KHARTOUM (SUDANOW)—A fourth tripartite meeting of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was held in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on Monday-Tuesday, August 25-26, 2014. The Egyptian delegation was led by the new Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources, Dr. Husam al-Dinn Maghazy, the Sudanese delegation by the Minister of Water Resources and Electricity, Mutaz Mussa, and the Ethiopian delegation by the Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources, Almau Tegnu, who is the oldest one of the three ministers in this portfolio. The ministers made at the opening session speeches free of any emotion or inflexibility but, instead, focused on the need for cooperation for maximum benefit from the Nile water and resolving the differences in a cordial manner through negotiation.
The meeting came against the backdrop of regional and international developments and facts which have recently emerged.
The first one of these backdrops was represented by the three previous meetings which were held in Khartoum on November 4, 2013, December 8-9, 2013 and January 4-5, 2014. Although the first meeting began under a large measure of optimism while discussing a report by an international experts committee on the Renaissance Dam, the optimism was washed away by the powerful current of the Blue Nile. Egypt demanded suspension of construction of the Dam and agreement on a new international committee to conduct studies on the recommendations which were contained in the experts’ report. Ethiopia understood that report in a different way, arguing that it did not recommend suspension of the construction, that the role of the international experts ended with the end of the tasks of the committee and that the studies would be conducted by Ethiopian experts. Each side stuck to its position and the November meeting was adjourned without striking agreement.
The alliances chart of the Nile Basin changed radically during the second meeting, as the Sudan on December 4, 2013 declared its solid support to construction of the Renaissance Dam, thus ending the Egyptian-Sudanese Nile alliance which began in 1959 when the two countries signed the Nile Water Agreement on November 8 of that year. It was obvious that the arrival during that month of the first installment of the Ethiopian electric current to the Sudan which was more than 100 megawatts in the production cost price which is less than a quarter of the production cost of the generation of electricity at Merowe Dam, has shown the electricity-hungry Sudan where its interests lie. Therefore, the Sudan’s backing of the Renaissance Dam was declared by President Omar Al Bashir personally during his meeting with the Ethiopian Prime Minister during the launching of the joint power connection line between the two countries. This declaration blocked the way for any different statements by a minister, a consultant or a presidential assistant.
Egypt clung to its previous positions, despite some flexibility shown by Ethiopia by agreeing on formation of a team of experts from the three countries to conduct the studies.
The birth of the Ethiopian-Sudanese alliance increased fears and stubbornness on the part of Egypt, regarding this alliance as a form of ungratefulness by its younger brother and long-time ally who has become a friend to its foe and decided to exhibit its muscles to the Sudan by taking further steps for annexation of the contested Halaib territory and opening offices for the Sudanese opposition in Cairo.
Against this backdrop, the third meeting of last January was infirm with no base to stand on and no points of agreement to depart from and therefore, ended without even issuing a joint communiqué or agreeing on a date and venue for the fourth meeting. Seven months elapsed without holding any meetings, not even through a fourth party as a mediator. Ethiopia benefitted a great deal from this lapse of time by continuing construction of the Dam to make it a fact that cannot be overstepped or suspend work on it. Europe continued assistance the construction works as the Italian Saliny Company went on building the Dam and the French, Swiss and English competed for selling the needed mechanical equipment, while Chinese companies went on stretching network lines of the electric power which will be generated after one year and a few months for distribution to different parts of Ethiopia and the neighboring countries.
It was clear that the element of time was in favor of Ethiopia as on each passing day the Renaissance Dam becomes a reality. It was also clear that the Egyptian bet that Ethiopia would not be able to go on financing the construction of the Dam which will cost 5 billion dollars has failed in the time test.
Under these circumstances, a number of Egyptian writers made foolish statements alleging that the World Bank and the European countries suspended their funding of the Dam (although there was no external funding of the project). Then they wrote that the lake of the Dam would create an immense furrow that would reach Mecca and split the Kaaba into two or three parts. These statements immensely harmed Egypt’s credibility, but the wise people in Cairo regarded that the time, the media animosity to Ethiopia and Sudan and the Dam and the irresponsible statements were not in favor of Egypt and decided to return to negotiating table.
The 23rd meeting of the African Union that was held in Equatorial Guinea capital Malabo during the last month of June 2014 offered a good chance for the two countries, with the new Egyptian President, Gen. Abdul Fattah Sisi, meeting with the Ethiopian Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalign on the fringes of that summit. The Malabo meeting was cordial and the electronic and paper newspapers showing the two leaders smiling and embracing each other, shaking hands and stressing the need for cooperation in all fields of development, not only water. The two men agreed on returning to the table of negotiation on the Renaissance Dam.
In the meantime, namely on May 19, 2014, the United Nations Treaty on International Water-courses was coming into force after it was ratified by 35 nations from Europe, Africa, the Arab region and Asia and it was formally brought into effect on August 17, 2014, that is, 90 days after the required number of ratifications was completed.
The treaty is based on cooperation among the nations of the common basin, mentioning the word “cooperation” and its derivatives 15 times. It is also based on the principle of equitable and reasonable benefiting by each member nation of the common basin. The treaty indicates seven factors for defining this equitable and reasonable benefiting. It calls for sharing and exchange of information and for resolving disputes amicably and peacefully and acknowledges the right of each member state of the common water basin to sharing and benefiting from the water of the basin.
It happened that I was a member of a team of international jurists who were entrusted during the past three years to explain the treaty to the willing nations and to answer their queries. It is difficult to convey the state of pleasure and jubilation that prevailed among the member nations, jurists and water experts who stood beside the treaty until it came into effect. Several symposiums were organized during last June and July on the treaty after it was brought into force. The three main periodicals which specialized in water affairs highlighted the proceedings of these symposiums and each of them will publish articles on the treaty and the repercussions of its validity. Furthermore, the renowned international publishing house Brill decided, after the treaty came into force, to launch a scientific periodical that specializes in the international water laws.
Although none of the 11 Nile Basin member state has joined the treaty, the document sent a plain message: A new era of the common water-courses has begun based on cooperation, sharing and equitable and reasonable benefiting and on resolving disputes peacefully. These rules comprise the international conventional law on the common waters and obligate not only the parties to the treaty but all nations of the world.
President Sisi held a press conference on August 24, 2014, the same day on which the Egyptian proceeded to Khartoum for the tripartite meeting. The Egyptian President focused in that press conference on the Renaissance Dam, declaring his willingness to travel to Addis Ababa for a meeting with Prime Minister Desalign for discussion on the principles of cooperation between the two sisterly countries and for solving the pending problems of the Renaissance Dam. He indicated that the Egyptian delegation to the Khartoum tripartite meeting would discuss the size of the lake and the duration of filling it. Those remarks ushered a new era and ended a state of rejecting the Dam or even insistence on suspension of its construction pending completion of the studies.
Therefore, the closing communiqué on the fourth tripartite meeting which was issued on Tuesday, August 26, 2014, reflected the developments and was reconciliatory, both in language and content. It included an agreement on conducting two studies by an international house of experts or, in the words of the communiqué, consultancy companies. The communiqué also provided for formation of a joint committee consisting of four members from each one of the three countries to supervise preparation of those studies which the three parties agreed to be finalized in a six-month’s time. One of these studies will focus on the water resources and a model of a hydro-electric system, while the other study will be concerned with assessment of the environmental, social and economic impacts of the Dam on the Sudan and Egypt.
Thus, Egypt has at last accepted the fact that the Dam has become an undisputable reality, not even any suggestion of halting its construction. For its part, Ethiopia accepted the principle of international participation in the studies which Egypt has remained calling for it since the first tripartite meeting. The closing communiqué was conciliatory and face-saving for each of Egypt and Ethiopia while the Sudan retained its role as a mediator and, at the same time, as a beneficiary from the Dam.
These positive results of the fourth meeting reflect a realistic and logical transition on the part of Cairo as Addis Ababa is entitled to benefit from the Nile water of which 86% flows from the Ethiopian Plateau. And the 1902 and 1959 agreements have become obsolete and overstepped by the events and developments and talk about them and insistence by Egypt that there are still binding became waste of time.
The benefits of the Sudan from the Ethiopian dam become clear even before the Renaissance Dam completes and starts generation of electricity the Sudan is waiting for impatiently to meet its power deficit of 40% of its needs and to find an end to the power failures which have returned to the Sudanese life in the past two months.
It also became clear for Egypt that its insistence on suspension of the Dam pending completion of the studies was not and would not be acceptable regionally and internationally, nor even to its Arab allies. In a gesture to prove that the Dam has become an unmistakable reality, the joint communiqué included an invitation by the Ethiopian Minister to his Egyptian and Sudanese counter-parts for a visit to the site of the Dam to see the developments on the construction work.
The outcome of the tripartite meeting also reflected flexibility in the Ethiopian position and agreement that the negotiation principle is to give and take and that Ethiopia has to agree on an international participation in the studies to prove its claim that the Dam would not bring about adverse effects on Egypt in addition to agreement on the principle of mitigating and minimizing any negative effects the studies will indicate.
Furthermore, the UN International Watercourses treaty created a new international situation based on cooperation, sharing and equitable and reasonable benefits for all member states of the basin and on resolving disputes in a peacefully negotiated way. These principles cannot be ignored or disregarded.
The coming period may witness a measure of dispute on the terms of reference of the international house of expertise which will be employed for conducting the two studies and on details of the mission of the 12-expert group the three ministers decided to form and the relationship of this group with the international expertise house and its role in the studies. The closing communiqué contained a lot of ambiguity on these two pints, such using the “employing” the expertise house instead of the house “conducting” the two studies.
However, if the spirit of cooperation that dominated the meeting continues, these details can be agreed upon and the closing communiqué can be interpreted on the ground in a positive manner.
This attitude may (even must)be taken further and wider for cooperation with the other Nile Basin member states for bailing the people of the Basin out of poverty, hunger, thirst and darkness in which the majority of them live and which aggravate each day.
By Dr. Salman Mohamed Ahmed Salman