The United States Must Not Pick Sides in the Nile River Dispute

Ethiopia and Egypt are at odds over a Nile dam. Washington should be helping them compromise, rather than doing Cairo’s bidding.

A general view of the Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, on Dec. 26, 2019.
A general view of the Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, on Dec. 26, 2019. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

Egypt and Ethiopia have once again locked horns over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile. On Feb. 26, Ethiopia temporarily suspended its participation in the U.S.-mediated negotiations over the filling and operation of the GERD, requesting more time to deliberate on the draft agreement. With the dam 70 percent complete and its reservoir expected to start being filled in July, the time for reaching an agreement is ticking away. Ethiopia and Egypt should be ready to make significant concessions to avoid a catastrophic escalation in this seemingly intractable dispute.

The longest river in the world, the Nile stretches across 11 countries in its journey of 4,000 miles from the equatorial rivers that feed Lake Victoria to its final destination in the Mediterranean Sea. Among the countries that share the Nile, two have the most at stake. Egypt, a desert nation of 100 million people, is literally the creation of the Nile, relying on the river for 90 percent of its freshwater needs.

Ethiopia, an East African country of 112 million, contributes the lion’s share of the Nile waters, with its three tributaries—the Blue Nile, Sobat, and Atbara—carrying about 84 percent of the total runoff in the Nile. With a growing but otherwise resource-poor economy, Ethiopia is keen to develop its vast potential for hydroelectricity generation in the Nile basin to become a regional hub of electric power exports.

The GERD, a $5 billion project that will be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, is a part of that ambition. The dam is located on Ethiopia’s flank of the Blue Nile, just 12 miles from its border with Sudan. It will have paramount economic value to Ethiopia, doubling the country’s electricity generation capacity and earning as much as a billion dollars annually from energy exports to Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, and potentially Egypt. The GERD’s massive reservoir will store 74 billion cubic meters (BCM) of water, roughly equal to a year-and-half’s worth of the Blue Nile’s flow, which will be gradually filled upon the dam’s completion.

The Blue Nile is highly seasonal, with 80 percent of its discharge occurring from July to October during the short rainy season on the Ethiopian highlands. This makes it prone to heavy flooding, while the heavy sedimentation it carries reduces hydropower production in dams with small reservoirs. The GERD will help mitigate this, leading to a regulated, steady flow that will improve navigation, irrigation, and hydropower generation downstream. Sudan, which does not have a major dam on the Nile, will enjoy most of these benefits, which explains its decision to side with Ethiopia for the first time in the history of Nile politics.

Egypt, however, has less to gain from these changes as it regulates the flow of the Nile using the massive reservoir of the Aswan High Dam, which has a capacity of 169 BCM. Egypt worries that an upstream dam on the Blue Nile, which contributes about 60 percent of the flow of the Nile, will reduce water supply and power generation at Aswan. As a hydropower project, the GERD will not directly consume water once its reservoir is filled. It could, however, reduce the amount of water Egypt receives if it leads to a significant increase of irrigation in Sudan, which adds to Egypt’s worry.

In 2015, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt agreed on a Declaration of Principles that stipulated an “equitable and reasonable” utilization of the Nile that will not cause “significant harm” to other riparian countries. In spite of years of negotiations, however, they have made little progress in specifying the technical details on the filling and operating of the dam.

To safeguard its reservoir at Aswan, Egypt wants to secure an agreement that binds Ethiopia to releasing a fixed amount of the river’s flow and a process for monitoring Ethiopia’s compliance. Ethiopia, on the other hand, seeks to avoid a permanent commitment for a water quota that extends beyond the GERD’s filling period and demands a flexible agreement with a provision for periodic reviews. Behind the facade of legal wrangling, the scope for a future Nile project is at stake. Ethiopia wants to avoid an agreement that restricts its capacity to harness its massive hydropower potential of about 45,000 megawatts; Egypt wants exactly such a restriction.

The negotiations gained momentum in November 2019 after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called on U.S. President Donald Trump to help broker an agreement. The foreign and water ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan have held a series of meetings in Washington since December and met Trump at the White House. What the United States wants to accomplish through its involvement, however, is not clear and appears to be inspired more by Trump’s desire to broker a deal than by a foreign policy imperative.

In a recent speech on the campaign trail, Trump implied that he deserved a Nobel Peace Prize for his brokering role in the Nile dispute. The negotiations were also coordinated by the Department of the Treasury, sidelining the State Department, which possesses the appropriate expertise for this kind of engagement. The Treasury Department serves as the U.S. governor to the International Monetary Fund, which, along with the World Bank, has committed significant resources to aid Ethiopia’s reform efforts under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The intent behind the involvement of the Treasury and the World Bank, therefore, seems to be stepping up pressure on Ethiopia by signaling the financial costs of recalcitrance.

Ethiopia’s withdrawal has left the negotiations in limbo at a critical time. The country’s foreign ministry has expressed its disapproval of the draft agreement, characterizing it as “unacceptable & highly partisan,” while Egypt has noted that it signed the agreement at a meeting where Ethiopia was not present. Instead of helping resolve these differences, the U.S. Treasury released a statement that argued that the draft agreement “addresses all issues in a balanced and equitable manner” and warned Ethiopia that “final testing and filling [of the GERD] should not take place without an agreement.”

To Ethiopia, this seemed to confirm the longstanding fear that the United States has been a biased mediator. David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, argues that “the United States seems to be putting its thumb on the scale in favor of Egypt.” Ethiopian analysts interpret U.S. overreach in the Nile negotiations as an overture to appease Egypt in the context of Trump’s Middle East peace plan, which has been roundly rejected by Arab nations. While there is no hard evidence, a backroom deal of this sort would not be inconceivable considering Trump’s closeness with Sisi, whom he was overheard calling his “favorite dictator” during the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France. After the Nile negotiations stalled, Trump reportedly made a phone call to reassure Sisi that he would continue with his mediation effort.

Egypt has subsequently commanded the support of the Arab League in condemning Ethiopia’s position, escalating the conflict to a regional scale. A war of words has ensued between the two countries, undermining the prospect of a negotiated solution to the dispute. A failed U.S. mediation has thus ended up fueling tension in an already heated disagreement.

Through its involvement, the U.S. government has also squandered its hard-won soft power in Ethiopia, which has been a staunch security ally for decades. The GERD holds a symbolic significance to Ethiopia, which financed it domestically through a bond offering that was widely bought by the public.

Abiy, who will be facing a national election in August, would be loath to sign an agreement that would expose him to accusations of shortchanging his country’s interests under American duress. Sticks and carrots from Washington are hence unlikely to succeed in getting Ethiopia to step into a treaty that purportedly affects its right to use Nile waters.

Washington will have to find a way out of this conundrum. Its success in mediating the dispute will depend on its ability to find a middle ground acceptable to both Ethiopia and Egypt, which is complicated by the fact that it has already thrown its weight behind a draft agreement that Ethiopia rejects. Ethiopia’s buy-in is crucial for the success of a Nile treaty, especially considering the difficulty of externally enforcing such an agreement. It is particularly important to avoid the risk of a future fallout from a poorly designed treaty that does not enjoy solid support by key signatories.

If the U.S.-led mediation effort stalls, the next step will be for the three countries to take the matter to their heads of government, as stipulated by the 2015 Declaration of Principles. Major allies of the negotiating countries, in particular the European Union, can play a constructive role in facilitating an agreement by helping mitigate potential adverse effects for downstream countries during the filling period of the GERD.

The World Bank, which has been attending the Washington negotiations as an observer, can also offer its technical expertise to craft an agreement. The bank has rich experience in the field, having played a key role in helping India and Pakistan implement the highly effective Indus Waters Treaty.

A major stumbling block to Ethiopia is that the negotiations are being pushed to a rapid closure, even as the scope of the agreement is expanding to include the sensitive issue of water quotas. This also undercuts the efforts of the expert panel commissioned by the three countries in 2015, the National Independent Scientific Research Group, which is concluding a report to guide the filling and operation of the dam. In recruiting the aid of the U.S. government to quickly wrap up an agreement, Egypt appears to have preferred a political quick fix to the tedious process of consensus building.

During the negotiations, Ethiopia appears to have agreed to release 37 BCMs per year, which would allow it to fill the GERD’s reservoir by a maximum of 12 BCMs per annum. (The average annual flow of the Blue Nile is 49 BCM.) There is, however, less clarity on what should happen in years of drought when the river’s flow falls below the agreed threshold.

These issues can be addressed effectively if the Nile negotiations are implemented through a staggered process. The first chapter of the negotiations can focus on the filling of the GERD’s reservoir. The negotiations have made significant progress on the initial filling of the dam’s reservoir, and Ethiopia has reportedly agreed to a plan of storing 4.9 BCMs per year (equivalent to 10 percent of the annual flow of the Blue Nile and 7 percent of the reservoir’s full capacity). There is hence ample time for finalizing an agreement on the last round of filling the dam’s reservoir.

The second chapter of the agreement could focus on the long-term operation of the GERD, where the crux of the current disagreement lies. Ironically, the dam’s reservoir improves the basin countries’ resilience for drought by creating a buffer supply of water that can be drawn from in times of water shortage. At the same time, it introduces a dilemma on how much of the Blue Nile’s flow should be stored in the GERD’s reservoir and how much should be allowed to flow downstream for storage in Egypt’s massive reservoir at Aswan.

The competing interests would likely be at odds in years of prolonged drought, when Ethiopia might want to store water for future hydropower generation, while Egypt would want continued flow to keep its Aswan reservoir at the minimum level required to generate hydropower.

The Nile is perhaps the only major river with two major reservoirs in different countries that need close coordination. It is technically feasible to find a process for managing the GERD’s reservoir in a way that meets the water needs of Egypt, while also maximizing the dam’s hydropower production. Ethiopia’s use of the GERD for hydropower offers it some degree of flexibility to accommodate Egypt’s worry of a depletion of its reservoir at Aswan during years of drought. This, however, requires that the two countries work together in good faith to devise a flexible process of cooperation. Currently, mutual suspicion is turning what should be an asset into a liability.

Using a multistage approach would help create a robust agreement that is informed by technical and legal issues that emerge during the initial filling of the GERD. Moreover, it has the advantage of breaking what seems an insurmountable problem into smaller, manageable parts. By allowing the negotiating parties to sequentially build on what they agree, it further creates an opportunity for developing a spirit of mutual trust.

Finally, a Nile agreement will have to be a part of a cooperative framework for greater regional and economic integration. The GERD will heighten the interdependence among the countries that share the Nile and enhance the need for close and proactive coordination to optimize the river’s various uses across borders. As climate change creates new vulnerabilities such as erratic rainfall, it will become even more essential to actively coordinate water usage across the full stretch of the Nile.

The three signatory countries can use trade and investment incentives to optimize water use, for example by encouraging water-intensive production to move to rain-abundant countries. Upstream countries with hydropower potential can also consider joint development of dams to strengthen trust and facilitate coordination across borders. Economic integration, in return, would provide a safeguard against polarizing political forces that could pit countries against one another in the event of severe water shortages.

A river with many masters, the Nile poses a unique coordination challenge to the countries that share it. A successful Nile agreement will have to be founded on mutual trust and consensus. Rather than bickering and seeking outside support for their respective national agendas, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan should join forces to build a lasting agreement that will advance their shared interests for the long haul.

Addisu Lashitew is a research fellow at the Brookings Institution. Twitter: @AddisuLashitew

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