Nile dam: clock running down on last-ditch attempt to reach deal

Negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan enter their final week with no signs of progress

(FILES) In this file photo taken on December 26, 2019, a general view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia. As Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan struggle to resolve a long-running dispute over Addis Ababa's mega-dam project on the Nile, some of their citizens are sparring online over their rights to the mighty waterway. For nearly a decade, multiple rounds of talks between Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum have failed to produce a deal over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). / AFP / EDUARDO SOTERAS
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A last-ditch, two-week window for Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to negotiate a deal on the operation of a massive Nile dam being built by Addis Ababa is nearing its end without any tangible progress, leaving one of Africa’s longest-simmering water disputes in danger of boiling over.

Representatives of the three nations met on Friday for an eighth consecutive day via videoconference and, according to the daily update put out by Egypt, there was no progress on the major outstanding issues.

This latest round in nearly a decade of talks on the issue has taken on more urgency because of Ethiopia’s insistence that it will start filling the dam’s reservoir even without a deal being reached. Egypt and Sudan oppose such a move, with Egyptian leaders saying Cairo would not never accept a status quo imposed on it.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, is being built on the Blue Nile near the Sudanese border. Ethiopia says its development depends on the $4.5 billion hydroelectric dam, which it says it is entitled to build as a sovereign nation. Egypt, which depends on the Nile for 90 per cent of its water needs, says it has no quarrel with Addis Ababa’s development ambitions and is ready to accept a reasonable level of impact on its share of the river’s water.

However, Egypt wants a legally-binding deal that ensures it does not go thirsty during lengthy spells of drought, and a reliable and effective mechanism for resolving future disputes. It says Ethiopia has baulked at both demands.

After years of siding with Ethiopia, Sudan has lately been voicing concern about the safety of the dam, given that a rupture in the structure would flood large swathes of its territory. While it welcomes the regulated flow of the Blue Nile, the river’s main tributary, to spare it the ruinous flooding it suffers, it says it needs to closely co-ordinate with Ethiopia to ensure that its own hydroelectric dams on the Blue Nile continue to operate effectively.

Energy-starved Sudan stands to gain cheap electricity from the 6,000-megawatt Ethiopian dam.

With seven days remaining until the two-week window ends, the positions of Egypt and Ethiopia appear to remain far apart, with Addis Ababa proposing that a deal should be concluded but with Egypt’s main technical concerns referred to a joint committee to settle at a later date.

“This was rejected by Egypt in both form and content,” the Egyptian statement on Friday said. “It’s not possible to refer to a committee the disputed points that touch on Egypt’s concerns about major issues representing the technical core of the agreement.”

Irrigation ministers from the three countries will resume discussions on Sunday.

It is not clear what the next step will be if the talks end without an agreement. Egypt has said it is open to international arbitration of the dispute, but Ethiopia insists the issue should be resolved within Africa.

It was Egypt’s idea to involve third parties in the negotiations as observers, with the latest round of talks attended by representatives of the United States, the European Union and South Africa, the current African Union chairman. Egypt also took the issue to the UN Security Council before the current talks began, but the 15-member agency did not adopt a resolution on the issue.

At times, the long-running dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia, each with a population of about 100 million, has played out against a backdrop of a bitter exchange of accusations.

Addis Ababa has accused Egypt of taking the lion’s share of the Nile waters without heeding the needs of other basin countries, and of clinging to outdated colonial-era deals that secured it the water. Egypt accuses Addis Ababa of violating international laws governing the use of transnational rivers and has warned that it regards its water share as an existential issue.

Egyptian officials have avoided any reference to military action to settle the dispute, but President Abdel Fatah El Sisi has recently declared without mentioning the dispute directly that his military was prepared to carry out missions outside the country.  However, pro-government social media influencers have been urging the government to strike the dam before it is filled.