nasser was at 70 percent capacity, for example, the GERD would also be at 70 percent capacity.

Ethiopia rejected linking the operations of the two dams, saying it would only agree to release a specific annual share of water from the Blue Nile. Egypt countered by saying it would need to secure an agreement on a shutdown level for the High Dam — the level of water in Lake Nasser at which the dam can generate electricity —  which it put at 165 meters above sea level, the consultant says. Ethiopia wants to set the shutdown level at 156 meters.

Egypt also wants to secure a mechanism to monitor the flow of water and ensure it receives the agreed-upon annual share, the consultant says. One such mechanism would be an exchange of data that would allow Egypt to monitor how much electricity the GERD is producing and thereby calculate the flow of water. Ethiopia has rejected this proposal on grounds of sovereignty, according to the consultant, who adds that the World Bank is working on a proposal on how to handle the issue.

Another key sticking point, the international development source says, is the definition of severe drought. “They have mostly agreed on the definition of drought and extended drought but not on the definition of severe drought,” the source says.

According to the 2016 study “Cooperative filling approaches for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam,” the Blue Nile contributes 57 percent of total runoff into the main Nile, while the White Nile and Atbara River contribute 30 percent and 13 percent respectively. The total annual inflow into Sudan and Egypt, according to available data, is 85 billion cubic meters: 26 billion cubic meters from the White Nile, 11.1 billion cubic meters from the Atbara River and 48.3 billion cubic meters from the Blue Nile. 

With a reduction in the inflow of water from the Blue Nile to 37 billion cubic meters, Egypt and Sudan would be left to divide 74.1 billion cubic meters, while also allowing for continued flow into the Mediterranean Sea, which was allocated at least 10 billion cubic meters per the terms of the 1959 bilateral treaty between Sudan and Egypt.

Under the terms of the 1959 agreement, Egypt was entitled to 55 billion cubic meters and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic meters. The agreement, which built on a 1929 colonial-era agreement, also gave Egypt veto power over all proposed Nile projects.

By signing the US and World Bank prepared agreement, Egypt would practically be opening the door for other countries in the Nile Basin to embark on hydraulically taxing projects, the international development source says.

In January, an Egyptian security source voiced similar worries about the precedent signing an agreement would create in transboundary water management, saying that the majority opinion within Egyptian security agencies is that Egypt should not sign anything that does not protect all of Egypt’s water rights.

“We should have learned from the big mistake of signing onto the Declaration of Principles in 2015 in Khartoum,” the source says, referring to a divide in opinion between President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Egyptian advisors at the time over whether to sign the declaration to work toward an agreement on the management of Nile River resources in a way that would allow Ethiopia to use enough water to complete the first phase of the dam’s construction without harming the interests of Khartoum and Cairo.

The international development source adds that Egypt’s original hopes to secure an agreement that did not make a direct reference to any annual loss of its established 55 billion cubic meters and to link the reservoir filling to securing a safe shutdown level of the Aswan High Dam were shattered by the demands of the Sudanese delegation, which requested a specific agreement on what each of the downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, would get every year. 

Ethiopia is calling for Egypt and Sudan to separately agree upon the split of their total annual water shares from the Blue Nile, the White Nile, and the Atbara River, according to the consultant. However, Egypt does not want to engage in separate negotiations with Sudan and wants its total water share to be determined in any final trilateral agreement.

Actual water use in Egypt is expected to be above the 55 billion cubic meters figure, while Khartoum taps only about 12 to 14 billion cubic meters a year. 

If it signs on to the US-prepared proposal, Sudan, the international development source says, would have to settle an agreement that would cost it a larger loss of its “usually unused” annual share of water than Egypt.

“This is not easy for the government of Sudan that has a particular burden of facing up to what many in Sudan consider a ‘colonial’ Egyptian approach,” the source says.

However, in January, Sudan’s Water Minister Yasser Abbas said the country was barely using 6 billion cubic meters of water, stressing the need to revise the laws regulating water projects in a way to allow Khartoum to benefit from its full share.

Years of negotiations between Sudanese, Ethiopian and Egyptian officials over the GERD failed to produce any final agreement, prompting calls by Egypt for international mediation, after which the U.S. stepped in to mediate the talks. 

Over the last several weeks, delegations from the three countries have met in Washington DC three times alongside US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and World Bank President David Malpass in Washington DC. At the conclusion of the first round of negotiations in DC held from January 13-15, a joint statement was released by the US Treasury Department, outlining a baseline agreement and giving a timeline of the end of January to produce a final agreement. 

However, the January 28-31 meeting passed without a deal. A second joint statement focused on mitigation mechanisms for drought and prolonged dry years, and provisions for the resolution of disputes and the sharing of information, but it was silent on the contentious issue of the downstream annual release.

The three countries returned to the table on February 12 and 13 in what was billed as a final round of talks. Yet again, a final agreement was not announced.

In lieu of consensus, Mnuchin stated that the US, with technical support from the World Bank, agreed to facilitate the preparation of a final agreement for consideration of the three sides in order to finalize a deal by the end of February. 

If all three sides agree to the compromise, the US and the World Bank teams would then “finalize the document that would be subject to a final revision by the foreign and irrigation ministers [of the three countries] before the big signing that [US President Donald] Trump is hoping to have in Washington,” the international development source adds.

In order to get to this point, the US has applied pressure on both sides. 

Cairo suddenly found itself in a weak negotiating position with little outside support and under pressure to agree to a less-than-favorable deal, according to Egyptian officials, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity following the mid-January meeting in Washington DC.

US pressure on Egypt in the GERD negotiations is tied to Egypt’s arms deal with Russia and the scrutiny the US continues to face over Egypt’s human rights record, the Egyptian security source told Mada Masr at the end of January.

For his part, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has to drum up public support for a deal that grants Egypt a stable annual 37 billion cubic meters. “This is not an easy task,” the international development organization source says, “because he had promised otherwise. He is now holding consultations to garner support for the deal. The US had already granted him support by agreeing to an IMF loan and by offering direct political support that should help him in the elections he has to go through this summer.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Ethiopia on Monday, for a trip that also includes stops in Senegal and Angola. Pompeo is expected to address the African Union and meet with Abiy during his time in Addis Ababa. 

Even if all three sides agree to the proposal’s terms regarding the filling stage, there is still “a long way to go on what follows,” according to the international development source, who points to disagreements over the conflict resolution mechanism in the past weeks that the US must now iron out in its proposal.


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