Nile Dam: talks to resume in Washington this week after missed January deadline

Parties now plan to reach agreement by the end of month after successful round of talks on January 31

Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam powerhouse is seen as it undergoes construction work on the river Nile in Guba Woreda, Benishangul Gumuz Region, Ethiopia September 26, 2019. Picture taken September 26, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
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The foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan will return to Washington this week for another round of talks to reach an agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam after missing a deadline last month.

Diplomatic sources in Washington confirmed to The National that Sameh Shoukry of Egypt, Ethiopia's Gedu Andargachew and Asma Abdallah of Sudan will hold talks in Washington on Wednesday and Thursday.

The Sudanese and Ethiopian ministers for water resources, Yasser Abbas and Seleshi Bekele, are also expected to attend.

US Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin will preside over the talks and David Malpass, president of the World Bank, will take part, the sources confirmed.

The US Treasury Department was not immediately available for comment. A State Department official refused to confirm the meetings, saying the “Treasury has the lead” on the issue.

Washington has hosted several rounds of talks between the parties since November, to try to reach an agreement on the $4.5 billion (Dh16.52bn) hydroelectric dam Ethiopia is building on the Nile and which Egypt considers an “existential threat”.

Cairo has asked Washington to mediate and, while initial plans to reach an agreement failed on January 15, a preliminary framework was agreed to 10 days ago.

The US Treasury said on January 31 that a preliminary agreement was reached on a schedule for a phased filling of the dam and a mitigation mechanism for the filling in the long term.

But such a proposal is subject to the final signing of the comprehensive agreement.

Differences over the amount that would fill the basin and the timeline technicalities appear to be still outstanding, the diplomatic sources told The National.

Egypt remains the most persistent party pushing for a deal given what is at stake in the dam, which is on the Blue Nile tributary in the northern Ethiopia highlands, from where 85 per cent of the river’s waters flow.

Egypt wants Ethiopia to agree to release a minimum of 40 billion cubic metres of water from the dam each year.

It has also demanded that the dam’s reservoir be filled over a longer period than the four years planned by Ethiopia, to keep water available during droughts.

A senior US official on a call with reporters on Monday expressed hope that a settlement will be reached. “Hopefully that situation is close to resolution ... let’s keep our fingers crossed and stay optimistic,” he said. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Ethiopia next week.

The US hosted the first meeting on November 7, with the three countries aiming to reach an agreement on the filling and operation of the dam by January 15.

Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, saw this week’s meeting as an attempt to reach an agreement by the end of the month.

"They missed the January 15 target, now they are trying for the end of February," she said.

Ms Dunne said the overarching question was: “Can there be co-operative process for deciding on the pace of filling the dam’s basin?”

“Ethiopia holds most of the cards as the rain falls mostly within their borders,” she said.

She said Egypt was in a weaker position and had turned to the US and World Bank for help.

“Egypt’s only leverage is that no one wants to see it destabilised,” she said.

But Timothy Kaldas, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, saw agreement in sight given where the parties left their last negotiations.

"The statement after the talks in Washington at the end of January was quite promising," he said.

His cautious optimism is rooted in the ability of the parties to have agreed, even on a preliminary basis, on the schedule for filling the dam’s reservoir.

“Given that this has been the most contentious point of disagreement, it’s an encouraging sign that they’ll be able to finalise an agreement later this month,” Mr Kaldas said.

A diplomatic source said that if an agreement were reached this month, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi was considering a visit to Washington for the signing.