Nile dam: Sudan insists on separate talks with AU water experts

Khartoum seeks more technical inputs as a condition for returning to talks on Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

20 July 2020, Ethiopia, Bameza: The overview shows the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The future largest dam in Africa has been the cause of dispute between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan for years. The countries have now overcome a major hurdle: The reservoir has been filled. But the problem is far from being solved. Water will become increasingly scarce worldwide in the future - and tensions over water resources such as the Nile will rise. Photo by: Yirga Mengistu/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Sudan will return to negotiations with Egypt and Ethiopia on a Nile dam Addis Ababa is building but only if its demand for a greater role for African Union water experts is met, the country’s water minister said.

Sudan boycotted ministerial talks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or Gerd, on Monday to protest against what it said was lack of response to its request for a bilateral meeting with the AU experts. Its boycott came a day after the talks resumed following a month-long break.

The foreign and water ministers of the three nations are scheduled to return on Sunday to the AU-sponsored negotiations, which have been held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Addressing a news conference in the Sudanese capital Khartoum late on Thursday, Sudan’s irrigation and water minister Yasser Abbas said his country was not prepared to be part of “indefinite” negotiations that don’t yield “valuable” results and solutions.

He said failure to grant Sudan a separate meeting between its delegates and the AU experts constituted a breach of what had been agreed between the three nations and South Africa, which represents the pan-African organisation in its capacity as the current chairman.

Instead of a bilateral meeting with the experts, Mr Abbas said, Sudan received an invitation for a plenary meeting bringing together delegates from Egypt, Ethiopia and the AU specialists.

“This does not just waste time, it also contributes to widening the gap between the parties involved,” Mr Abbas said of the AU invitation to hold tripartite meetings, which were abandoned when Sudan decided on January 4 to boycott the process.

“Sudan is waiting for a schedule of [bilateral] meetings between the three nations and the experts before the January 10 meeting. We remain committed to the negotiations under AU sponsorship once the mechanism is altered to give a bigger role to the experts.”

Sudan believes that involving the experts more in the negotiations will produce technical recommendations that could narrow the gap between the three nations on outstanding issues such as three-way co-ordination on the running of the dam and managing future droughts.

The almost completed hydroelectric dam is viewed as an existential threat by Egypt which, together with fellow downstream nation Sudan, have been trying for a decade to persuade Ethiopia to enter a legally-binding deal that would also apply to future dams Addis Ababa says it intends to build farther upstream.

The Nile provides more than 90 per cent of Egypt’s water needs. It fears that a significant drop in its share of the river’s water as a result of the dam would mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs and the disruption of its sensitive food supply.

For Sudan, the absence of co-ordination on the operation of the dam built a short distance away from its border could potentially spell disaster for its eastern breadbasket region through flooding and the disablement of its own hydroelectric dams on the Nile.

There was no immediate reaction to the Sudanese minister's comments from Cairo or Addis Ababa.

Mr Abbas repeated his country’s concerns over the dam, which will be the largest such structure in Africa and generate about 6,000 megawatts when completed. Ethiopia says the dam will pluck millions of its citizens out of poverty, energise its economy and make the country a key exporter of electricity in Africa.

My Abbas repeated earlier warnings that Sudanese lives would be at risk if Ethiopia went ahead with a second filling of the dam's reservoir without first reaching an agreement on the project’s operation. He said the second filling, expected in July, would involve 13.5 billion cubic metres, nearly three times the first filling last summer. Ethiopia did not give Egypt or Sudan prior notice of the first filling, angering the two Afro-Arab nations and disrupting the operation of potable water stations in Khartoum.