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Egypt and Sudan suspend Nile dam talks in protest at Ethiopian proposal

Cairo and Khartoum say Addis Ababa has repeatedly presented proposals whose provisions would not be binding
An aerial view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River in Guba, northwest Ethiopia (AFP)

Egypt and Sudan on Tuesday suspended their participation in talks with Ethiopia over its Renaissance Dam project after Addis Ababa presented a proposal that did not meet the demands of the two downstream countries. 

The decision follows a tripartite meeting between technical and legal committees representing the three countries earlier on Tuesday, attended by observers from the United States, the European Union and the African Union. 

The three Nile Basin countries have been negotiating for nearly a decade to reach an agreement on outstanding issues related to the impact of the $4.6bn Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on their water security. 

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Egypt and Sudan insist that binding agreements are needed to secure their future interests and water security, and must be agreed prior to the filling process. 

Egypt’s Ministry of Water Resources said that Ethiopia presented a proposal that did not include provisions about the binding nature of a future agreement and an international conflict resolution mechanism, two of the most concerning issues for Egypt in the talks. 

“Just before the meeting was held, the Ethiopian minister of water addressed a letter to his counterparts in both Egypt and Sudan, accompanied by draft guidelines and rules for filling the Renaissance Dam that do not include any operating rules or any elements that reflect the mandatory nature of the agreement, in addition to the absence of a legal mechanism to settle disputes,” the ministry said in a statement. 

Sudan fears

Meanwhile, the Sudanese irrigation ministry said the latest Ethiopian position raises new fears regarding the talks. It reiterated that the dam remains a safety hazard for the African country.

"[We] stress the seriousness of the risks that the dam represents for Sudan and its people, including environmental and social risks, and for the safety of millions of residents along the banks of the Blue Nile... which reinforces the need to reach a comprehensive agreement covering both filling and operation," the Sudanese irrigation ministry said.

Ethiopia said that Egypt and Sudan have requested the deferral of talks until they review its new proposal. 

GERD

On Monday, Egypt and Sudan had warned of the consequences of the unilateral filling of the dam, and called for a swift and binding agreement regarding the filling and operation of the project. 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had said earlier in July that his country had already achieved its first-year target for filling the reservoir, thanks to a heavy rainy season.

A lifeline for millions

Egypt relies on the Nile water for the vast majority of its water consumption and is concerned that the filling of the dam will exacerbate a water shortage crisis in the event of a prolonged drought. 

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Ethiopia, the source of 85 percent of the Nile's water and the manager of the GERD, is primarily concerned about its own pressing energy needs and the potential of the dam to lift millions of its people out of poverty. 

Once operational it will provide much-needed electricity for the country's nearly 115 million population, the majority of whom are not currently connected to the grid.

Sudan, Ethiopia's northern neighbour, has concerns regarding the potential impact of the construction of the dam on its own dams, and for the safety of its population and farmland from flooding that could result from faults in the construction or operation of the GERD. 

The speed of the filling of the dam will potentially have an immediate effect on Egypt.

If it takes five years to fill the dam, it will reduce Egypt's water supply by 36 percent and destroy half of Egypt’s farmland, according to the Egyptian government.