Egypt and South Sudan hold talks on Ethiopian dam dispute

Both countries believe Addis Ababa's hydroelectric dam will reduce their share of Nile water

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, wearing protective face masks, stand as they listen to national anthems in Juba, South Sudan, November 28, 2020. REUTERS/Jok Solomun
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South Sudanese President Salva Kiir was in Cairo on Sunday for talks with Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah El Sisi, with Ethiopia's controversial Nile dam high on the agenda.

The talks focused on the rapidly growing relations between their two Nile Basin nations and the dispute involving Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the dam.

Mr Kiir has been a frequent visitor to Cairo since his Mr El Sisi became president in 2014. And in November, Mr El Sisi became the first Egyptian leader to visit South Sudan in decades.

Mr El Sisi has made close ties with sub-Saharan nations a cornerstone of his foreign policy, travelling there more frequently than all of his predecessors combined and pushing for close trade and political ties.

“Egypt will continue to be a source of strong support for our brothers in South Sudan and will maintain its efforts at all levels to reinforce peace, stability and development there,” he said in televised comments after the talks.

He pledged to help South Sudan with new development projects, overhauling power stations and offering its students more scholarships in Egypt.

Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam is seen as it undergoes construction work on the river Nile in Guba Woreda, Benishangul Gumuz Region, Ethiopia September 26, 2019. Picture taken September 26, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Egypt has been engaged in a drive to secure the support or good-will of nations in the East and Horn of Africa regions.

In doing so, it has tried to put pressure on Ethiopia and counter the image Addis Ababa is portraying of Cairo being oblivious to the development needs of fellow Nile Basin countries and insisting on keeping its lion’s share of the river’s waters under colonial-era agreements.

The White Nile, which originates in central Africa, runs through South Sudan before it continues north into Sudan, where it joins the much bigger Blue Nile on the outskirts of Khartoum.

Together, they make their way across northern Sudan and through Egypt all the way to the Mediterranean.

The Blue Nile, the source of which is in Ethiopia, accounts for more than 80 per cent of the Nile’s water.

Cairo’s diplomatic drive in Africa has led to military co-operation agreements with Sudan, Djibouti and Uganda. It has also led to closer ties with Kenya, Ethiopia’s neighbour to the south.

Egypt has been providing training programmes to sub-Saharan professionals, and offering medical assistance and emergency aid to the region's countries.

It has built a dam on a Nile tributary in Tanzania, which it holds up as an example of co-operation with fellow Nile Basin nations.

Egypt fears that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will significantly reduce its share of the Nile water on which its 100 million people depend for nearly all of their fresh water needs.

Ethiopia insists that this will not be the case, and that it needs the dam to lift millions of its people out of poverty.

The Blue Nile in Khartoum, Sudan. Photo: AFP.

A decade of on-and-off talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have not produced the legally binding agreement demanded by Cairo and Khartoum on the filling and operation of the dam.

The last round broke down acrimoniously in April and no new date has been set for its resumption, despite a recent appeal by the UN Security Council for the three nations to return to the negotiating table.

Mr El Sisi on Sunday repeated Egypt’s demand for a legally binding agreement, saying a settlement of the dispute would strengthen stability and bolster regional co-operation.

Mr Kiir also spoke after Sunday’s talks, saying he received assurances during a visit to Addis Ababa in August that negotiations over the dam would resume in October.

“When I went back recently, there was nothing. It did not happen,” he said.

He said Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was occupied with fighting the “opposition", a reference to the war against separatist rebels in the northern region of Tigray.

The close relations that bind Ethiopia and South Sudan predate the 2011 secession of the latter from Sudan.

Ethiopia served as the lifeline of South Sudanese rebels fighting the Sudanese government in the civil wars of 1955-1972 and 1983-2005.

Updated: October 11, 2021, 3:21 AM