Ethiopia said on Saturday it was about to begin filling a controversial mega-dam on the Blue Nile River within weeks but promised to try to resolve its dispute with downstream neighbors Egypt and Sudan.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which will be Africa’s largest hydropower project, has been a source of tension in the Nile basin ever since Ethiopia paved the ground for it almost a decade ago.
The statement from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office undermined allegations from Egypt and Sudan, whose leaders said Ethiopia had agreed to delay filling the reservoir until a deal was reached.
Ethiopia says the project is important for its development, while Egypt and Sudan are concerned about access to important Nile water supplies.
Addis Ababa has been strong about its plans to start filling the container in July, and Abiy is facing intense domestic political pressure to stick to that timeline.
Our continental organization, with a pan-African spirit, is the right space for dialogue on issues that are of value to #Africa. The #GERD offers all stakeholders the opportunity for outstanding economic growth and mutual development. 1/2 pic.twitter.com/WJrqUjEC3q
– Abiy Ahmed Ali 🇪🇹 (@AbiyAhmedAli) June 26, 2020
Leaders in all three countries spoke on Friday about a meeting of South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, the current President of the African Union.
But while Sudan and Egypt afterwards said Ethiopia had agreed to fill the container as negotiations continued, Ethiopia’s statement on Saturday did not mention any delay.
“Ethiopia is scheduled to begin filling GERD within the next two weeks, during which remaining construction work will continue,” it said.
“It is during this period that the three countries have agreed to reach a final agreement on some pending issues.”
“African solutions needed”
Trilateral talks about the dam resumed earlier this month, with the biggest stickers on how to operate the dam during periods of drought and how to resolve disputes.
Diplomatic sources said this week that the UN Security Council planned to meet on Monday to discuss objections to the dam raised by Egypt and Sudan.
Ethiopia has been wary of the role of external parties ever since talks with the US Treasury broke down in February and Abiy’s government accused Washington of favoring Egypt.
Ethiopia criticized Egypt for detailing its complaints about the dam in a May letter to the UN Security Council – a measure it described as an attempt to “exert diplomatic pressure”.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairman of the African Union Commission who was also on Friday’s talks, said that Abiy, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok had “agreed to an AU-led process to resolve outstanding issues “.
Abiy’s office similarly said the leaders “emphasized that … African issues must be given African solutions”.
The African Union said in a statement Saturday that “90 percent of the issues in the tripartite negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have already been resolved”.
It called on the countries “to refrain from commenting or taking measures that could jeopardize or complicate the AU-led process aimed at finding an acceptable solution to all outstanding issues”.
It said it had formed a committee to submit a report to Ramaphosa within a week.
Hamdok’s office on Friday said that technical committees for all three countries would try to curb a final deal within two weeks, as proposed by Ethiopia.
“The resumption of trilateral technical talks on GERD’s filling and operating rules and the African Union’s commitment to them is very welcome,” said William Davison, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
It was “appropriate that the AU now facilitate the discussions, as regional efforts should be exhausted before the UN Security Council takes over the process,” he added.
The Nile is a lifeline that delivers both water and electricity to the ten countries through which it flows.