US Tries to Help Resolve Ethiopian Dam Dispute
By Mohamed Elshinnawi May 07, 2021
The United States is again stepping into efforts to resolve a dispute over Ethiopia's massive hydropower dam along an important Nile tributary.
The new U.S. envoy to the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, is visiting Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia this week as part of Washington's new push to resolve the dispute.
Tensions continue to rise among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Internationally supported negotiations have stagnated, and Egypt has said it will respond to any threats to its water supplies, raising concerns of possible conflict. The United States tried to mediate in 2019 but talks collapsed last year.
On his first stop, Feltman met Wednesday with Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and other Egyptian officials. El-Sissi stressed that Cairo sees the dam as an existential issue for Egypt and warned that his government would not tolerate any moves by Addis Ababa that could reduce Egypt's share of water from the Nile because of GERD. He urged the U.S. to play "an effective role'' to settle the dispute.
Feltman was quoted as saying U.S. President Joe Biden was "serious in settling such a sensitive issue.''
The Ethiopian dam sits astride the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia. The Blue Nile flows into Sudan to join the White Nile, forming the Nile, flowing north through Egypt.
The dam's hydropower generators are expected to provide electricity to 60% of Ethiopia, which Addis Ababa sees as crucial to lifting millions out of poverty.
But Cairo and Khartoum fear the dam could reduce their water supplies, especially in Egypt, where the Nile supplies 97% of fresh water.
Risk of water war
Some regional security experts have said if international efforts do not break the deadlock, the Ethiopian dam could end up being the cause of a water war threatening the entire region.
Before the meeting, Mohamed Nasr Allam, a former Egyptian minister of water resources, said Egyptian authorities believed Ethiopia had not negotiated in good faith.
"We spent about nine years negotiating and did not end up with any useful thing in terms of operation or filling, but when the United States intervened, they facilitated meetings," Allam said. "[We] ended up with almost common conclusions by the three parties with very good scenarios for filling and operation."
The 2019 talks also produced a legal framework that Egypt and Sudan had sought before the dam was filled, as well as measures on conflict resolution, he said.
Ethiopia ultimately declined to sign the agreement, however, in part because of concerns the deal would restrict its use of the water within its borders. The Ethiopian government repeatedly has offered to continue negotiating and has asked the African Union to join mediation efforts.
Allam said Egypt and Sudan have deep concerns about the risk that the dam could cut their Nile water quotas. Under a decades-old agreement, Egypt gets 55.5 billion cubic meters and Sudan gets 18 billion cubic meters. That allotment allows for 500 cubic meters per person in Egypt, about 50% of the water poverty index determined by the World Bank.
Sudanese officials have said the filling of the dam this year is a direct threat to Sudan's national security.
The Ethiopian ambassador to Egypt, Markos Tekele, disagrees with that assessment.
"Our focus now is on filling and operating the dam, not about water quotas," the ambassador said. "And Ethiopia repeatedly made clear that this day will not cause significant harm. Therefore, I don't know why it becomes an existential threat either to Sudan or Egypt right now."
Egypt, Sudan seek deal
Egypt and Sudan say a legally binding agreement on the filling and operating of the dam should be reached before Ethiopia starts the second phase of filling.
Ethiopia began filling the dam last year, a process that is expected to be done in stages over the next several years. Addis Ababa has said it will complete the second stage in July, with or without an agreement.
David Des Roches, an associate professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, described that position as a provocation.
"That is really discouraging because it is basically a sort of absolutist statement," he said. "The Ethiopians here are saying, 'What is in our country is ours and whatever we allow to go downstream, be happy for it.'
"Unfortunately, the Ethiopian position is one that greatly concerns Egypt, which is so dependent on the Nile, and the Egyptians can't just grin and bear it."
Egypt's el-Sissi has repeatedly called on Ethiopia not to affect Egypt's share of Nile water, saying "all options are open" and stressing that "cooperation is better than fighting."
Ethiopia's Markos, however, said his country was cooperating and had compromised by extending the time to refill the dam from three years to five years to seven years. But he said water quotas could be discussed later.
"We did not have any such agreement on quotas in the past; therefore, we are not talking about it," he said. "In the future we can discuss the topic that you raised."
Allam acknowledged that Ethiopia wasn't part of a 1959 agreement on water quotas. But he noted that in 1902, the Ethiopian king signed an agreement with Britain on behalf of Egypt and Sudan, pledging not to affect the Blue Nile's flow.
Des Roches said Egypt was trying to bring in international powers to mediate and encourage Ethiopia to change its position. But if diplomatic efforts fail, he said, there is a risk of military conflict over the dam.
"Egypt has a very capable military, and if they are operating in conjunction with Sudan, they obviously would be able to stage raids in and out," he said. "I think militarily you have to do aerial bombardment from Sudanese bases. It could be done without having to refuel."
After his meetings in Cairo, Feltman held meetings in Eritrea on Thursday and Sudan on Friday. His last stop will be Ethiopia on Sunday.
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