Egypt accepts US invitation for meeting over Ethiopia dam dispute

Washington moves to help mediate major row between Egypt and Ethiopia over $5bn infrastructure project on the Blue Nile.

    The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is designed to be the centrepiece of Ethiopia's bid to become Africa's biggest power exporter [File: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]
    The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is designed to be the centrepiece of Ethiopia's bid to become Africa's biggest power exporter [File: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]

    Egypt's government says it has accepted an invitation from the United States to a meeting of foreign ministers over a controversial project for a giant hydropower dam on Ethiopia's Blue Nile.

    The meeting of foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, the three nations directly affected by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), will be held in Washington, Egypt's foreign ministry said on Wednesday. It did not state a date for the talks, or if the other nations had agreed to attend.

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    "Egypt has received an invitation from the US administration," the ministry said in a statement, adding it was "immediately accepted".

    Cairo is concerned the five-billion-dollar GERD project, located near Ethiopia's border with Sudan and approximately 70 percent complete, will restrict supplies of already scarce Nile waters.

    Egypt depends on the Nile for about 90 percent of its needs for irrigation and drinking water and says it has "historic rights" to the river guaranteed by treaties from 1929 and 1959.

    But after years of three-way talks with Ethiopia and Sudan, it says it has exhausted efforts to reach a pact on conditions for operating the dam, the largest in Africa, and filling the reservoir behind.

    Ethiopia, for its part, says the dam is crucial to its economic development and has denied that the talks between the three are stalled, accusing Egypt of trying to sidestep the process.

    It has also previously rejected bringing in a mediator to resolve the dispute.

    Awol Allo, a senior lecturer in law at the United Kingdom's Keele University, said it was not clear if Ethiopia would also accept the US's invitation.

    "The Ethiopian government's position seems to be that this is a problem that needs to be solved by negotiation between the three parties - that is Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt," Allo told Al Jazeera.

    "They are very clear that a third party is not needed," he added.

    Threats of war

    On Tuesday, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said his country would not be stopped from completing the project, warning that Addis Ababa could "deploy many millions" of people in the event of any conflict over it.

    "Some say things about use of force (by Egypt). It should be underlined that no force could stop Ethiopia from building a dam," said Abiy, the winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize. "But war is not a solution."

    Abiy's comments drew a sharp rebuke from Egypt, which labelled them "unacceptable".

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    "Egypt ... expressed its shock, great concern and deep regret over comments conveyed by media and attributed to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed," the country's foreign ministry said.

    Keele University's Allo, meanwhile, said a military solution to the dispute between the two countries, each home to some 100 million people, was "not workable".

    "The only way forward for the two countries is to sit around the table and hammer out a deal," Allo said, adding that "the problems are primarily technical."

    "Egypt's position is that Ethiopia must release about 40bn cubic metres of water, Ethiopia has been saying that should be 35bn cubic metres … [and] Ethiopia has been proposing to fill the dam over a period of four to seven years, but Egypt believes that does not serve its interests."

    The seemingly escalating spat comes against the backdrop of an expected meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Abiy during a Russia-Africa summit this week in Sochi.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies