Egypt calls for international mediator as Nile dam talks break down

Cairo is worried that Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam, which is due to begin operating in 2020, will reduce its share of the river's waters

FILE - In this June 28, 2013 file photo, the Blue Nile river flows near the site of the planned Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam near Assosa in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia, near Sudan, some 800 kilometers (500 miles) from the capital Addis Ababa. Irrigation ministers from three key Nile Basin countries wrapped up a two-day meeting Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019 in Sudan’s capital without agreeing on differences over Ethiopia’s soon-to-be-finished Blue Nile dam, with Egypt calling for international mediation to help reach a “fair and balanced” agreement. (AP Photo/Elias Asmare, File)
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A seething Egypt said negotiations with Ethiopia over the impact of Addis Ababa's soon-to-be-finished Nile dam on its vital share of the river's water had reached a deadlock and called for international mediation to resolve the dispute, a suggestion that the Ethiopians swiftly rejected.

Egypt is alarmed that the Grand Renaissance Dam, which is scheduled to start operating next year, will reduce its share of the Nile’s waters when a massive reservoir behind the structure is filled.

Mostly desert and depending on the river for more than 90 per cent of its water needs, Egypt has acknowledged the dam's importance to the development of Ethiopia while arguing that co-operation between the two countries could reduce the damage it is expected to suffer to manageable levels .

However, Egypt has accused Ethiopia in recent weeks of intransigence over the issue and President Abdel-Fatah El Sisi last month took the unprecedented step of taking the dispute to the world stage, mentioning it in an address to the UN General Assembly and calling for international intervention.

Later in New York, he ominously said Egypt would not accept a unilateral approach by Ethiopia regarding the operation of the dam.

Ethiopia already has rejected an Egyptian proposal made earlier this year to involve World Bank experts in the dispute and later described Cairo’s suggestions on operating the dam and filling the reservoir behind it as an “infringement of its sovereignty”.

The Blue Nile, which originates on the Ethiopian highlands and on which the dam is built, accounts for about 85 per cent of the Nile waters reaching Egypt.

The Blue Nile meets the White Nile, whose origins are in central Africa, on the outskirts of Sudan’s capital Khartoum and then flows through the deserts of northern Sudan and into Egypt, all the way to the Mediterranean coast.

“The Egyptian state and all its institutions are committed to the protection of the country’s water rights in the Nile river,” Mr El Sisi tweeted late on Saturday following the inconclusive end to the latest round of negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan in Khartoum.

The negotiations, said the Egyptian leader, did not produce “any positive developments” and Egypt will take measures to protect its share of the Nile waters “within the boundaries of international law.”

“The immortal river will continue to run vigorously, linking the north to the south with the bonds of history and geography,” Mr El Sisi wrote cryptically.

To Ethiopia, whose population of 100 million matches Egypt’s, the dam’s hydraulic power station will meet the country’s domestic demand for electricity.

It also has become a symbol of national pride that, when completed, would be a showpiece that matches the country’ growing influence in the region.

To successive Ethiopian leaders, Egypt takes an unfairly large share of the Nile waters – 55 billion cubic metres compared to Sudan’s 18.5 billion cubic metres – and has been indifferent to the development needs of fellow Nile basin nations.

Ethiopia on Saturday blamed Egypt for the failure of the Khartoum talks, claiming that Egypt’s delegation applied “disruptive tactics to halt the hydrological, environmental and social impact assessment” on the project.

It said Egypt’s proposal for international mediation was an “unwarranted denial of the progress in the trilateral technical dialogue” that “goes against the consent and wishes of Ethiopia and Sudan.”

Commenting on the latest round of talks, Egypt's Water Ministry issued a harshly worded statement late on Saturday, accusing Addis Ababa of rejecting the entire set of proposals put forward by Cairo on the operating of the dam and the time table  for filling the reservoir.

"The negotiations reached a dead end as a result of Ethiopia's intransigence and its rejection of all proposals that safeguard Egypt's water interests and avoid causing grave damage to Egypt," said the ministry.

“In view of the negotiations reaching a dead end, Egypt is demanding … the participation of an international party to mediate between the three nations.”

It did not specify who that international party is likely to be.

Sudan’s irrigation minister, Yasser Abbas, told reporters after the talks in Khartoum that “progress” has been made but that differences remained over filling the reservoir and the operating rules of the dam. He did not elaborate.

The three countries would continue their talks, he said without giving a time frame.