The United States Has a Role to Play in the Nile
The United States recently imposed punitive measures against Ethiopia over a dam that could plunge an entire region into chaos. The administration of President Donald Trump is denying Ethiopia up to $130 million of financial aid after its unilateral decision to start filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Ethiopia is building the dam on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile River. The dam, which is about nine miles from the Ethiopian-Sudanese border, is slated to provide energy for Ethiopia’s industrialization plans, but Egypt sees it as a threat because it would reduce its diminishing freshwater resources. The Ethiopian government started filling the dam without an agreement with the two other downstream countries, Sudan and Egypt, because of domestic political pressure and a belief in Addis Ababa that the United States was favoring Egypt.
Withholding aid jeopardizes the current African Union-sponsored talks between Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia to resolve the dispute over the dam. The United States — along with the European Union, World Bank, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mali — is an observer to the negotiations, and its move has been perceived by Ethiopia as a neocolonial intervention to impose a biased agreement in favor of Egypt. Ethiopia’s unilateral move was wrong and has weakened its negotiation position, but the U.S. decision to withhold aid will make it more difficult for Ethiopia to reach an agreement with its neighbors. The current talks present the last chance to solve the dispute, since the first stage of the dam-filling process is already complete. The United States should support the African Union trilateral talks and not intervene on behalf of one side or another. Additionally, the development has wider geopolitical implications: China invested $1.2 billion into the project — nearly one-quarter of the total cost — and Ethiopia may try to play China and the United States off of each other for support.
In 2011, Ethiopia began building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in a gorge of the Blue Nile. If completed, it would be the largest hydroelectric project in Africa, and twice as big as Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest natural lake. It is expected to generate about 6,000 megawatts of electricity, which should cover the local electricity shortage and provide $1 billion a year in exports.
Ethiopia’s government relies heavily on the promise of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project to spark economic growth and investment, and enable massive industrialization initiatives. Most Ethiopians hope that this strategic project will alleviate poverty and raise the standard of living.
However, Ethiopians’ aspiration for prosperity might complicate the lives of millions of Egyptians. Cairo considers the dam construction to be an imminent threat to its water resources. The Nile provides almost all of Egypt’s water. In 1959, Egypt signed a treaty with Sudan that would give Egypt two-thirds of the Nile’s water, but even that is no longer enough to meet the growing need. This treaty, however, gave Egypt veto rights against upstream countries like Ethiopia, who themselves may experience water shortages in the near future. Moreover, Egyptian leaders have stated that the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project is a matter of national security, since the Nile is the backbone of the country’s agricultural sector and the main source of its freshwater. Cairo is willing to use any option to protect their interests — in fact, several Egyptian leaders have stated that military force should not be ruled out.
Sudan has taken a different approach. Government officials declared that they support Ethiopia’s right to utilize its water resources. However, they also raised serious concerns about unilateral moves and emphasized the necessity of cooperation among Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. On the one hand, Khartoum expects to gain enormous benefits from the dam, which is meant to provide it with low-cost electricity. Furthermore, the dam will protect Sudan from the flooding that burdens it annually. This summer, the country suffered from the worst floods since 1912, which caused the death of 86 people and catastrophic damage. But the dam is not all good news for Sudan. The project would decrease the amount of silt available for agriculture and the manufacturing of bricks, and it would be a humanitarian disaster for Sudan if the dam suffered a rupture.
Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan have held several rounds of talks since 2010. In March 2015, they signed a Declaration of Principles on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Khartoum. The document prioritized cooperation under the premise of avoiding significant harm to any country. It also asked the signatories to agree on guidelines and rules for the first filling of the reservoir. However, a major technical disagreement between Egypt and Ethiopia on the duration of reservoir filling has not been resolved. Egypt is concerned about the amount of water that Ethiopia will release during the filling duration. In normal rainfall years, filling would not be a problem, but during a prolonged drought, it would present a serious decrease in the Nile’s water flow. While Sudan and Egypt demand that Ethiopia release a fixed amount of the water from the dam’s reservoir, Ethiopia insists that it should have some flexibility to deal with drought. Egypt is also concerned that a drought might take place during the filling process, which is why it is calling for a longer filling period.
U.S. Interest in Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
After years of unsuccessful talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, Egypt requested that the United States mediate between the three countries to reach an agreement, believing that Washington is well-positioned to bring about an agreement.
In October 2019, the U.S. Treasury Department and the World Bank called for a new round of talks, which did not succeed. Egypt was the only signatory of the proposed deal. Months later in June 2020, Egypt and Sudan asked the U.N. Security Council to engage the issue, as Ethiopia announced that it would be filling the dam unilaterally in mid-July.
On July 22, 2020, officials from the three countries agreed to resume talks under the African Union umbrella in a final push to reach an agreement before the second stage of the dam filling. However, these talks will be doomed to fail if the United States continues to block Ethiopia from financial aid before reaching an agreement.
Withholding U.S. aid will also produce a “rally ’round the flag” effect in Ethiopia, since the government has long represented the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam as a symbol of national sovereignty. It was financed mostly by Ethiopian people, who believe that the dam will end their country’s long fight with poverty. Some Ethiopian media outlets called the dam “the new Adwa,” referring to the Battle of Adwa that marked the Ethiopians’ defeat of Italian colonizers.
I experienced these negative sentiments firsthand when I visited Matamma, a border town between Sudan and Ethiopia, in November 2018. Ethiopian border control officers denied my entrance, even though Sudanese and Ethiopian nationals are permitted to cross the border. I learned later that officer mistook me for an Egyptian. Animosity toward Egypt is common in Ethiopia because of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam dispute.
Last month, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew reinforced this nationalistic narrative about the dam when he said in a controversial tweet that “the Nile is ours.” However, the Ethiopian government’s approach to the talks is not only a matter of foreign policy and sovereignty, but ties into internal political and security dynamics as well. Addis Ababa’s bold and unexpected step to start the dam-filling process unilaterality is a distraction from Ethiopia’s internal turmoil. Tensions are rising between the Tigray regional government and the central government in Addis Ababa as the former holds regional elections and defies federal directions.
Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, is also facing growing discontent in the Oromo region, where 166 people died in the unrest after the assassination of the Ethiopian singer, Hachalu Hundessa. As a result of this domestic upheaval, the government is internally vulnerable and likely feels pressure to harden their negotiation position with respect to the dam.
The United States should reinstate its financial aid to Ethiopia and support the ongoing African Union process to reach an agreement. While Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to fill the dam was unhelpful, Washington’s response has limited Addis Ababa’s options in dealing with the dispute, stoked anti-Americanism, and reinforced the belief that the United States is only concerned about protecting Egyptian interests. Ethiopia, which helped provided support for U.S. counter-terrorism missions in Somalia, likely feels cornered. The United States can expect Ethiopia to play the China card by highlighting its growing ties with Beijing, which played a vital role in financing the project.
The United States can help stabilize the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Washington should use its influence in Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia to support trilateral talks in the African Union. It is in its national interest to maintain stability in the region, and supporting the Africa Union talks would prevent uncertainty and chaos.
Yasir Zaidan is a lecturer of international affairs at the National University in Sudan, and a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington.