Cairo and Khartoum in talks on Ethiopia Nile diversion

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Egypt and Sudan were holding talks on Wednesday following a decision by Ethiopia to divert the Blue Nile as part of a giant dam project which risks affecting the two downstream Arab states.

Sudan’s minister of irrigation, Osama Abdallah al-Hassan, arrived in Cairo for a one-day visit to discuss the issue with authorities, Egypt’s official MENA news agency said.

And Ethiopia’s ambassador to Cairo, Mohammed Idriss, held talks with senior officials at the foreign ministry, it said.

Cairo said it was awaiting the outcome of a tripartite report by Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to assess the impact of the project.

Officials in Cairo have described Ethiopia’s move as technical, saying it was unlikely to affect Egypt.

Essam Haddad, a senior advisor to President Mohamed Morsi, stressed that Addis Ababa’s decision “does not have a direct impact on Egypt or its Nile water.”

But Ethiopia’s move did unnerve authorities, prompting a cabinet meeting on Wednesday headed by Prime Minister Hisham Qandil.

In a statement, the government said Cairo was opposed to all projects which could affect the flow of the Nile.

It said it had planned “several scenarios” depending on the outcome of the report, without elaborating.

The $4.2 billion Grand Renaissance Dam hydroelectric project has to divert a short section of the Blue Nile -- one of two major tributaries of the Nile -- to allow the main dam wall to be built.

The river is being shifted about 550 meters from its natural course, officials in Addis Ababa said earlier on Wednesday, but stressed that water levels would not be affected.

The first phase of construction is expected to be complete in three years, with a capacity of 700 megawatts.

Once complete, the dam will have a capacity of 6,000 megawatts.

In Khartoum, the foreign ministry said Sudan would not be affected by the project, stressing in a statement that there are agreements and consultations between Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia.

“Sudan respects the agreements to cooperate with those two countries (Egypt and Ethiopia) in matters that concern sharing the waters of the Nile and sharing mutual revenues,” the Sudanese foreign ministry said.

Both Sudan and Egypt, arid nations that rely heavily on the Nile for water, particularly for agriculture, are extremely sensitive about projects that could alter the flow.

Egypt believes its “historic rights” to the Nile are guaranteed by two treaties from 1929 and 1959 which allow it 87 percent of the Nile’s flow and give it veto power over upstream projects.

But a new deal was signed in 2010 by other Nile Basin countries, including Ethiopia, allowing them to work on river projects without Cairo’s prior agreement.