Experts' Comments

The Renaissance Dam Issue on the Crossroads of Washington’s Meeting

EPC | 05 Nov 2019

The Renaissance Dam Issue on the Crossroads of Washington’s Meeting

The US has extended an invitation to the foreign ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to meet in Washington on Nov. 6, 2019 to discuss the issue of Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam in the presence of a representative form the World Bank in an attempt to break the deadlock. Although failure of Washington’s talks is still possible, however, some believe that this round of negotiations might lead to some kind of a breakthrough and establish new foundations for dialogue among the concerned parties. So, what are the chances of Washington’s meeting? Could it put the crisis of the Renaissance Dam on the path of solution?

Anwar Ibrahim Ahmad

Anwar Ibrahim Ahmad

Addis Ababa thinks that the Renaissance Dam is a project of economic integration that will benefit the whole region, not only Ethiopia. Despite differences which the project have caused with Egypt, still it might benefit Egypt and Sudan together, especially in generating electricity, organize the flow of water and reduce sedimentation which costs Sudan, in particular, millions of dollars as a loss each year.

The Ethiopian side believes that the meeting that Washington has called for will create some kind of rapprochement among the concerned parties although the outcome of more than eight years of negotiations were not positive. It is perceived that the three countries will continue the approach of talks and dialogue to solve differences surrounding this issue even if one of them announced that negotiations have stalled. Negotiations will remain the best and necessary option and the least costly to resolve this complicated issue and reach some kind of solution for the sake of the people of the region.

That said, the three countries, Egypt and Ethiopia in particular, could play a constructive role to reach a solution. I believe that prolonging the period of the dam’s construction is the reason behind Cairo’s recent concerns after a glimpse of hope that the two countries might reach a clear agreement on the Renaissance Dam. There is no doubt that the series of recent events in Ethiopia have led to an increase in the expected period for the initial stages to build the dam from five to eight years.

Unless the issue of the dam is settled peacefully, through Washington’s round or other rounds, this track will not lead to any other way to resolve the dispute. I think the next step will be an agreement on the escalation of media campaigns from time to time. The best example of the mismanagement of this issue by the media is presenting the recent statements of Ethiopia’s Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed as a threat to other countries. The media has interpreted these statements in a different way to the point that forced countries to mediate between the three concerned parties.

The issue of negotiations on the Renaissance Dam project will remain important until Ethiopia completes this huge development monument and Egypt is convinced that it is intended to generate electricity like any other hydro projects. It is worth noting that other projects were built on the Nile that had not caused any sensitivities, concerns or differences of other parties as the Renaissance Dam did.

Anwar Ibrahim Ahmad, Ethiopian writer and journalist.

Maher Abu Joukh

Maher Abu Joukh

I think that the scenario of direct military confrontation between Egypt and Ethiopia is unlikely if the upcoming trilateral talks in Washington fail because there are no borders between the two countries. In addition, Sudan’s neutrality, the high economic, military and diplomatic costs for the country that initiates war, and resorting to the option of stirring internal turbulence by Egypt and Ethiopia in the other country will have high security, economic and diplomatic cost. Furthermore, regional and international actors reject any conflict that might lead to an additional point of tension in an already turbulent region or having an impact on the security and safety of maritime navigation in the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf.

The failure of Washington’s round of talks might encourage Russia and China to offer an alternative mediation with the aim of enhance their leverage and presence in the region by employing Moscow and Beijing’s ties with the three parties. It is worth mentioning that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Ethiopia’s Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed have held a meeting on the sidelines of the Russian-African summit last October after the escalation of a media campaign between the two countries.

Ethiopia may choose to follow the policy of fait accompli that it has already followed during dam construction phases over the past years. However, the situation this time will be different, as water storage procedures will have direct impact on Sudan and Egypt. Following policy of fait accompli without reaching an agreement with both Sudan and Egypt will lead to rapprochement between the two countries, as they will intensify their bilateral diplomatic campaign against Ethiopia’s latest step in this regard. It should be remembered, however, that Sudan’s regional and global influence has grown with toppling of former president Omar Al Bashir, and the establishment of a civilian government led by Dr. Abdalla Hamdouk, thus; there will be a new reality in the country different from the one that has prevailed in the country over the last three decades.

There is no other choice at the strategic level but to resolve the conflict by reaching an agreement between the three countries either directly or facilitated by regional or global actors. The return of the three parties to Sudan’s proposal in this regard must supported which has already been approved by them before latest differences emerge. Based on that proposal, Ethiopia must allow the flow of 35 billion cubic meter of water annually from the estimated water flow of the Blue Nile River of 50 billion cubic meter.

It is important to develop Sudan’s proposal to become a final framework to solve the disputes between the three countries through providing exceptional solutions and proposals capable of dealing with any future climatic conditions that would result in low water levels in the Blue Nile River. This would eventually turn the Grand Renaissance Dam into a joint development project based on mutual interests from which the three countries can benefit, and that can ensurie no damage will be inflicted on any party.

Maher Abu Joukh, a Sudanese journalist and political researcher.

Hani Raslan

Hani Raslan

Washington’s call for a meeting between the three parties to the dam crisis in 6 November 2019, came to revive the hopes for reaching an understanding after the prolonged stalemate of negotiations in this regard. This comes particularly after the Sochi Summit meeting between Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmad that has not led to new outcomes. That meeting has only meant the return to direct negotiations between the two sides as the two parties adhered to their previous positions. However, it is important to note that Abiy Ahmad’s statements stressed that Ethiopia still insists on its view that a solution can only be reached through direct negotiations between the two sides, which implicitly indicated its rejection of any mediation in this dispute. These statements came after his controversial remarks on war and massing millions of fighters that gave clear indication a bout Ethiopia’s hardened position in this regard.

The U.S mediation has a great chance to move the dam crisis forward, as the U.S is considered one of Ethiopia’s major sponsors as Washington attempts to present Addis Ababa as a model of development, stability, and peace-building in Africa. As such, Washington would be more capable of influencing Ethiopia’s tough positions and insistence to unilaterally decide the dam’s years of filling and operation policies. However, this will depend on the extent of the U.S pressures on Ethiopia to soften the latter’s intransigent positions claiming that Egypt’s proposals are considered an aggression against its sovereignty over the dam, and overlooking all internationally- recognized laws and norms with regard to water issues and river basins.

The success of Washington’s meeting will- to a great extent- depend on the flexibility that Ethiopia can show in negotiations. However, recent indications have not been yet promising, as Ethiopia has reluctantly accepted the U.S invitation to attend the meeting. Some reports indicate that Ethiopia agreed to attend the meeting on condition it should be consultative rather than official, and there will be no discussions of technical details as this should be exclusively limited to the three parties. Undoubtedly, Ethiopia’s insistence on its position will render the participation of World Bank in the meeting irrelevant, and may raise questions about the role of the U.S host that may find the situation embarrassing.

As for Egypt’s position, it has welcomed the U.S mediation, as it has already called for it in the first place. Moreover, Cairo is keen to achieve its ends through signing a binding agreement between the three countries in line with statements made by Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry in this respect. From Egypt’s perspective, Sudan’s position is insignificant, as Khartoum’s stand in this crisis is aligned with or subordinate to that of Ethiopia, and goes in line with policies pursued by former President Omar Al Bashir’s regime.

Hani Raslan is a specialist in Sudanese affairs in Nile River basin studies unit at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.