Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan resume negotiations over a disputed dam

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Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have resumed talks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, though a final agreement on the Nile River mega-dam remains elusive and faces several challenges.

The latest round of talks began on Sunday in Cairo between the three countries. Egypt is seeking a legally binding agreement in the talks on how the dam is operated and filled, according to a statement from Egypt’s State Information Service.

Ethiopia began filling the dam in the summer of 2020. The mega-dam is located on the Blue Nile river — a tributary of the Nile — close to the border with Sudan. Ethiopia says the hydroelectric dam will provide electricity to its citizens as well as help with development and the alleviation of poverty. Only 44% of Ethiopians had access to electricity in 2022, according to a profile on Ethiopia from the US International Trade Administration.

The downstream states of Egypt and Sudan, however, believe Ethiopia’s unilaterally filling the dam will dangerously lower the levels of the Nile River and its tributaries in their territories, especially in the event of a drought. The Nile is tremendously important to countries in the region, and Egypt gets more than 90% of its water from the river.

Talks on the mega-dam have been on and off for more than 10 years. Mediation from the United States, the African Union (AU) and others have failed to yield an agreement. The AU last sponsored direct negotiations on the dam in 2021.

Ethiopia said in March that 90% of the construction on the dam is complete. In July, Ethiopia began its fourth filling of the dam during the annual rainy season. Ethiopia also announced last year that it has begun producing electricity from the dam.

The current talks followed the meeting of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Cairo last month during a summit on the conflict in Sudan. The two leaders pledged to reach an agreement on the dam within four months at the time.

Some observers are skeptical that anything will be different this time around. Mirette Mabrouk, director of the Middle East Institute’s Egypt program, said that the issues surrounding the dam are the same at present as they were during the previous years of failed negotiations.

“Nothing has changed,” Mabrouk told Al-Monitor.

Mabrouk said Egypt’s goals remain to obtain a legally binding agreement on the dam, as well as a corresponding method of international arbitration. Ethiopia, however, feels they can successfully fill the dam on their own accord, she said, pointing to the case of the Gilgel Gibe III Dam that was inaugurated in 2016. Ethiopia built that dam despite Kenya’s concerns that the project would reduce water levels in the Turkana River.

“Ethiopia thinks it will get away with it, with ‘it’ meaning unilateral control of the flow of the Nile,” said Mabrouk.

She added that Egypt and Sudan “have no leverage” in the dam talks. Ethiopia has been progressing with the dam despite years of efforts to seek a solution. The importance of all the countries to international powers has also hindered progress on an agreement.

“All of these three countries are very important to external players. Therefore, nobody has been keen on pressing any one of those countries in one way or another too hard,” she said.

Mabrouk said the talks will not go anywhere sans a legal agreement on the dam.

“You really need some kind of legally binding agreement; otherwise, it isn’t worth the paper it’s written on,” she said.

The current talks also notably follow the outbreak of conflict in Sudan. Fighting between the Sudanese armed forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces began in April and has thrown the country into chaos. The violence in Sudan, as well as various conflicts in Ethiopia, have hurt the prospect of a deal on the mega-dam, according to some.

“The massive instability in Ethiopia and now Sudan over the past two years has clearly been a distraction from negotiation efforts, allowing Ethiopia to continue unhindered to establish [the dam] as an ever more immovable fact on the ground,” read an April report from the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.

The Economist Intelligence Unit also said in May that the Sudan conflict “will undermine Egypt’s efforts to create a united front with Sudan on the issue.”

The United Arab Emirates has also involved itself in the issue recently. In 2022, the UAE hosted technical talks on the dam between the countries. The UAE’s plans for the issue also involve investment in all three countries, according to the Egyptian news outlet Mada Masr.

The UAE’s stance on the dam has been relatively neutral compared to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, who support Egypt.

Mabrouk said that the UAE’s focus on technical talks is limiting and that the three countries are all “well versed” in water and dams and need a legal agreement.