Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia said Sunday they would resume talks this week over a contentious, massive Nile dam, even as Egypt accused Ethiopia of trying to hinder progress on a resolution to disagreements over the project.
The construction of the $4.6 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, which is over 70% complete and promises to provide much-needed electricity to Ethiopia’s 100 million people, has been a friction point between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, the three main Nile Basin countries.
The three countries have been holding talks for years, without reaching a deal. Those talks came to an acrimonious halt in February when Ethiopia rejected a U.S.-crafted deal and accused the Trump administration of siding with Egypt.
Egypt’s Irrigation Ministry on Saturday accused Ethiopia of bogging down the talks with a new proposal that it called “worrisome.”
“The Ethiopian proposal aims to scrap all the agreements and understandings reached by the three countries during the negotiations spanning nearly a decade,” said ministry spokesman Mohammed el-Sebaei.
Ethiopia wants to begin filling the dam’s reservoir in the coming weeks, but Egypt has raised concerns that filing the reservoir behind the dam too quickly could significantly reduce the amount of Nile water available to Egypt.
After months of deadlock, Sudanese, Egyptian and Ethiopian water and irrigation ministers resumed talks last week, with observers attending from the U.S., the European Union and South Africa, which is the current head of the African Union.
Sudan’s Irrigation Ministry said Saturday’s talks focused on technical matters of the operation of the dam and the filling of its massive reservoir during rainy seasons, droughts and prolonged droughts. It said it will craft a draft paper based on Egyptian and Ethiopian notes to be discussed on Monday.
In a statement, Egypt’s Irrigation Ministry said last week’s talks revealed the differences that remain with Ethiopia.
The ministry said the contentious issues included Ethiopia’s “total” rejection of addressing technical issues related to the mitigation of droughts. It also said Ethiopia rejected “the inclusion of a legally binding dispute resolution mechanism,” it said.
“Egypt reaffirmed that these are essential components in any agreement that relates to an existential matter that affects the lives of over 150 million citizens of Egypt and Sudan,” the statement said.
Ethiopia’s Water and Energy ministry said the talks have achieved progress and they will result in “finalizing the process with a win-win outcome.”
It said the three countries reached an understanding on the first stage of filling and the approach to drought management rules.
The Ethiopian ministry however said “any attempt to confuse the international community or campaign to exert maximum pressure on Ethiopia to accept colonial based treaties …. is unacceptable.”
Egypt has received the lion’s share of the Nile’s waters under decades-old agreements seen by other Nile basin nations as unfair. Past Egyptian presidents have warned that any attempt to build dams along the Nile will be met with military action, but Egypt’s current leader, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, has ruled that out.
El-Sebaei said Ethiopia rejected a Sudanese proposal last week that could be a basis for negotiations between the three countries. Instead, Addis Ababa introduced its proposal that included its vision for the dam’s operation.
He said Ethiopia lacks the “political will” to compromise on a deal, and wants Egypt and Sudan to “abandon their water rights and to recognize Ethiopia’s right to use the Blue Nile waters unilaterally and to fill and operate the Renaissance Dam in accordance with its vision.”
“The proposal is not legally and technically sound,” he told reporters in Cairo. “It is a clear attempt to impose a fait accompli on my downstream country.”
Both Egypt and Sudan rejected the Ethiopian proposal, he said.
The Ethiopian ministry said el-Sebaei’s comments were “regrettable.” It said that if the ongoing negotiations failed it would be because of “Egypt’s obstinacy to maintain a colonial based water allocation agreement that denies Ethiopia and all the upstream countries their natural and legitimate rights.”
The Blue Nile flows from Ethiopia into Sudan where it joins the White Nile near the capital, Khartoum, to form the Nile River. Eighty-five percent of Nile waters originate in Ethiopia from the Blue Nile, which is one of the Nile’s two main tributaries.
Egypt last week called for Ethiopia to “clearly declare that it had no intention of unilaterally filling the reservoir” and that a deal that was prepared by the U.S. and the World Bank in February serves as the starting point of the resumed negotiations.
The U.S. had crafted a draft deal in February after more than four months of talks, and said the final testing and filling of the dam “should not take place without an agreement.”
The deadlock over the dam became increasingly bitter in recent months, with Egypt saying it would use “all available means” to defend “the interests” of its people.
Ethiopia’s deputy army chief on Friday said his country will strongly defend itself and will not negotiate its sovereignty over the disputed dam.