The Water Ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met in Khartoum last weekend, (January 4-5) for the third time to discuss the establishment of a framework mechanism for the implementation of the recommendations of the International Panel of Experts (IPoE). The meeting was scheduled in order to discuss the areas where agreement hadn’t been reached during the second meeting of the three Ministers, December 8-9, last year.
At their second meeting the three Ministers had agreed on three significant matters. The first and most important point related to the nature and composition of the proposed national committee. It was agreed that the national committee should be made up of experts from each of the three countries with a clear mandate to follow-up the implementation of the recommendations of the IPoE. It was also agreed that the national committee would be composed of four members from each of the three countries. The three Ministers further agreed to divide up the expenses of the national committee among themselves on an equal basis.
Agreements at the second meeting also included the duties and responsibilities of the national committee. The national committee was given a clear mandate to hire foreign consulting firms to conduct the two studies recommended by the IPoE. In addition, it was have the mandate to determine the scope of studies to be commissioned from international experts. The national committee would also have the duty to draw up the terms of reference and internal regulations for its activities and obtain the approval of the Water Ministers of the three countries. The national committee was given further power to evaluate the reports of the consultants and present any suggestions or ideas that might augment their reports and submit the final report to the Water Ministers. The three Ministers also agreed that if there were issues within the report that the national committee failed to agree on then these should be submitted to the Water Ministers themselves. If they could not agree, then the Water Ministers would seek the advice of international experts. The national committee was given the power to draw up a document that provided for the employment of the group of international experts and to list the tasks that these should accomplish. However, the three Ministers failed to agree on the details of procedure for reference to international experts and it was then they decided to meet on January 4 and 5 for a third session.
All along Ethiopia has taken the position that the Water Ministers should create a committee of international experts to provide advice by consensus. Sudan supported this. Ethiopia also proposed that the group of international experts should be established after the submission of the final report to deal with issues where the Ministers were not in agreement and where expert advice might be required. Here also, Ethiopia’s position was upheld by Sudan. However, Egypt refused to accept these proposals. Instead, Egypt argued that the international experts’ committee should be established in parallel with the national committee of experts. It also said that the international committee should provide advice not only on the final report but also throughout the conduct of the two studies. Egypt also rejected Ethiopia and Sudan’s position that the hiring of the international experts should be done on the basis of consensus. In what was, in effect, a complete reversal of the agreement reached at their second meeting, the Egyptian side requested that the national committee should also review other documents outside the mandate of any follow up to the implementation of the IPoE.
These were the main points of difference during the meeting, and it is unfortunate that a good deal of inaccurate comment about the meeting has been aired by the Egyptian media. The position taken by Ethiopia and Sudan in regard to the hiring of the international experts was carefully based on reason and argument. Ethiopia and Sudan pointed out that the establishment of international experts group while the national committee carried out its agreed duties could not work as no job could be specified for the international experts until the national committee was able to evaluate the possibilities. The national committee’s agreed mandate included defining the scope of the studies to be carried out. Sudan also strongly argued that hiring international experts should be done by consensus – the Egyptian state media’s report that the international group of experts would be an arbitrary body is totally inaccurate and there was no such suggestion at any point during the meeting.
In any international negotiation, it is quite normal for parties to take different positions on specific issues which should be resolved through patient discussions. But it is not normal for one party or another engaged in good faith negotiation to deliberately misrepresent the other party’s positions in order to gain a propaganda advantage. This sooner or later will be counterproductive, since it would amount to a glaring lack of good faith. It is in this context Ethiopia indeed find it regrettable that a good deal of inaccurate comment has also been aired by Egyptian officials who took part in the discussions and who should know better. The attitude of the Egyptian media is no surprise as it has always been hostile to the GERD and has been engaged in deliberate distortion and disinformation about the GERD. What is more surprising, and disappointing, is that Egyptian officials have also taken a hostile attitude towards the GERD. We do not believe they will succeed in this unfortunate exercise as fortunately there has been a third party present in the discussions at Khartoum, namely the Sudan, which knows the true state of affairs. With regard to the progress of the construction of the GERD we hope nobody will be under any illusions that any vituperative campaign against the project will derail its progress. That is not going to happen under any circumstances. The inexorable march of the project towards completion, on schedule, is a reality which those who have chosen to take a negative attitude towards the project should accept and live with.
Equally, the Egyptian state media’s referral of talks ‘floundering’, because of Ethiopia’s rejection of ‘confidence building measures’, is simply wrong. It should not be necessary to repeat that it was Ethiopia which came up with the idea of establishing the International Panel of Experts specifically to build confidence between Ethiopia and the lower riparian states. It should also be remembered that the report of the IPoE proved that the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will not pose any appreciable harm to the downstream countries. Ethiopia has also repeatedly made it clear it is willing to go the extra mile to reassure Egypt and Sudan that the construction of the GERD is beneficial to all by implementing all the unilateral recommendations of the IPoE, and without delay. Ethiopia has also made it abundantly clear that the bounty of the Nile waters should be shared among the riparian states on the basis of the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization as envisaged under the Comprehensive Framework Agreement. It is on the basis of this principled stance that Ethiopia has refused trilateral discussion of what the Egyptian side presented as a supposed “confidence building principle”. This was never intended to be an objective of the Water Ministers’ meeting last weekend. Nor is any such discussion necessary given the comprehensive multilateral arrangements already reached in the Comprehensive Framework Agreement.