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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 1 March 2021

Sudan returns to Nile dam talks but breakthrough remains elusive

Khartoum walked away from talks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam last week

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has been a source of discord for years. AP
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has been a source of discord for years. AP

Sudan has ended its boycott of negotiations with Egypt and Ethiopia over a disputed Nile dam being built by Addis Ababa, but the chances of a breakthrough in the prolonged talks remain slim.

The latest round of talks ended in disagreement on Sunday when Sudan insisted that African Union experts be given a greater role in finding an agreement.

A statement by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said both Egypt and Ethiopia rejected the Sudanese proposal, arguing that the experts were not qualified to carry out the task.

“The African Union experts are not specialised in the engineering and technical fields relevant to managing water resources and operating dams,” said the statement.

Sudan stepped back from talks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on January 4 to highlight what it said was a lack of response to its request for a bilateral meeting with African Union water experts.

"Saturday’s meeting was held in response to Sudan’s demand that African Union experts are given a greater role in facilitating the negotiations between Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia with the aim of drafting an agreement that combines requests made by the three nations,” said Sudan’s water ministry in a press release.

Khartoum’s demand was met on Saturday night when its delegates met with the experts for technical discussions designed to narrow differences between the three nations.

Foreign and water ministers from the three Nile basin nations are due to return to the AU meet later on Sunday. All meetings are taking place virtually because of the pandemic.

After nearly a year of AU sponsorship of the negotiations, some analysts have become sceptical of whether the pan-African organisation, chaired by South Africa, has the clout to push through a deal.

“Will Ethiopia accept the views of the African Union experts? I doubt that very much,” said Hany Raslan, an expert on African affairs from Egypt’s Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

“The negotiations have become absurd and the African Union has neither a carrot nor a stick to use.”

When completed, the Gerd will be Africa’s largest dam and will eventually generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity. Ethiopia says it will pluck millions of its citizens out of poverty, energise its economy and make the country a key exporter of electricity in Africa.

The Gerd has also become a national symbol of unity in the ethnically and religiously diverse nation, with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government amplifying Egypt’s colonial past and the cultural divide between North African nations and those of the Sahel.

In a mostly symbolic but significant move, Ethiopia on Saturday laid the foundations for a new, albeit small, Nile dam in its Amhara region, making good on its repeated pledges to build a series of dams on the Nile to make more water available for agriculture.

The new dam will cost $125 million and have a reservoir of 55 million cubic metres of water, a government statement said. The Amhara region includes Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, which contributes two thirds of the water of the Nile proper.

Egypt, for its part, sees the Gerd as a threat and, with fellow downstream nation Sudan, has been trying for a decade to persuade Ethiopia to enter a legally-binding deal on the dam’s operation and mechanisms to resolve future disputes and persistent droughts.

Egypt relies on the Nile for more than 90 per cent of its water needs and 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 to its sensitive food supply.

For Sudan, the absence of co-ordination on the operation of the dam built a short distance less than 20 kilometres 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.

Ethiopia favours recommendations, rather than a binding deal, on the operation of the dam and the handling of disputes and droughts.

It has said it intended to go ahead with a second filling of the large reservoir behind the Gerd with or without a deal reached with Egypt and Sudan. It also seeks to broaden the negotiations to involve other Nile Basin nations to negotiate a new water-sharing deal to replace colonial-era agreements.

The seemingly deadlocked negotiations threaten to undermine stability in the region.

A dormant border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia has flared up in recent weeks with deadly skirmishes.

Both nations have reportedly been amassing troops on their border in anticipation of a fresh round of clashes, which will probably be deadlier and involve more firepower.

Egypt and Ethiopia, on the other hand, are engaged in a war of words. Ethiopia’s chief diplomat in Cairo was summoned by the government last week to explain comments by the foreign ministry spokesman in Addis Ababa that Cairo described as unacceptable.

Egypt has said it wants to resolve the dispute through diplomacy, but made clear it would not accept a de facto situation created by Ethiopia. It has not entirely ruled out military action although authorities have repeatedly called on the pro-government media not to speculate on that course of action.

It has been months since President Abdel Fattah El Sisi spoken publicly on the disputed dam, adding to the secrecy shrouding Egypt’s future options in dealing with the dispute. Time, in the meantime, is running out for South Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo takes over the leadership of the AU in February and it could be weeks if not months before its officials and experts familiarise themselves with the intricate details of the negotiations.

“Egypt will not budge. Offering any concessions will cause the country great damage,” Mr Raslan said.

Updated: January 11, 2021 07:35 AM

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