Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have agreed to resume negotiations over the operation and filling of a massive Nile dam being built by Addis Ababa following a videoconference summit that brought together the leaders of the three nations under the auspices of the African Union.
Negotiators were given two weeks to reach a legally binding agreement that resolves all outstanding issues, like how to handle sustained drought and settle future disputes.
The decision to resume the negotiations is likely to defuse tensions that have steadily built up between the three nations since the collapse of the latest round of talks earlier this month, with media and officials in Addis Ababa and Cairo speaking of a fast deteriorating crisis that could lead to hostilities.
The latest round of negotiations ended with Ethiopia and Egypt blaming each other for their failure in a fast escalating war of words. Egypt, which fears the dam would reduce its vital share of the river’s waters, said at the time that Ethiopia did not want a legally binding deal and that it also rejected a binding process to settle future disputes or agree to effective measures to deal with future spells of drought.
For its part, Ethiopia said Egypt was clinging to outdated, colonial-era deals that gave it the lion’s share of the Nile’s water without heed or care for the interests of the other 10 river basin countries.
It described Cairo’s demands as an infringement on its sovereignty and threatened to go ahead next month with the first filling of the water reservoir behind the dam regardless of whether a deal was reached with Egypt and Sudan.
Addressing the summit’s participants, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi said the dam “has become a matter that worries every Egyptian and causes them a great deal of concern ... The fears of Egyptians have become greater when the talks made no progress.”
The decision to resume the negotiations came late on Friday during a lengthy videoconference summit meeting of the leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. The meeting was sponsored by the president of South Africa and current chairman of the African union, Cyril Ramaphosa. The leaders of Kenya, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo were also in attendance.
The meeting decided to form a joint committee bringing together technical and legal experts from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to produce a legally binding agreement within two weeks. Ethiopia has also agreed not to go ahead and start filling the dam next month, according to Mr El Sisi’s press spokesman. If true, that would be a significant concession would defuse heightened tension over the $4.5 billion dam.
Representatives of the United States, the European Union, the African Union and others would sit on the committee meetings, also to be held on videoconference.
A UN Security Council meeting to discuss the dispute would go ahead as scheduled on Monday, according to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. Egypt had written to the council this month complaining of Ethiopia’s handling of the negotiations, asking it to call for the resumption of the talks and warning of an impending threat to peace and security in the region.
Both Ethiopia and Sudan have separately confirmed that an agreement was reached to resume the negotiations, for which no date has yet been set.
A statement issued by the Ethiopian prime minister’s office on Saturday, however, was unclear on whether Addis Ababa has pledged not to start filling the dam before a deal is reached, as reported by Egypt.
Egypt, the most populous Arab nation with 100 million people, depends on the Nile for more than 90 per cent of its water needs. Mr El Sisi has said his country’s share of the Nile waters was an existential issue.
The dam, whose construction began in 2011 and is set to generate 6,000 megawatts on completion, is being built on the Blue Nile, which originates on the Ethiopian highlands and thunders down into eastern Sudan where it converges with the White Nile near the Sudanese capital Khartoum before flowing north through the deserts of northern Sudan, into Egypt and all the way to the Mediterranean.