Egypt and Sudan pull out of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam talks

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Egypt and Sudan have pulled out of talks with Ethiopia over a disputed Nile dam being built by Addis Ababa, with Cairo saying they were protesting against the Horn of Africa nation’s breach of agreements reached by the three nations’ leaders and their irrigation ministers.

The decision by Egypt and Sudan to “suspend” their participation in the talks was announced by Cairo late on Tuesday. It was the latest twist in a decade of fruitless and protracted negotiations between the three nations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or Gerd, a nearly completed hydroelectric facility expected to generate 6,000 megawatts.

Downstream Egypt and Sudan have been striving to persuade upstream Ethiopia to commit to a legally binding deal on the operation and filling of the dam as well as a mechanism for resolving future disputes and to ensure a sufficient flow of water during sustained drought.

A mainly desert nation that depends on the Nile for almost all of its water needs, Egypt fears that the dam would reduce its vital share of the river’s water, costing it hundreds of thousands of jobs and disrupting its delicate food balance. 

Energy-starved Sudan stands to gain from buying cheap electricity when the dam is fully functioning, but it fears that any structural damage in the Gerd, built about 30 kilometres from its border, could mean devastating floods in its eastern region.

Ethiopia maintains that the dam would alleviate the abject poverty of 65 million of its estimated 110 million people, spur the nation’s development and allow it to export electricity to its neighbours.

The latest round of talks, held over video conference, were on their third day when Sudan and Egypt exited. They were also attended by observers from the United States, the EU and the African Union.

Egyptian government said Cairo and Khartoum decided to pull out of the talks to carry out “internal” consultations after Ethiopia’s water minister presented a draft to his Sudanese and Egyptian counterparts outlining guidelines for the filling of the Gerd. The draft, it said, did not include regulations on the operation, was not legally binding and did not include a process for settling future disputes.

The draft breached an agreement reached during a meeting on Monday between water ministers from the three nations on the need to focus on resolving differences before another ministerial meeting scheduled for Thursday.

“As a result, Egypt and Sudan have requested the suspension of the talks to carry out internal consultations on the Ethiopian draft,” the Egyptian government said, explaining that the surprise proposals violated what had been agreed on during a mini African summit held on July 21 and Monday’s ministerial meeting.

Ethiopia last month carried out the first phase of filling the reservoir behind the dam despite opposition from Cairo and Khartoum who wanted an agreement to be reached first on the operation of the dam.

The two later agreed to narrow the scope of the negotiations down to reaching an agreement on the operation and filling of the dam and leave a more comprehensive deal on sharing the river’s water for future negotiations.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi last week likened the negotiations over the Gerd to a battle that will continue for a long time and delivered stern, albeit implicit, warnings to Ethiopia.

“No one dares eat the lion’s food. Be lions. Being a lion is not just empty talk,” he said, addressing Egyptians. “Our right is not just to water but to life.”