Egypt, Sudan: Ethiopia won't fill disputed dam before accord

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FILE - This satellite image taken Thursday, May 28, 2020, shows the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile river in the Benishangul-Gumuz re...
FILE - This June 28, 2013 file photo, shows construction work at the site of the planned Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam near Assosa in the Benishangu...

FILE - This satellite image taken Thursday, May 28, 2020, shows the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile river in the Benishangul-Gumuz re...

FILE - This June 28, 2013 file photo, shows construction work at the site of the planned Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam near Assosa in the Benishangu...

CAIRO (AP) — The leaders of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have agreed that Ethiopia will refrain from filling its new hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile next month and return to talks aimed at reaching an agreement among the three nations on use of the river's waters, according to statements Friday from Egypt and Sudan.

The announcement was a modest reprieve from weeks of bellicose rhetoric and escalating tensions over the $4.6 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Ethiopia had vowed to start filling at the start of the rainy season in July.

There was no immediate comment from Ethiopia on Friday’s statement, beyond a tweet from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that described an African Union summit discussion about the dam as “fruitful.”

Ethiopia has hinged its development ambitions on the mega-project, describing the dam as a crucial lifeline to bring millions out of poverty. Egypt, which relies on the Nile for more than 90% of its water supplies and already faces high water stress, fears a devastating impact on its booming population of 100 million. Sudan, which also depends on the Nile for water, has played a key role in bringing the two sides together after the collapse of U.S.-mediated talks in February.

Just last week, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew declared that his country would start filling the dam’s reservoir, after the latest round of talks with Egypt and Sudan failed to reach an accord governing how the dam will be filled and operated.

After the African Union video conference chaired by South Africa on Friday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi said that “all parties” had pledged not to take “any unilateral action” by filling the dam without a final agreement, said Bassam Radi, Egypt’s presidency spokesman.

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok also indicated the impasse between the Nile basin countries had eased, saying the countries had agreed to restart negotiations through a technical committee with the aim of finalizing a deal in two weeks. Ethiopia won’t fill the dam before inking the much-anticipated deal, Hamdok's statement added.

Sticking points in the talks have been how much water Ethiopia will release downstream from the dam if a multi-year drought occurs and how Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan will resolve any future disagreements.

Both Egypt and Sudan have appealed to the U.N. Security Council to intervene in the years-long dispute and help the Nile basin countries avert a crisis. The council is set to hold a public meeting on the issue Monday.

Filling the dam without an agreement could bring the stand-off to a critical juncture. Both Egypt and Ethiopia have hinted at military steps to protect their interests, and experts fear a breakdown in talks could lead to open conflict.