Technical teams seeking to end the conflict over Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam along the river Nile appeared headed for a major breakthrough as the second round of talks progressed in Cairo, Egypt on Tuesday.
Observers said Ethiopia and Egypt had ceded ground on their divergent demands and were now looking at how to effect the findings of the tripartite technical committee (Sudan is part of the talks) that led to a falling out in Khartoum in October.
The collapse of the talks led to Egypt and Ethiopia accusing each other of obstinacy amid talk that the conflict could escalate to a full blown war between the two countries.
Russia and then the United States had to intervene at the invitation of Egypt to have the teams return to the negotiating table last month and settle on January 15 as the target date for reaching consensus on resolving the dispute. The date is subject to review, however.
Ethiopia’s water, irrigation and energy minister Seleshi Bekele said Addis Ababa was working to have the dam filled over four to seven years.
This was a pull down from its earlier push for three years and in line with recommendations of the technical teams before differences arose in Khartoum where Egypt demanded the dam be filled over a longer time with a uniform volume of water being excised annually.
The committee had recommended that the amount diverted within the 4-7 year period would also be based on hydrological patterns. Egypt requires a guaranteed 40 billion cubic meters of Nile water a year.
"We are facing a real opportunity to achieve tangible progress in the Renaissance Dam negotiations," Egyptian Water Resources Minister Mohamed Abdel-Ati said at a joint press conference before the talks started on Monday.
Sudanese Irrigation Minister Yassir Abbas said that the talks focused on technical issues related to the dam with a view to address concerns of all parties.
Egypt’s fears existential risks to its economy which is heavily dependent on the Nile if the dam was filled haphazardly while Ethiopia’s fears the $4 billion dam would have huge developmental costs if it does not come to full operation sooner.
“We have had talks and are on the right track,” Mr Abbas said, adding that the countries were also exploring opportunities for broader co-operation between them as well.
Ethiopia began building the 6,400 megawatt Renaissance Dam in 2011 and hopes to generate electricity from it by the end of next year before its full operational in 2022.
Sudan, through which the Nile also passes expects to buy electricity from the dam, which would also partially mitigate flooding from the River Nile.
Mr Bekele said the three countries were targeting to distribute the Nile River water properly through joint action. "The world is waiting for us to end the crisis," Bekele said.
Two more meetings of the water ministers are planned under the Washington timelines. If they do not reach an agreement, the talks would be escalated to the heads of government—Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed.
The Cairo meeting was a follow up to the one held in Addis Ababa last month where the countries’ positions on filling up the dam were reviewed in the presence of United States and World Bank observers.