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Ethiopia and Egypt are at odds over a Nile dam. Washington should be helping them compromise, rather than doing Cairo’s bidding.
By Addisu Lashitew | March 14, 2020 | Foreign Policy
Egypt and Ethiopia have once again locked horns over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile. On Feb. 26, Ethiopia temporarily suspended its participation in the U.S.-mediated negotiations over the filling and operation of the GERD, requesting more time to deliberate on the draft agreement. With the dam 70 percent complete and its reservoir expected to start being filled in July, the time for reaching an agreement is ticking away. Ethiopia and Egypt should be ready to make significant concessions to avoid a catastrophic escalation in this seemingly intractable dispute.
The longest river in the world, the Nile stretches across 11 countries in its journey of 4,000 miles from the equatorial rivers that feed Lake Victoria to its final destination in the Mediterranean Sea. Among the countries that share the Nile, two have the most at stake. Egypt, a desert nation of 100 million people, is literally the creation of the Nile, relying on the river for 90 percent of its freshwater needs.
Ethiopia, an East African country of 112 million, contributes the lion’s share of the Nile waters, with its three tributaries—the Blue Nile, Sobat, and Atbara—carrying about 84 percent of the total runoff in the Nile. With a growing but otherwise resource-poor economy, Ethiopia is keen to develop its vast potential for hydroelectricity generation in the Nile basin to become a regional hub of electric power exports.
With a growing but otherwise resource-poor economy, Ethiopia is keen to develop its vast potential for hydroelectricity generation
The GERD, a $5 billion project that will be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, is a part of that ambition. The dam is located on Ethiopia’s flank of the Blue Nile, just 12 miles from its border with Sudan. It will have paramount economic value to Ethiopia, doubling the country’s electricity generation capacity and earning as much as a billion dollars annually from energy exports to Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, and potentially Egypt. The GERD’s massive reservoir will store 74 billion cubic meters (BCM) of water, roughly equal to a year-and-half’s worth of the Blue Nile’s flow, which will be gradually filled upon the dam’s completion.
The Blue Nile is highly seasonal, with 80 percent of its discharge occurring from July to October during the short rainy season on the Ethiopian highlands. This makes it prone to heavy flooding, while the heavy sedimentation it carries reduces hydropower production in dams with small reservoirs. The GERD will help mitigate this, leading to a regulated, steady flow that will improve navigation, irrigation, and hydropower generation downstream. Sudan, which does not have a major dam on the Nile, will enjoy most of these benefits, which explains its decision to side with Ethiopia for the first time in the history of Nile politics.
Egypt, however, has less to gain from these changes as it regulates the flow of the Nile using the massive reservoir of the Aswan High Dam, which has a capacity of 169 BCM. Egypt worries that an upstream dam on the Blue Nile, which contributes about 60 percent of the flow of the Nile, will reduce water supply and power generation at Aswan. As a hydropower project, the GERD will not directly consume water once its reservoir is filled. It could, however, reduce the amount of water Egypt receives if it leads to a significant increase of irrigation in Sudan, which adds to Egypt’s worry.
Egypt worries that an upstream dam on the Blue Nile, which contributes about 60 percent of the flow of the Nile, will reduce water supply and power generation at Aswan.
In 2015, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt agreed on a Declaration of Principles that stipulated an “equitable and reasonable” utilization of the Nile that will not cause “significant harm” to other riparian countries. In spite of years of negotiations, however, they have made little progress in specifying the technical details on the filling and operating of the dam.
To safeguard its reservoir at Aswan, Egypt wants to secure an agreement that binds Ethiopia to releasing a fixed amount of the river’s flow and a process for monitoring Ethiopia’s compliance. Ethiopia, on the other hand, seeks to avoid a permanent commitment for a water quota that extends beyond the GERD’s filling period and demands a flexible agreement with a provision for periodic reviews. Behind the facade of legal wrangling, the scope for a future Nile project is at stake. Ethiopia wants to avoid an agreement that restricts its capacity to harness its massive hydropower potential of about 45,000 megawatts; Egypt wants exactly such a restriction.
The negotiations gained momentum in November 2019 after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called on U.S. President Donald Trump to help broker an agreement. The foreign and water ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan have held a series of meetings in Washington since December and met Trump at the White House. What the United States wants to accomplish through its involvement, however, is not clear and appears to be inspired more by Trump’s desire to broker a deal than by a foreign policy imperative.
In a recent speech on the campaign trail, Trump implied that he deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for his brokering role in the Nile dispute.
In a recent speech on the campaign trail, Trump implied that he deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for his brokering role in the Nile dispute.The negotiations were also coordinated by the Department of the Treasury, sidelining the State Department, which possesses the appropriate expertise for this kind of engagement. The Treasury Department serves as the U.S. governor to the International Monetary Fund, which, along with the World Bank, has committed significant resources to aid Ethiopia’s reform efforts under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The intent behind the involvement of the Treasury and the World Bank, therefore, seems to be stepping up pressure on Ethiopia by signaling the financial costs of recalcitrance.
Ethiopia’s withdrawal has left the negotiations in limbo at a critical time. The country’s foreign ministry has expressed its disapproval of the draft agreement, characterizing it as “unacceptable & highly partisan,” while Egypt has noted that it signed the agreement at a meeting where Ethiopia was not present. Instead of helping resolve these differences, the U.S. Treasury released a statement that argued that the draft agreement “addresses all issues in a balanced and equitable manner” and warned Ethiopia that “final testing and filling [of the GERD] should not take place without an agreement.”
To Ethiopia, this seemed to confirm the longstanding fear that the United States has been a biased mediator. David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, argues that “the United States seems to be putting its thumb on the scale in favor of Egypt.”
David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, argues that “the United States seems to be putting its thumb on the scale in favor of Egypt.”
Ethiopian analysts interpret U.S. overreach in the Nile negotiations as an overture to appease Egypt in the context of Trump’s Middle East peace plan, which has been roundly rejected by Arab nations. While there is no hard evidence, a backroom deal of this sort would not be inconceivable considering Trump’s closeness with Sisi, whom he was overheard calling his “favorite dictator” during the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France. After the Nile negotiations stalled, Trump reportedly made a phone call to reassure Sisi that he would continue with his mediation effort.
Addisu Lashitew is a research fellow at the Brookings Institution.