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Nile dam talks stall again amid Egyptian-Ethiopian dispute

Egypt has addressed a letter to the UN Security Council over Ethiopia’s plan to begin filling the Renaissance dam without prior notification of both Cairo and Sudan, further complicating talks to resolve the dispute.

CAIRO — Facing Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to begin filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s reservoir before coming to a full agreement with Egypt over a storage and operation mechanism in the dam, Cairo has taken a new diplomatic path, briefing the UN Security Council members May 1. It stated in an all-inclusive letter all of the unsuccessful diplomatic efforts and paths taken regarding the dam in light of Ethiopia’s intransigence and unilateral decision to fill the dam.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s letter to the Security Council president for May, Estonia’s Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu, clearly states, “Ethiopia announcing its intention to seize the Blue Nile waters to fill the dam’s reservoir in July 2020 poses a serious threat to the region’s peace and security. Filling the dam’s reservoir, which is being promoted as the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, would jeopardize the water security, food security, and indeed, the very existence of over 100 million Egyptians, who are entirely dependent on the Nile River for their livelihood.”

After the letter was circulated among the Security Council members, Reinsalu contacted both Shoukry and Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew by phone. In a May 6 statement, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry announced that Egypt and Estonia agreed to work in favor of international peace and security and stressed the importance of involving Ethiopia in order to reach a just and balanced settlement of this dossier and sustain security and stability in the region. 

The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry’s statement indicated May 8 that the two sides — Andargachew and Reinsalu — stressed the importance of wisely resolving the conflict over filling the reservoir and operating the dam between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, without giving any further details. 

A well-informed government official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Egypt’s letter to the UN Security Council is part of the diplomatic moves that [Egypt] began since Ethiopia withdrew from the Washington-sponsored negotiations in February, and refused to sign the comprehensive agreement on the filling and operating of the dam.” 

The source added, “It has become clear to the international community that since the construction of the dam was announced in 2011, Egypt has taken all peaceful diplomatic paths to resolve the disputes through negotiations, based on cooperation, keenness to bring about common interests and benefits, and understanding of Ethiopia's demands for development without harming the Egyptian or Sudanese interests.”

The source noted, "There are diplomatic calls by international partners for Egypt to file an official complaint to the Security Council following the briefing on the current situation and in light of the threat the Ethiopian unilateral decision to fill the dam’s reservoir poses on the region’s peace and security.” 

He added, “Egypt is still taking all diplomatic means to resolve the crisis and convince Ethiopia — via international mediators — of signing the Washington comprehensive deal.” 

The official said, “Following Egypt's letter to the UN Security Council, Ethiopia asked that Egypt and Sudan sign a partial agreement involving the first [stage of the] filling. Egypt will not agree on a partial agreement after a comprehensive agreement involving the filling and storage operations was actually reached and brokered by the United States and the World Bank.”

At a Cabinet meeting in Addis Ababa May 11, Ethiopian Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy Seleshi Bekele said that his country is drafting a comprehensive document to respond to Egypt's address to the Security Council. He was quoted as saying, “The civil work [such as the construction of concrete walls] of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has reached 87% and the total construction is 73%.”

Ethiopia plans to begin filling the dam’s reservoir at the beginning of the rainy season in July. This stage involves the storage of 18.4 billion cubic meters in two years, so as to embark on the partial operation and power generation from the dam. 

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Egyptian diplomatic sources revealed details relating to Ethiopia’s 22-page response to the Egyptian letter submitted in mid-May to the Security Council, in which it spoke of its people’s suffering from poverty and their right to use the Nile waters in order to achieve development.

The sources said, “The Ethiopian response stated that there is no legal obligation for it to wait for Egypt’s approval before embarking on the filling of the dam’s reservoir. Yet it demanded that the international community urges Egypt to get back to the tripartite negotiations to agree on the first [stage of the] filling, which is estimated at 18.4 billion cubic meters.”

Egypt was not the only one that rejected Ethiopia’s request to sign a partial agreement on the first stage of the filling. The Sudanese Ministry of Water Resources also announced in a May 12 press release that “the signing of any partial agreement regarding the first stage cannot be agreed upon, given that it must necessarily include technical and legal aspects.”

As a part of mediation efforts of the Sudanese government seeking resumption of the tripartite negotiations as soon as possible, Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok met May 21 with his Ethiopoian counterpart Abiy Ahmed. Both parties agreed during the meeting on the resumption of the tripartite talks on the filling and operation of the dam.

Hamdok had held a teleconference meeting May 19 with his Egyptian counterpart, Mustafa Madbouly, and the ministers of foreign affairs and water and intelligence chiefs. The meeting follows a visit by a Sudanese high-level delegation to Addis Ababa, where they met May 16 with Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed. Results of the meeting have yet to be revealed. 

While Sudan did not publicly express its opinion on the Egyptian and Ethiopian addresses to the UN Security Council, Ethiopian media outlets criticized the Sudanese government's rejection of Ethiopia's request to sign a partial agreement, considering that it reflects a sudden shift in the Sudanese position that has been in favor of Ethiopia since the start of the talks on the dam.

Commenting on the Egyptian diplomatic move toward the UN Security Council, Musaed Abdel-Atti, assistant professor of international law at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor, “Egypt stating that the Ethiopian unilateral move to fill the dam’s reservoir poses a threat to peace and security in the region is a diplomatic step for the UN Security Council to assume its responsibility, and revealed that Ethiopia was being intransigent and unfair during the negotiations.”

Abdel-Atti stressed that “under international law, the states have the right to defend their rights and resources. Egypt has already taken all diplomatic paths to prove its position, and has at the same time the means to defend its rights and interests in the Nile waters.”

Cairo continues to make diplomatic moves and use peaceful channels before Ethiopia starts filling the dam’s reservoir in early July, in an attempt to convince Ethiopia of signing a comprehensive agreement regulating the filling and operation mechanisms. At the same time, it opposes any suggestion relating to a partial agreement. 

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