Ethiopia wants to begin filling the dam’s reservoir in the coming weeks, but Egypt has raised concerns that filing the reservoir too quickly and without a deal could significantly reduce the amount of Nile water available to Egypt. Both countries have made clear in the past that they could take steps to protect their interests, should negotiations fail, and experts fear a breakdown in talks could lead to conflict.
The talks resumed last week via video conference after months of deadlock, and will start up again on Monday, statements from the three main Nile basin countries said Sunday. However, the most recent negotiations have been punctuated by strong comments from both Egypt and Ethiopia.
Egypt’s Irrigation Ministry said in a statement late Saturday that Ethiopia was looking to renegotiate a number of points of contention, which "demonstrated that there are many fundamental issues that Ethiopia continues to reject."
Irrigation Ministry spokesman Mohammed el-Sebaei accused Ethiopia of bogging down the talks with a new proposal he called “concerning." A day earlier, Ethiopia's deputy army chief had said his country will strongly defend itself and will not negotiate its sovereignty.
Talks came to an acrimonious halt in February, after Ethiopia rejected a U.S.-crafted deal and accused the Trump administration of siding with Egypt. At the time, Egypt's Foreign Ministry said it would use “all available means” to defend “the interests” of its people.
Construction of the $4.6 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile is over 70% complete, and promises to provide much-needed electricity to Ethiopia’s 100 million people. Egypt seeks to protect its main source of freshwater for its large and growing population, also more than 100 million.
William Davison, senior analyst at the Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said the resumption of talks was “necessary and positive,” however there were still “considerable disagreements” between the parties on key issues, primarily how to manage future droughts, and also how to resolve any future disputes that arise.
“Any further pause in talks would not be welcome as the only way to resolve this matter is for the parties to remain engaged in negotiations until they reach consensus on the outstanding issues,” he said.
“The Ethiopian proposal aims to scrap all the agreements and understandings reached by the three countries during the negotiations spanning nearly a decade,” el-Sebaei said Saturday. Ethiopia's Water and Energy Ministry on Sunday said el-Sebaei’s comments were “regrettable.” It said that if the ongoing negotiations failed, it would be because of “Egypt’s obstinacy to maintain a colonial-based water allocation agreement that denies Ethiopia and all the upstream countries their natural and legitimate rights.”
Egypt has received the lion’s share of the Nile’s waters under decades-old agreements dating back to the British colonial era. Eighty-five percent of the Nile's waters originate in Ethiopia from the Blue Nile, which is one of the Nile’s two main tributaries.
Ethiopia has said it plans to start filling the dam in July this year, at the start of the rainy season.
Associated Press writer Elias Meseret contributed from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.