Setting the record straight: the 3rd Tripartite Water Ministers’ meeting in Khartoum

AFP/AFP - The Blue Nile in Guba, Ethiopia, during the diversion ceremony
January 18, 2014

MFA – At the end of 2010, the Ethiopian Government commissioned the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project (GERDP). Construction is now well under way through a turn-key contract arrangement with an internationally renowned contractor.

Egypt and Sudan, albeit in the absence of detailed information, have had concerns about the impact of the dam might have. So at the initiation and invitation of the Government of Ethiopia, the Ministers of Water Affairs of the three Eastern Nile Countries, Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan, agreed to establish an International Panel of Experts (IPoE) with the objective of building confidence about the GERDP among the three countries. It might be noted that this Ethiopian initiative to consult and share information with the two lower riparian states was unprecedented in the Nile basin or indeed in other international watercourses, in the absence of any specific agreement to determine the use of international watercourses.

The IPoE was launched in mid-May 2012. After a year of deliberation that included a review of the study and design documents and project site visits, the IPoE produced its final report May 30, last year. It was a consensus report signed by the representatives of all the three countries and the four international experts. The IPoE’s Final Report reconfirmed Ethiopia’s assertion that the design and construction of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam has been properly based on international design criteria and standards, codes, guidelines and engineering practices. The Panel’s report also showed that the GERDP will not have a significant impact on the downstream countries and that it will in fact, provide major benefits to all three countries.

The Panel did also recommend two further studies be carried out in the context of the Eastern Nile System. These were a water resource system/hydropower model and a trans-boundary environment and socio-economic impact study. It suggested these should be done through an agreed arrangement of the three countries, employing international consultants chosen through an international bidding process. The three states countries agreed to set up a mechanism to follow up implementation of the recommendations of the IPoE. They initiated a series of tripartite meetings. The first and second of these meetings took place in Khartoum on November 4 and on December 8/9 last year.

The third meeting took place, again in Khartoum, January 4-5, this year, and it was immediately after this that the Egyptian delegation embarked on a media campaign, releasing a distorted account of the deliberations and of the outcome of the meeting. We are therefore presenting the facts here with the aim of setting the record straight and providing the international community and the Egyptian people with a true and accurate account of the proceedings of the tripartite meeting. This can be corroborated by all who were present at the meeting.

The third meeting was hosted by Sudan and the main item of the agenda was discussion of the remaining pending issues that had not been agreed in the two previous meetings. It should be mentioned that during the first meeting on November 4, all three parties submitted their respective proposals on the “Framework for Establishing a Committee of Experts for the Follow up on the Implementation of the Recommendations of the (IPoE) on GERDP”. The discussions during the first and second tripartite meeting focused mainly on the framework for the establishment of a committee of national experts, its composition and mandate. The parties agreed on setting up a national committee of experts, on the composition and number of delegates from each country, and on most of the mandates for the committee as proposed by the Ethiopian delegation.

Outstanding issues postponed to the third meeting included the establishment and commissioning of a separate international panel of experts, principles of confidence building, and questions of data and information quality and validation.

The matters discussed at the Third Tripartite Meeting focused mainly on two issues tabled by the Egyptian delegation. The first of these concerned the setting up of an international panel of experts. Egypt proposed that a new  international panel of experts (IE) should be set up in parallel to the establishment of  the committee of national experts and that this should start work at the same time with the committee of national experts. In the event that there were differences among members of the committee of national experts, the three Water Ministers should resolve the matter and if they failed, the differences should automatically be referred to the proposed IE, to provide a technical opinion for the ministers. In addition, the IE would also assist the committee of national experts. Egypt’s final point was that this international panel of experts should not be established by consensus.

Ethiopia made it clear it did not see any justification for employing an additional international panel of experts in addition to the international consultants that would carry out the two studies recommended by the IPoE. However, for the sake of compromise and in the interest of promoting cooperation, the Ethiopian delegation agreed to the employment of an international panel of experts under certain conditions. The first was that the committee of national experts should prepare the procedures for the employment of the IE and the rules of procedure for its functioning. Secondly, that the IE should be engaged after the completion of the two studies. It also said that in the event of differences over issues raised in the final report of the two studies, the ministers should resolve them amicably and only if the ministers failed to do this to refer the matters to the IE to provide a technical opinion. The final point was that the IE should be chosen by consensus of the three ministers.

The Egyptian delegation did not provide sufficient explanation or justification why an IE should be engaged in parallel to the establishment of the agreed committee of national experts. It argued that the IE could resolve differences among members of the committee of national experts and even suggested the IE could act as an adjudication body whose decision should be binding on the three countries. These arguments were found illogical and deemed unacceptable by the delegations of both Ethiopia and Sudan. Egypt then withdrew them and put forward the alternative that the role of the IE should be that of technical assistance for the committee of national experts, but the delegation failed to suggest any situation in which the IE could play such a role. Indeed, in a situation where the two studies recommended by the IPoE are going to be undertaken by international consultancy firms and the necessary follow up made by 12 national experts from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, the reason for Egypt’s insistence on employing additional international experts is not clear.

The second issue tabled by Egypt referred to “principles for confidence building.” The principles referred to issues that contradict the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) which Ethiopia has recently ratified and which has also been signed by six other upper Nile riparian countries. Ethiopia declined to discuss these so-called “confidence building principles” as they were irrelevant to the agreed agenda of the meeting and to the mandate of the delegations present. The delegations of Ethiopia and Sudan repeatedly explained to the Egyptian delegation that the mandate and the agenda of the Third Tripartite Meeting was to establish appropriate mechanisms to follow-up the implementation of the IPoE report and to resolve issues that had not been agreed at the two earlier meetings. They also made it clear that confidence building measures should be expressed in action and not in meaningless phrases that had nothing to do with the issues at hand.

The Ethiopian delegation underlined the fact that the Ethiopian Government had made an unprecedented move in opening up the GERD project, in providing over 150 study and design documents for the two downstream countries and providing opportunities of project site visits. The Government had also shown its commitment to openness by accepting the report of the IPoE and in implementing the recommendations related to dam engineering and safety in a timely manner as well as agreeing to jointly conduct the two studies recommended by the IPoE. All these are very practical confidence building measures. Anything similar on the part of Egypt has been lacking.

A recent publication of ‘Egypt Independent’ contains numerous deliberate distortions of what actually transpired during the 3rd meeting. It is regrettable and counterproductive for the Egyptian delegation to accuse Ethiopia of being “intransigent” or to make saber-rattling statements such as “all options are open”, talk of “escalatory measure” and threaten “[we] will not return to the negotiating table”. The comments also include in accurate and unsubstantiated assertions including: “the inadequacy of the technical studies carried out on GERDP”; “the risks to the resources of the Ethiopian people”; and “the Ethiopian government is facing problems financing the dam.”

The reports of those present at the Third Tripartite Meeting make it very clear who were actually being uncompromising and blocking the progress of the consultations by submitting unreasonable proposals. The meetings, of course, involve three countries, but the Egyptian delegation has also distorted the situation to suggest the differences were between Egypt and Ethiopia alone. As a matter of fact, in almost all the issues under discussion Ethiopia and Sudan had almost identical stances. They, together, appealed to Egypt to bring the discussions to an end and move forward to the main task of conducting the two recommended studies. Inevitably, one must wonder if there is a hidden agenda behind Egypt’s apparent determination to focus on two non-issues that have little to do with the main task of implementing the two studies recommended by the IPoE.

Ethiopia had been confident the empty rhetoric of the past government of Egypt would not be repeated but it seems the attitude implied in the phrase “all options are open” may still be the table. Egypt must denounce the option of conflict once and for all, and concentrate on promoting peace and cooperation. The self righteous attitude of some Egyptian authorities in attempting to remind the Ethiopian people of the risks involved in self-financing the project can only be described as disappointing. Equally, negative, and inaccurate, have been suggestions as some have asserted that the timing of the commissioning of the GERDP related to the turmoil in Egypt. There was no connection.

The contrast with Sudan is striking. Ethiopia fully acknowledges and appreciates the positive role that the Government and people of Sudan have played since the commissioning of the GERDP. It also appreciates the hospitality and kindness of Sudan in hosting all three Tripartite Meetings and the genuine effort and commitment of past and current Sudanese Ministers of Water Resources and Electricity in working for the success of these meetings. It should be added that the Third Tripartite Ministerial meeting held in Khartoum was concluded by agreeing to continue the consultations in order to finalize the setting up of a mechanism for the follow-up of the implementation of the recommendations of the IPoE. Ethiopia is committed to the success of these consultations.

The GERDP is a flagship project of the Government and people of Ethiopia. The project is based on detailed studies by internationally renowned consultants and the decision to commission the construction of the project was made after fully ascertaining the project’s technical and socio-economic viability. The People and Government of Ethiopia are financing the GERDP. The GERDP will be completed as planned and no one should be under any illusion that the resolve of the Ethiopian people will weaken or change.