The United States is again stepping into efforts to resolve a dispute over Ethiopia’s new hydro-power dam.
The U.S. envoy for 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. 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. Sissi stressed that Cairo sees the dam as an existential issue for Egypt, and warned his government will not tolerate any moves by Addis Ababa that could reduce Egypt's share of water from the Nile because of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam. He urged the U.S. to play "an effective role" to settle the dispute.
Feltman was quoted as saying President Joe Biden is "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 hydro-power generators are expected to provide electricity to 60 percent of Ethiopia, which Addis Ababa sees as crucial to lifting millions out
of poverty. But in Cairo and Khartoum, there is 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 think Ethiopia has 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, [we] ended up with almost common conclusions by the three parties with very good scenarios for filling and operation,” Allam said.
The 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.
Ultimately, however, Ethiopia declined to sign the agreement, in part because of concerns the deal would restrict its use of the water within its borders. The Ethiopia 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 percent 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 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,” Tekele said.
Egypt, Sudan seek deal
Egypt and Sudan say a legally binding agreement on 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 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. The Ethiopians here are saying ‘what is in our country is ours and whatever we allow to go downstream, be happy for it.’,” Des Roches said.
“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.”
Egyptian President 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.”
Ambassador Tekele, however, said his country is cooperating and has compromised by extending the time to refill the dam from three years to five to seven years. But he said water quotas can be discussed later.
“You know about water quotas, we did not have any such agreement on quotas in the past, therefore we are not talking about it. In the future we can discuss the topic that you raised,” the ambassador said.
Allam acknowledges that Ethiopia wasn’t part of a 1959 agreement on water quotas. But he notes 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.
After his meetings in Cairo, Ambassador Feltman held meetings in Eritrea on Thursday and goes to Sudan on Friday. His last stop will be Ethiopia on Sunday.