Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 6 December 2020

Ethiopia's Nile dam talks resume amid renewed tension after Trump comments

Egypt and Sudan have so far failed to persuade Ethiopia to commit to legally binding deal on running dam

Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia resumed negotiations on Tuesday over the impact of a huge Nile dam, ending a seven-week hiatus but taking place amid renewed tension.

The talks over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam were called by South African President and current African Union chair Cyril Ramaphosa and was held online.

Mr Ramaphosa’s office on Monday said the decision to resume the talks followed “extensive” consultations with leaders of the three nations, reflecting their political to reach an agreement.

Ethiopia began building the dam on the Blue Nile about a decade ago at a cost of nearly $5 billion.

On completion, it will produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, satisfying domestic needs with the surplus destined for export.

Downstream Egypt and Sudan fear the dam would harm their vital Nile-related interests.

Egypt’s Irrigation Ministry on Tuesday said foreign and water ministers from the three nations took part in the talks, which will continue for a week.

Representatives from the three nations will work on a draft that brings together the views of all as the basis for a discussion on a final agreement, it said.

The are taking place after US President Donald Trump said Egypt could end up “blowing up that dam” if the talks do not yield results.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed did not address the comments directly, but a statement released the next day said his nation would not “cave in to aggression of any kind".

"Ethiopians have never kneeled to obey their enemies but to respect their friends,” Mr Abiy said.

He said threats of any kind to resolve the dispute were “misguided, unproductive and clear violations of international law.”

Egypt has never formally suggested the use of force to resolve the dispute with Ethiopia, with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi insisting talks were the only way to break the deadlock and reach a deal.

Mr El Sisi, who has spent billions of dollars on importing the latest weapons systems, in July launched a shot across the bow.

“No one dares eat the lion’s food. Be lions. Being a lion is not just empty talk," he said that month, the last time he spoke at length about the dispute.

"Our right is not just to water but to life. No one dares encroach on us, on our interests or our national security.”

Ethiopia has on several occasions stated its readiness to defend the dam against attack.

Egypt remained quiet about Mr Trump’s remark, made during a weekend call with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in front of reporters at the White House.

“Egypt has absolutely nothing to do with this. This is between President Trump and Ethiopia,” said Amr Adeeb, a prominent Egyptian media figure who is close to the government, on the Saudi-owned channel MBC Misr.

“He did not say that Egypt threatened to do that."

Egypt and Sudan have for years been trying to no avail to persuade Ethiopia to commit to a legally binding deal on the running of the dam, including a mechanism to deal with drought years and resolving future disputes.

Ethiopia has said that such a deal amounted to interference in its internal affairs.

Egypt depends on the Nile for nearly all its water needs. A reduced share of could cost it hundreds of thousands of jobs and disrupt its delicate food balance.

Sudan is worried that a breach in the dam would flood large parts of its eastern regions, and that lack of co-operation with the Ethiopians on running their dam could harm its own hydroelectric dams on the Blue Nile.

With less than two weeks left before the US presidential elections, the value and effect of Mr Trump’s comments on the dam could be insignificant.

He is trailing his Democratic rival Joe Biden in opinion polls but could still pull off a surprise win, as he did in 2016.

“Things would have been very different if the Trump administration had taken such a strong position a few months ago,” said Hany Raslan, an African affairs expert from Cairo’s Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

"But it came with only days before the US election and that diminishes the possibility it could change things on the ground."

But Mr Raslan said the comment “amounted to a very strong denunciation of the intransigent Ethiopian position with the use of language that’s unprecedented in its clarity”.

Updated: October 28, 2020 04:46 AM

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