South Africa calls Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia back to negotiating table on dam talks

After Sudan and Egypt announced they were suspending talks, the African Union chair urged all three parties to resume discussions.

al-monitor A picture taken on May 28, 2013, shows the Blue Nile in Guba, Ethiopia, during its diversion ceremony. Photo by Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images.

Aug 6, 2020

After Sudan and Egypt threatened to walk out on talks over Ethiopia's controversial Blue Nile dam project, South Africa has urged the three parties to come back to the negotiating table.

South Africa, which is mediating the latest round of talks as the current chair of the African Union (AU), said in a statement Thursday that it "encourages the parties to remain engaged.”

“We would like to urge them to continue to be guided by the spirit of Pan-African solidarity and fraternity," South Africa’s International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor said. “It is important that the parties should display magnanimity and understanding of each other’s interests so as to move the process forward.”

Previous AU-mediated talks have ended in deadlock, with Ethiopia arguing the $4.6 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is crucial to its economic development and would provide much-needed electricity in a country where half the population lives without power.

But Ethiopia’s downstream neighbors worry the ambitious project could dangerously restrict their freshwater supplies. The Blue Nile is a tributary of the Nile River, which Sudan and Egypt are heavily dependent on for their irrigation and drinking water. Ethiopia insists the 475-foot-high dam will not impact Egypt or Sudan’s already scarce freshwater access.

The latest round of trilateral negotiations, which were attended by observers from the United States, the European Union and the AU, deadlocked Tuesday when Egypt’s negotiating team reportedly put forward a proposal that contained guidelines for filling the dam but not for operating it. The draft also lacked any provision that made the filling terms legally binding, the Egyptian Water Ministry said.

In a tweet, Ethiopian Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy Seleshi Bekele said his country would like to sign an agreement on filling the dam as soon as possible, with plans to reach a comprehensive agreement at a later date. But his Sudanese counterpart, Minister for Irrigation and Water Resources Yasir Abbas, said dealing with the dam’s operation in a separate treaty is a nonstarter.

“Sudan will not accept that lives of 20 million of its people who live on the banks of the Blue Nile depend on a treaty,” he said.

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