Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has warned against Ethiopia continuing to fill a giant dam built on the Blue Nile River, on his first visit to Sudan since the removal of former President Omar al-Bashir nearly two years ago.
Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia have been locked for almost a decade in inconclusive talks over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which broke ground in 2011.
El-Sisi landed at Khartoum international airport on Saturday and headed to a meeting with General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the ruling Sovereign Council, at the presidential palace. There, they inspected a military guard of honour.
The Egyptian president also met Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, and General Mohammed Hamdan Dagal, deputy head of the sovereign council.
Both Egypt and Sudan lie downstream from the GERD, which Addis Ababa says is crucial to its economic development.
Ethiopia, which says it has every right to use Nile waters long exploited by Egypt, started filling the reservoir behind the dam last year after Egypt and Sudan failed to secure a legally binding agreement over the hydropower dam’s operation.
Khartoum fears the dam, which lies on the Blue Nile close to the border with Sudan, could increase the risk of flooding and affect the safe operation of its own Nile dams, while water-scarce Egypt fears its supplies from the Nile could be hit.
At least 20 million Sudanese, more than half the country’s population, could be affected if Ethiopia fills and operates the dam without coordinating with Sudan, the government in Khartoum has said.
“This visit comes within the framework of close cooperation between the two nations,” al-Burhan told a news conference with el-Sisi. “We discussed all the files that support mutual cooperation.”
El-Sisi said that Egypt and Sudan have agreed on the importance of relaunching “serious and effective” negotiations that aim at achieving a “fair, balanced and legally binding” agreement on the dam’s filling and operating.
The two countries also reject attempts by Ethiopia to “impose a fait accompli and control the Blue Nile through unilateral measures that do not take into account the interests and rights of the two downstream countries,” he said.
Sudan recently proposed that the United States, European Union, United Nations and African Union (AU) should actively mediate in the dispute, rather than simply observing talks, a suggestion that Egypt supports.
Ethiopia this week indicated its opposition to adding mediators to an existing, African Union-led process.
Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan, reporting from Khartoum, said talks have stalled because the three sides cannot reach a deal on “how to run the talks before Ethiopia starts its second filling in July, with the onset of the rainy season.”
She added: “Sudan and Egypt have stressed that they want the observer to have a greater role, they want them to play a mediating role now.”
In a phone call with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry “stressed the need to launch a serious and effective negotiation process” over the dam before a second round of filling expected this summer.
Guterres said the world body was ready to “support and participate” in AU-led negotiations to resolve the dam dispute.
Since al-Bashir was toppled following mass protests in 2019, a military-civilian council has held power in Sudan under a political transition expected to last until the end of 2023.
The Blue Nile meets with the White Nile in central Sudan. From there, the Nile winds northward through Egypt and flows into the Mediterranean Sea.
Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country with over 100 million people, has called the dam an existential threat and worries that it would reduce its share of Nile waters. The country relies almost entirely on the Nile to supply water for agriculture and its people.
About 85 percent of the Nile’s flow originates from Ethiopia. Ethiopian officials hope the dam, now more than three-quarters complete, will reach full power-generating capacity in 2023, helping pull millions of its people out of poverty.