Trouble as Trump dives into the dispute over Ethiopia’s Nile mega-dam

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Ethiopia is adamant it will not be strong-armed by the US in talks to end the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam dispute. As the US swings from observer to power broker, the stalemate is splitting the Arab world and Africa.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is a massive hydroelectric power plant being constructed on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. In mid-January, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan reached a preliminary agreement aimed at clearing the way for the filling operation of the $5 billion project on the Blue Nile. That was after years of wrangling that saw Egypt threaten military action against the dam. But over the past week, a statement by the US mediators has triggered a fresh stalemate.

On February 28, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin cautioned Addis Ababa not to start filling the dam as planned before a final agreement after Ethiopia stayed away from a followup meeting in Washington. The following day, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew slammed the US for being “undiplomatic” and called for continued talks to settle unresolved matters.

Ethiopia has criticized the US for diverging from its role as mediator. Talk of US bias in the process it is meant only to observe, alongside the World Bank, is doing the rounds in Ethiopia, with some analysts seeing Washington’s strong support for Cairo as a means fostering US leverage in the Middle East.

Egypt has taken sharp aim at Ethiopia, accusing it of boycotting the last Washington round and warning that it will use all means necessary to safeguard its interests.
Arab world sides with Egypt

“The US and the World Bank’s role does seem to have extended beyond being observers and actually they have been involved in drafting an agreement, obviously with the input of the negotiators from the three countries but it’s that draft agreement which Ethiopia has rejected,” said William Davison, a senior analyst on Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group.

Ethiopia does seem willing to continue with talks, however. “I am told that Ethiopian negotiators are preparing their own draft agreement which they will present to the other parties. So it looks like the talks will continue in one form or another,” said Davison.

Egypt’s claim to a right to the waters of the Nile under a British colonial deal versus Ethiopia’s push for a new equitable arrangement for the Nile Basin countries is likely to remain a sticking point. “That disagreement will probably continue to be a major factor and major obstacle,” Davison told DW.

On Tuesday, the White House made public the assurance of support President Donald Trump gave his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on the phone over the dam project negotiations in the face of the Ethiopian outcry.

On Thursday, the Arab League weighed in too, asserting Egypt’s historical rights to the waters of the Nile. The bloc said it rejected any unilateral action by Ethiopia to fill and operate the dam in the absence of a deal with the downstream countries. Sudan declined to support the resolution. The country is reportedly wary of open confrontation between its partners in the dam negotiations.

Africa
Trouble as Trump dives into the dispute over Ethiopia’s Nile mega-dam

Ethiopia is adamant it will not be strong-armed by the US in talks to end the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam dispute. As the US swings from observer to power broker, the stalemate is splitting the Arab world and Africa.

Äthiopien Addis Abeba | Diskussion Blue Nile & Renaissance-Damm | Flaggen (DW/G. Tedla)

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is a massive hydroelectric power plant being constructed on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. In mid-January, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan reached a preliminary agreement aimed at clearing the way for the filling operation of the $5 billion project on the Blue Nile. That was after years of wrangling that saw Egypt threaten military action against the dam. But over the past week, a statement by the US mediators has triggered a fresh stalemate.

On February 28, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin cautioned Addis Ababa not to start filling the dam as planned before a final agreement after Ethiopia stayed away from a followup meeting in Washington. The following day, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew slammed the US for being “undiplomatic” and called for continued talks to settle unresolved matters.

Ethiopia has criticized the US for diverging from its role as mediator. Talk of US bias in the process it is meant only to observe, alongside the World Bank, is doing the rounds in Ethiopia, with some analysts seeing Washington’s strong support for Cairo as a means fostering US leverage in the Middle East.

Egypt has taken sharp aim at Ethiopia, accusing it of boycotting the last Washington round and warning that it will use all means necessary to safeguard its interests.
Nile River in Cairo (picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Nabil)

The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1929 granted Egypt veto power over construction projects on the Nile or its tributaries

Arab world sides with Egypt

“The US and the World Bank’s role does seem to have extended beyond being observers and actually they have been involved in drafting an agreement, obviously with the input of the negotiators from the three countries but it’s that draft agreement which Ethiopia has rejected,” said William Davison, a senior analyst on Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group.

Ethiopia does seem willing to continue with talks, however. “I am told that Ethiopian negotiators are preparing their own draft agreement which they will present to the other parties. So it looks like the talks will continue in one form or another,” said Davison.

Egypt’s claim to a right to the waters of the Nile under a British colonial deal versus Ethiopia’s push for a new equitable arrangement for the Nile Basin countries is likely to remain a sticking point. “That disagreement will probably continue to be a major factor and major obstacle,” Davison told DW.

On Tuesday, the White House made public the assurance of support President Donald Trump gave his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on the phone over the dam project negotiations in the face of the Ethiopian outcry.

On Thursday, the Arab League weighed in too, asserting Egypt’s historical rights to the waters of the Nile. The bloc said it rejected any unilateral action by Ethiopia to fill and operate the dam in the absence of a deal with the downstream countries. Sudan declined to support the resolution. The country is reportedly wary of open confrontation between its partners in the dam negotiations.

Sudan takes a neutral stance

Ethiopia on Friday condemned the Arab League’s ‘blind support to Egypt” but praised Sudan over its “principled” stance.

The dam has been the source of a major dispute since it was announced. The main contention is its reservoir, which has a capacity of more than 74 billion cubic meters and will be flooded to form an artificial lake. In the past, Ethiopia has said it wants to fill the reservoir as quickly as possible — ideally within the next seven years — to ensure the dam can operate at full capacity as soon as possible.

In turn, Egypt has accused Ethiopia of dismissing its concerns about water security, especially in the case of drought. Ethiopia built the dam and now that it is in the process of negotiating an international agreement on the details of the filling and operation of the dam, is saying that a new arrangement must be struck on how to share the Nile waters.

Various rounds of negotiations in the runup to the breakthrough had failed. As Egypt’s President el-Sisi turned to Trump for mediation, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed turned to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. The US has taken the lead.
Is the US a balanced broker?

“The United States is obviously under pressure, presumably from President Trump, to come up with a solution to this quickly. As a result, the treasury department has issued a statement that seems to agree with what Egypt has done so far,” David Sheen, the former US ambassador to Ethiopia, told DW.

“That raises the question as to whether the US is taking a balanced position on the issue of the Nile dam project dispute. It is true that the US would like to have maximum support for its so-called proposal to deal with the Palestinian question. There has not been a lot of support for it from Arab countries, and it is possible that this could be a trade-off with Egypt.”

Trump and el-Sisi are seen to be on good terms, while the US has an excellent institutionalized relationship with Ethiopia, according to Davison. “But ultimately, the sums involved are much bigger when it comes to US assistance to Egypt and probably also concerns about Egypt’s geopolitical role. And then, the other factor seems to be that President Trump seems to have taken a personal interest in trying to achieve a deal on the Nile.”

Sheen told DW: “You can’t all of a sudden play the role of a binding arbitrator or you’re telling one party or the other what to do. I’m not sure that it’s that point, but seems to be departing from the idea of good officers by the US to some kind of stronger role.”

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