Egypt and Ethiopia agree to resume Nile dam talks, sources say

Next round of negotiations said to be outcome of behind-the-scenes mediation by Russia and South Africa

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Guba, Ethiopia. AFP
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Egypt and Ethiopia are set to resume negotiations on the disputed Nile dam being built by Addis Ababa –which Cairo sees as a threat to its vital share of the river's water – sources told The National on Monday.

Ethiopia and downstream nations Egypt and Sudan last held talks over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd) in April 2021 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Those broke down when Ethiopia rejected suggestions by Cairo and Khartoum to allow representatives of the US, EU and the World Bank to join the African Union in mediating a settlement of the decade-old dispute.

Sources familiar with the process, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the agreement in principle by Ethiopia and Egypt to resume talks has followed months of mediation behind the scenes by Russia and South Africa, two countries wielding considerable leverage in Addis Ababa while maintaining close relations with Cairo.

The sources gave no details on the mediation but said both sides expressed a willingness to make concessions to end the long-running dispute. They said no date had been set for the resumption of the talks or where they would be held but added they would take place within months.

It was not immediately clear, however, whether Sudan, mired since April in a ruinous war between its army and a rival paramilitary, would participate.

A resumption of negotiations would follow Ethiopia's announcement last month that it was preparing for a fourth filling of the dam. Addis Ababa is not co-ordinating the move with either Cairo or Khartoum.

Unconfirmed reports said Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed met in Paris last month on the sidelines of the Summit for a New Global Financing pact, hosted by President Emmanuel Macron.

Mr Ahmed is also expected in Cairo on Thursday to attend a meeting of Sudan's neighbours, hosted by Mr El Sisi, to find ways to end the war in Egypt's southern neighbour.

Egypt maintains that the dam would reduce its share of Nile water, wiping out hundreds of thousands of agricultural jobs and disrupting its delicate food balance at a time of rising prices and a rapid increase in its own population.

Egypt's response to the dam has varied over time, from military threats to assurances that only diplomacy would end the dispute.

Both Egypt and Sudan want Ethiopia to enter a legally binding agreement on the operation of the $5 billion dam, built on the Blue Nile – the river's main tributary – about 20km from the border with Sudan.

But Ethiopia insists that recommendations, rather than a binding deal, should suffice. It has occasionally accused Egypt of meddling in its internal affairs or seeking to destabilise it. It has also sought to reassure Egypt and Sudan that no harm would come to them as a result of the dam.

The sources said one avenue to be explored when negotiations resume is involving all Nile basin countries in the process, with a view to reaching a comprehensive deal that goes beyond the Gerd dispute to produce a framework that meets the water and development aspirations of each party.

In that vein, the negotiators are also likely to touch on the creation of a regional body bringing together representatives of all 11 Nile basin nations and mandating it to deal with river-related issues such as water conservation, co-ordinating the construction of dams and mitigating the effects of drought, the sources added.

Separately, Egypt will present a comprehensive technical plan to operate the Gerd, using expertise it has gained from running its own hydroelectric project, the Soviet-built High Dam in southern Egypt, according to the sources.

Egypt would also offer to link Ethiopia to its national power grid to help the Horn of Africa nation's ambitious development plans to bring millions of its people out of poverty, said the sources.

For its part, Egypt, one of the world's driest nations, has spent billions of pounds in recent years on projects to conserve Nile waters. It has built desalination plants to meet the needs of coastal cities on the Red and Mediterranean seas and introduced new, more efficient irrigation systems.

It has also built plants to treat irrigation water for repeat use and, in a bid to discourage waste, lifted state subsidies on potable water.

Updated: July 10, 2023, 5:32 PM