Ethiopia says on track to fill mega-dam as African Union pushes for deal


Addis Ababa (AFP)

Ethiopia said Saturday it was on schedule to begin filling a controversial mega-dam on the Blue Nile River within weeks but vowed to try resolving its dispute with downstream neighbours Egypt and Sudan.

The statement from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's office undercut claims made Friday evening by Egypt and Sudan, whose leaders said Ethiopia had agreed to delay filling the dam's reservoir until an agreement was reached.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), set to be Africa's largest hydroelectric project, has been a source of tension in the Nile basin ever since Ethiopia broke ground on it nearly a decade ago.

Ethiopia says the project is essential for its development, while Egypt and Sudan worry about access to vital water supplies from the Nile.

Addis Ababa has been vocal about its plans to start filling the reservoir in July, and Abiy faces intense domestic political pressure to stick to that timeline.

The leaders of all three countries spoke Friday evening on a call convened by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the current chair of the African Union.

But while Sudan and Egypt said afterwards that Ethiopia had agreed to hold off on filling the reservoir as negotiations continued, Ethiopia's statement Saturday made no mention of a delay.

"Ethiopia is scheduled to begin filling the GERD within the next two weeks, during which the remaining construction work will continue," the statement said.

"It is in this period, that the three countries have agreed to reach a final agreement on a few pending matters."

-An 'AU-led process'-

Trilateral talks on the dam resumed earlier this month, with the biggest sticking points concerning how to operate the dam during periods of drought and how to resolve disputes.

Diplomatic sources said this week that the United Nations Security Council planned to meet Monday to discuss objections to the dam raised by Egypt and Sudan.

Ethiopia has been wary about the role of outside parties ever since talks involving the US Treasury Department broke down in February and Abiy's government accused Washington of favouring Egypt.

Ethiopia criticised Egypt for detailing its grievances over the dam in a May letter to the UN Security Council -- a move it described as a bad faith attempt to "exert external diplomatic pressure".

Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the African Union Commission who was also on Friday's call, said afterwards 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 "underscored that... African issues must be given African solutions".

Hamdok's office said Friday night that technical committees for all three countries would try to hammer out a conclusive deal within two weeks as suggested by Ethiopia.

"The resumption of trilateral technical talks on the filling and operating rules of the GERD and the involvement of the African Union in them are highly welcome developments," said William Davison, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention organisation.

He added that it was "appropriate that the AU is now facilitating discussions, as regional efforts should be exhausted before the UN Security Council takes over the process".

The Nile is a lifeline supplying both water and electricity to the 10 countries it snakes through.