Egypt warns Nile water 'untouchable'

·2-min read

Egypt says its share of the Nile's waters are "untouchable" in a stark warning to Ethiopia, which is building a giant dam on the river's main tributary.

The comment, from President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, comes amid a deadlock in yearslong talks over the dam between the Nile Basin countries, which also includes Sudan.

In a news conference on Tuesday, el-Sissi warned of "instability that no one can imagine" in the region if the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is filled and operated without a legally binding agreement.

"No one can take a single drop of water from Egypt and whoever wants to try it, let him try," he said.

"No one imagines that it will be far from our capabilities."

The Ethiopian Embassy in Cairo declined to comment.

El-Sissi was firm while discussing the dispute at a news conference in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia.

He visited the crucial, east-west waterway following its reopening Monday. It had been closed for six days after a hulking container ship became stuck.

"I repeat that the waters of Egypt are untouchable and touching them is a red line," he said.

However el-Sissi said his country prioritised negotiation to resolve the lingering dispute before Ethiopia continued filling the dam's giant reservoir during this year's rainy season.

Addis Ababa began filling the reservoir last July, a move strongly criticised by Egypt and Sudan.

"Our battle is a battle of negotiations," the Egyptian leader said, adding that Cairo seeks a legally binding agreement based on international laws and norms that govern cross-border rivers.

El-Sissi said a new round of negotiations is expected in the coming weeks.

He did not elaborate further on whether international players would join the talks as mediators as Khartoum and Cairo have demanded.

Ethiopia has rejected an Egyptian-backed Sudanese proposal to internationalise the dispute by including the US, UN and European Union as mediators in talks that have been mediated by the African Union.

The dispute centres on the speed at which a planned reservoir is filled behind the dam, the method of its annual replenishment, and how much water Ethiopia will release downstream if a multi-year drought occurs.

Another point of difference is how the three countries would settle any future disputes.

Egypt and Sudan call for a legally binding agreement on the dam's filling and operation, while Ethiopia insists on guidelines.

Egypt is a mostly desert country that depends on the Nile for almost all of its water needs.

It fears a quick fill would drastically reduce the Nile's flow, with potentially severe effects on agriculture and other sectors.

Ethiopia says the $US5 billion ($A6.6 billion) dam is essential, arguing the vast majority of its population lacks electricity.