The expected breakthrough in talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on a giant hydroelectric dam project this week could signal the end to an excruciatingly long process that began with an embarrassing controversy for one of the partners.
In what was the biggest diplomatic blunder of Mohammed Morsi’s short presidency, senior politicians gathered by the Islamist leader in June 2013 to discuss the impact of the dam on Egypt confidently suggested bombing it or forcing the east African nation to halt construction by backing anti-government rebels.
Unbeknownst to those present, the meeting was being broadcast live, causing an uproar in Ethiopia and earning the politicians and Mr Morsi, removed by the military a month after that meeting, the ridicule of Egyptians.
Further exacerbating the row, Morsi’s office later said that “all options are being considered” to deal with the issue.
So much has changed since that ill-fated meeting took place.
Morsi may have been removed from power, but Egypt’s dilemma over what to do about the dam endures today.
Talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan – which is, like Egypt, a downstream Nile basin nation – began in 2014, but made little or no progress until recently. The lack of progress had given rise to tensions, belligerent rhetoric and accusations of intransigence between Egypt and Ethiopia.
Egypt officially refrained from talking about the use of force. Ethiopia, on the other hand, accused Egypt of trying to dictate what it should do and its prime minister threatened earlier this year that a million men would be mobilised to fight if attacked. Egypt’s president calmly responded to that threat, saying the two countries needed their resources to develop not to go to war.
The two nations’ main differences were over the time it will take Ethiopia to fill the giant reservoir behind the hydroelectric dam and how much water will Ethiopia release annually for the benefit of Egypt and Sudan. Measures to ensure a fair distribution of water at times of drought was another stumbling block. The parties even tussled over the definition of the word drought.
After years of deadlock, the negotiations began to bear fruit after the Trump administration invited representatives of the three nations to meet in Washington last month to try and resolve their differences. There, the three nations hammered out an agreement that obliged the three nations to hold four rounds of negotiations in the presence of US and World Bank representatives to discuss the issue. If no agreement is reached by January 15, a fourth party will join the negotiations to arbitrate the dispute.
An apparent, albeit partial, breakthrough came this week, with the Sudanese representative, Sudanese Irrigation and Water Resources Minister Yasser Abbas, saying in comments to reporters that the three nations have come closer to aligning their views on filling the reservoir and operating the dam being built on the Blue Nile.
“Proposals were submitted by the three countries regarding filling the reservoir and operating the dam and a convergence (of views) occurred," he said after meeting his Egyptian and Ethiopian counterparts in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital.
"It was agreed to take the new positions separately to be discussed at the meetings in Addis Ababa," he said. The three sides will meet in the Ethiopian capital on January 9 and 10.
They also agreed to define droughts and the operating conditions during droughts, Mr Abbas said. "There is a convergence (of views) in general, and there are differences of views in some circumstances. Sudan proposed a specified time for filling the reservoir and added definitions for drought and continuous drought," Mr Abbas said, without elaborating on the details of these definitions.
Mr Abbas’ comments on the negotiations have been consistently upbeat, while the Egyptians and Ethiopians have been much more cautious.
Sudan’s stake in the negotiations is much less pressing than Egypt’s. The dam is being built close to its border with Ethiopia, which makes the energy-starved nation’s possible benefit of power generated by the dam more economically feasible.
Sudan also has an alternative source of water in the White Nile, that runs through the entire length of the vast Afro-Arab country before it merges with the Blue Nile at the Khartoum district of Umm Durman to become the river Nile that flows across the deserts of northern Sudan and all the way across Egypt to the Mediterranean.