Ethiopia’s Abiy Says Talks With Egypt Can Resolve Nile Dispute

Samuel Gebre and Nizar Manek

(Bloomberg) -- Egypt and Ethiopia agreed Thursday to resume talks over a giant Nile dam and reach a deal on sharing the vital waters, downplaying a recent escalation of tensions.

Both nations are willing “to collaborate on the project in a manner that will benefit the two sides,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told local media, shortly after meeting Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi on the sidelines of a Russia-Africa summit.

“We have no problem with having political negotiations with anyone; it will not disrupt the technical committee’s work,” Abiy said, when asked about an Egyptian request for mediation. Egypt’s presidency said that they agreed to resume the work of the committee, which also includes mutual neighbor Sudan.

Accusations have flared in recent weeks over plans for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, which is set to be Africa’s biggest hydropower project when completed. The two countries are struggling to reach an agreement on how to fill the dam’s reservoir -- a process key to ensuring a reliable flow to Egypt, which depends on the Nile for almost all its fresh water.

Ethiopia maintains the dam would benefit the region by providing electricity and regulating the river’s flow to avoid flooding.

Competing Proposals

An adviser to Ethiopia’s Water Ministry, Gideon Asfaw, said a technical committee composed of the three nations earlier in 2019 agreed on a plan to fill the reservoir over four to seven years, depending on hydrology and rainfall.

Egypt has said Ethiopia has rejected its filling proposal and is acting unilaterally. Gideon said there have been five trilateral technical meetings on the subject this year, of the nine scheduled, and Egypt wants Ethiopia to release a guaranteed flow of water “regardless of whether there’s rain, no rain, or drought, which technically also doesn’t make sense.”

El-Sisi on Thursday said that Egypt understands the Horn of Africa nation’s needs, but is standing firm in seeking its historical right to a share of the Nile, according to presidential spokesman Bassam Rady. Ethiopia rejects historical treaties it says belong to the colonial era.

The river is an “artery of cooperation, brotherhood and development” and shouldn’t become a source of conflict, El-Sisi said. Egypt and Ethiopia, which both have populations of about 100 million and are the fastest-growing economies in their respective regions, have officially dismissed any prospect of the dispute triggering a war.

Global Interest

The Russia-backed meeting at the Black Sea resort of Sochi is the latest sign of increasing international involvement in the dispute. Egypt, which describes negotiations as deadlocked and has called for an outside mediator, said this week it has accepted a U.S. proposal for fresh meetings with Ethiopia and Sudan.

“Egypt and Ethiopia being two large countries on the continent, there is some fear trouble between the two countries could create regional instability,” Abiy said. “Thus many countries, including Russia, have offered to mediate.” Russian President Vladimir Putin is ready to provide help for future talks, according to a Kremlin spokesman.

Abiy made no explicit reference to the U.S. offer of talks that was announced by Egypt’s Foreign Ministry late Tuesday. American officials haven’t responded to requests for comment on the Egyptian statement.

Abiy, who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending a long-running conflict with neighbor Eritrea, accused parts of the media of inflaming the dispute while unrelated protests against his rule spread at home.

Egypt’s presidency said Abiy described some of his recent comments as having been taken out of context. This week, he’d said Ethiopia was capable of lining up “many millions of people” in the event of military confrontation.

(Updates with Ethiopian adviser comment in second paragraph under Competing Proposals subheadline.)

--With assistance from Tarek El-Tablawy and Tony Halpin.

To contact the reporters on this story: Samuel Gebre in Abidjan at sgebre@bloomberg.net;Nizar Manek in Nairobi at nmanek2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at asalha@bloomberg.net, Michael Gunn, Paul Abelsky

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