It is almost three weeks since a large-scale war started in the Tigray region of Ethiopia involving a multitude of internal actors and external military players. That this is happening in a country where the African Union (AU) is rooted, with its overarching slogan ‘silencing the guns in Africa’, is puzzling, to say the least.
GERD: Despite Trump’s reckless remarks, US can play significant role in Nile dispute
It’s a high bar, but President Trump’s comments about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) – in which he chastised Ethiopia for rejecting his proposed deal and suggested that Egypt might eventually have to blow it up – are in the running for his most casually reckless foreign policy pronouncement to date.
Beyond what they confirmed about the president’s rhetorical rashness, they also revealed what has been wrong about the US approach to the ongoing dispute over the Blue Nile’s waters and why a reset is badly needed.
For Ethiopia, Trump’s remarks were the latest in a string of steps that have convinced Addis Ababa that Washington, far from being an honest broker in resolving GERD-related tensions between it and its downstream neighbours, seeks to squeeze it into submission.
The other most notable one was the partial cut in US aid following Ethiopia’s decision to impound water in the dam’s reservoir without agreement from Egypt or Sudan, the downstream states. A retaliatory measure Trump was quick to brag about in his call with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and military council leader Fattah al-Burhan.
Regardless of what one might think of Ethiopia’s stance, Washington’s words and deeds have made it hard for Addis Ababa to give ground, and harder still for the US to play a role in persuading it to do that.
The US posture is all the more illogical since, with the initial filling of the reservoir, the giant hydropower project is now more than ever a fact on the ground. And it is all the more counterproductive because a solution that meets all sides’ needs remains realistic, especially as Cairo, Khartoum and Cairo on Tuesday 27 October resumed tripartite negotiations under African Union auspices.
Dispute is not a simple or new affair
The dispute over the dam has old roots and is not a black and white affair. It traces back to a 1959 treaty between Egypt and Sudan that allocated use of the Nile’s waters to those two countries alone.
For decades, Ethiopia has seen these arrangements as preventing it from using the Blue Nile to catalyse its economic development, while Egypt in particular has seen them as both immutable and existential.
All sides have legitimate concerns.
Ethiopia views building the GERD as a sovereign right and integral to its development. Egypt worries that the dam will create shortages on the river it relies on to meet the vast majority of its own water needs. Sudan fears it will suffer if the facility is not operated in concert with dams on its territory.
But these interests are far from irreconcilable.
Benefits from GERD
Managed wisely and cooperatively, the GERD could reduce flooding and boost irrigated agriculture in Sudan, alongside Egypt and others in the Gulf and East Africa. Sudan could also benefit from the dam’s plentiful electricity generation.
It could help mitigate regional drought made more likely by climate change because its large reservoir could supplement any meagre flows. In short, even during tough times, the dam could generate Ethiopia electricity while also providing water to its stricken neighbours.
The parties have already reached consensus on several important aspects in talks now overseen by the African Union and observed by the EU, US and others. In particular, they agree on how the dam should be filled and operated when rainfall is sufficient. They disagree, however, on aspects of how to manage a prolonged dry spell, how to resolve disputes, and how to factor into any agreement potential future upstream Ethiopian projects that would reduce inflows to the dam.
One can see the contours of what a deal might look like. As a first step, the parties could agree to minimum downstream releases from the GERD, to be adjusted by consensus if Ethiopia made plans to extract water upstream; they would ask a third-party to verify all data on rainfall, river flow and reservoir releases; and they would commit to sending any disputes to a conciliation commission.
Subsequently, and together with all riparian states, they could revive a stalled multilateral treaty-negotiation process designed to equitably allocate the river’s waters and jointly manage the basin. At that stage, and with a comprehensive accord in place, Ethiopia would sign up to Egypt’s and Sudan’s demand for binding arbitration as the last stage in settling any unresolved disputes. Achieving all that will require bringing the parties to the table and encouraging them to stay there and act constructively.
Whether Trump wins a second term or Vice-President Biden earns a first one, the US will only be able to play that part if it resets its approach. It should join the AU and the EU in urging the parties to view the dam as a cornerstone of regional economic integration, and help them see it that way by suggesting they would support the transmission lines and power deals, as well as the joint agricultural investments necessary to turn the dam into a collective asset for all.
The US could also help by bringing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on board; not only could they bankroll investments, but they could also benefit from increased Sudanese agricultural production.
With or without President Trump’s careless approach, Nile issues could remain contentious for years to come unless the parties change course. It’s time for the US to resume the role of effective mediator and convince them that they still stand to benefit significantly if they can reach a deal.
A compromise is within reach. The parties should not let it slip downstream, nor allow Washington’s blundering interventions to wash it away.