Map of the Nile and the dam. Source:

Ethiopia, an upstream Nile Basin country, started building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011, raising Egypt’s concerns that it might affect the country’s 55.5-billion-cubic-meter annual share of Nile water. Sudan, Egypt’s fellow downstream country, recently raised similar concerns over the 4-billion-dollar dam. Over the past few years, tripartite talks on the rules of filling and operating the GERD, whose reservoir’s total capacity is 74 billion cubic meters, were fruitless, including those brokered by Washington and recently by the African Union (AU).

One of the purposes of the negotiating process is related to the clarification of key elements in the functioning of the dam. Moreover, key questions remain about how much water Ethiopia will release downstream if a multi-year drought occurs and how the three countries will resolve any future disputes. Ethiopia rejects binding arbitration at the final stage of the project.

To clarify, Ethiopia is building the dam on the Blue Nile, which joins the White Nile in Sudan to become the Nile river – the world’s longest and a lifeline supplying water and electricity to the 10 countries it traverses. About 85 percent of the river’s flow originates from Ethiopia, whose officials hope the dam, now more than three-quarters complete, will reach full power-generating capacity in 2023.

In July, Addis Ababa declared that it reached its first-year target for filling the reservoir of the mega-dam.

Egypt relies heavily on the Nile to supply water for its agriculture and to its more than 100 million people, while Sudan warned that millions of lives would be at “great risk” if Ethiopia unilaterally fills the dam.

Back in July, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan started the online AU-sponsored negotiations on the GERD, as part of the years-long negotiating process. Talks have since failed to make headway.

On one hand, Egyptian officials have repeatedly blamed Ethiopia for the deadlock and accused Addis Ababa of playing for time.

On the other hand, Ethiopia repeatedly denied Egyptians’ worries and defended its construction of the 4-billion-dollar dam as being vital for its development, electrification, and lifting its population of around 107 million out of poverty.

In late October, the three African nations resumed virtual talks over the filling and operation of the project, after previous negotiations had been suspended in August. During the round of talks, foreign and irrigation ministers of the three nations delegated experts from their countries to discuss and agree on an approach so the talks could be fruitful.

The renewed talks followed US President Donald Trump’s comments in which he said downstream Egypt could end up “blowing up” the project, which Cairo called an existential threat.

Having resumed the experts’ talks on November 1st, under the auspices of the AU, the EU, and World Bank, on November 2nd, Sudan, as the chair of the current round, demanded the necessity of abandoning the previous “unproductive” method in the negotiation process on the Renaissance Dam between itself, Egypt and Ethiopia, with the aim of speeding up the process of reaching an agreement. Moreover, the Sudanese negotiating team suggested moving forward with negotiations according to a specific timetable and a clear list of outputs to be submitted to the AU Commission.

“The three countries agreed that each would present its views during the (virtual) meeting of the Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian irrigation ministers, scheduled to be held November 4, 2020,” the spokesman for the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation said.

On November 5th, it was announced that the three states involved in the negotiations, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan failed to reach an agreement on rules of negotiating their long-running dispute over the Ethiopian dam on the Nile.

The latest debacle came at the online meeting of the three countries’ water ministers that had sought to work out negotiation rules. “During the talks, it became clear that there is no consensus among the three countries on the methodology for completing negotiations in the coming period,” the Egyptian Water Ministry said without elaborating.

Also, Ethiopia said the countries “were unable to reach a complete agreement” on items such as the “basis for the upcoming negotiation and the time frame.”

Sudan’s water ministry said in a statement: “Water ministers of Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia agreed to end this round of negotiations over Ethiopia’s Nile dam”. “This round … failed to make any tangible progress,” the statement read. In addition, Irrigation Minister Yasser Abbas said the talks did not achieve concrete progress and that Egypt opposed a Sudanese proposal supported by Ethiopia to maximize the role of the AU experts.

Despite the misunderstandings, the three countries agreed that each will present a report delineating its view on recent talks and vision for the way ahead to South Africa, the current president of the AU, the Sudanese ministry added in a statement. The reports will also include their visions on ways to implement the outcomes of two former summit meetings of the AU Bureau in June and July, which stated that the three countries would conclude a binding legal agreement on the rules of filling and operating the GERD.

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