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New parties emerge to try to break deadlock in Nile dam negotiations

New countries are seeking a mediation role in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam crisis as negotiations sponsored by the African Union between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia stumble.

CAIRO — Several countries are seeking a mediation role in the faltering negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is set to assume in February the chairmanship of the African Union, with Congo President Felix Tshisekedi succeeding his South African counterpart. Among the chairmanship's duties is sponsorship of the ongoing dam negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. 

On Jan. 21, the ambassadors of the United States and Italy to Sudan praised Khartoum’s position in the talks on the dam. During their meeting with Sudanese Irrigation Minister Yasser Abbas, the two ambassadors stressed the need to establish an exchange data mechanism to ensure Khartoum's right to secure its dams, water facilities and the safety of its citizens during the operation of the Renaissance dam. 

Meanwhile, the British ambassador to Khartoum, Irfan Siddiq, stressed during his meeting with Abbas on Jan. 18 his country’s support for reaching an agreement on the dam that is satisfactory to all concerned parties, namely Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. 

The Sudan News Agency reported Jan. 13 that the United Arab Emirates is seeking to converge the views of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia with the aim of breaking the deadlock in the dam negotiations, following a one-day visit by a delegation from the UAE Foreign Ministry to Sudan. 

The recent actions come as the latest round of dam negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, sponsored by the African Union, have faltered. On Jan. 10, the six-party meeting of water and irrigation ministers and foreign ministers from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia failed to reach a binding and legal agreement on the filling and operation of the dam. The failure was ostensibly due to disagreements over how to resume negotiations and the procedural aspects related to managing the negotiation process.

Abbas said in a statement issued Jan. 11 that his country asked the African Union experts to play a greater role in facilitating negotiations and bridging the rift between the conflicting parties. The day before, Egypt and Ethiopia expressed reservations about the Sudanese proposal to expand the role of African Union experts. 

Cairo University political scientist Tarek Fahmy told Al-Monitor over the phone that any attempt to mediate "is a noble and welcome attempt. The UAE efforts are the most prominent and tangible. Yet they come at a critical time, a few months before the scheduled start of the second filling” of the dam in August

He added, “The UAE’s mediation could have two scenarios. The first consists of stalling until the second filling of the dam is done. The second aims to succeed in the negotiations, which is difficult to achieve in light of the approaching second filling stage and the absence of a specific agenda for this mediation.” 

Fahmy said, “Egypt wants the African Union to officially declare the failure of the negotiations and inform the negotiating parties that it no longer will play the role of mediator in the negotiation process in its capacity as the relevant regional organization. In this case, Egypt would be able to internationalize the file by referring it to the UN Security Council.”

Since the construction of the dam began on the Blue Nile in 2011, Egypt and Sudan (two downstream countries) have been striving to reach a binding legal agreement with Ethiopia (an upstream country) through negotiations on the rules for filling and operation of the dam. The three countries signed on March 23, 2015, the Declaration of Principles in Khartoum. The declaration stipulates fair and appropriate use of water, non-harm, cooperation and regional integration, as the dam raises concerns in Egypt and Sudan about their historical shares of Nile water. 

Egypt, which suffers water scarcity, fears a decrease in its Nile water share amounting to about 55.5 billion cubic meters. The $4.6-billion dam is located near the Ethiopian-Sudanese border, with a maximum capacity of 74 billion cubic meters. For its part, Sudan fears the dam will affect its agriculture by retaining silt (sediment) and reducing water levels, which would consequently undermine its fish wealth. Ethiopia says the dam is necessary for economic development, as the dam will provide Ethiopia and other countries with large quantities of electricity. 

Hani Raslan, head of the Sudan and Nile Basin Countries Unit at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor the most important stance regarding the negotiations currently is the US position. “The US has experience and is well aware of the details of the dam crisis and its points of disagreement. It is also well aware that the Ethiopian position contradicts international law and that Ethiopia’s intransigence on the negotiations threatens Egypt and Sudan.” 

He added, “Washington had previously submitted a document containing a set of items on filling and operating the dam. This means the US is the most equipped to make an efficacious intervention" when it comes to the dam, "especially since the US does not want the region to slip into any spiraling conflict.” 

Raslan said the UAE, UK, Italy and even the Democratic Republic of the Congo may play auxiliary roles in resolving the crisis, but they will not be able, alone, to reach an acceptable settlement. 

A former Egyptian irrigation minister, Mohamed Nasr Allam, does not expect progress in the negotiations during the coming period. He told Al-Monitor, “The interference of some new parties may push the negotiations forward, but only if this is done within the framework of enforcement of international law.” 

Allam added, “These efforts will not result in any solution unless Ethiopia shows flexibility; it has so far rejected any mediation, whether regional or international. This is something that falls neither in its favor nor in its interest.” 

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