Ethiopia Needs the United States to Act as an Honest Broker in the Nile Dam Dispute

As East Africa faces a triple crisis from COVID-19, floods, and locusts, cutting U.S. aid to the Ethiopian government is not the solution. Neutral mediation to resolve the GERD dispute can result in a win-win situation.

Workers move iron girders from a crane at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba, Ethiopia, on Dec. 26, 2019.
Workers move iron girders from a crane at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba, Ethiopia, on Dec. 26, 2019. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

In August, the United States decided to cut its foreign aid to Ethiopia during a period of unprecedented crisis for the region, affecting up to $130 million in funds. Construction continues on Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile River, with negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan at a standstill. Despite U.S. mediation since November 2019, the countries haven’t reached an agreement over the dam—leading the United States to penalize Ethiopia.

East Africa is already facing a triple challenge this year: the coronavirus pandemic; a plague of desert locusts; and flooding that has affected more than 1.3 million people. Ethiopia has recorded more than 110,554 cases of COVID-19 and 1,709 deaths as of Dec. 2. The locust swarms, which began in Yemen and have reached Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, are likely to cause a regional food security crisis that compounds the effects of the pandemic. The World Bank estimates that the swarms could cost $8.5 billion in East Africa and Yemen this year. In Ethiopia alone, the locusts have damaged 200,000 hectares of crops.

And in recent weeks, internal conflict has flared in Ethiopia, where a militia attack on military bases in the Tigray region on Nov. 4 pushed the federal government to respond with force. Unless Ethiopia manages the conflict, it could create a regional crisis throughout the Horn of Africa.

Amid these challenges, the long-standing debate over the construction of the GERD remains unresolved. The U.S. aid cuts to Ethiopia will not help the current negotiations but will instead complicate the talks. The United States didn’t take the same harsh approach toward Egypt, which will affect its perceived role as a neutral mediator. The move could increase tensions and disrupt the ongoing negotiations with Egypt and Sudan over the filling and operation of the dam.

Experts and some U.S. lawmakers have suggested that suspending aid didn’t take into consideration current conditions in the region. Since the GERD is an Ethiopian-financed project, aid cuts at a critical moment when the country already faces multiple challenges will significantly affect the people of Ethiopia. Given more than three-quarters of the dam is already complete, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan should return to the table to pursue a long-term water-sharing agreement. A discussion that prepares for challenges down the road, including climate change-induced shocks, can put the ongoing talks back on track.

The Blue Nile is a tributary that begins in Ethiopia but supplies 85 percent of the water that flows into the Nile River, which passes through 11 riparian countries. Despite Ethiopia’s plans to build a hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile since the 1960s, colonial-era water treaties left long-standing debates with Egypt and Sudan, which lie downstream. Established in 1963, the Organization of African Unity—the African Union’s predecessor—rejected most colonial-era agreements, and Ethiopia and the other upstream countries refuse to recognize water-sharing treaties between Egypt and Sudan signed in 1929 and 1959.

As a result, in 1999 the riparian countries established an inter-governmental partnership, the Nile Basin Initiative, and signed an agreement for sustainable and equitable use of the river. (Egypt and Sudan were part of the initiative, and Eritrea participated as an observer.) Following up on the 1999 agreement, Ethiopia began construction on the massive, $4.6 billion GERD project in 2011.

Progress in the GERD negotiations has been slow, but there is promise. In 2015, the leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan met in Khartoum and signed a Declaration of Principles agreement that supplanted the colonial-era water treaties that had given Egypt an upper hand over other riparian countries

The dam is a national project and a source of pride for millions of Ethiopians, and the Ethiopian government argues that it will not significantly reduce the flow of the Nile. Expected to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity upon completion, the GERD aims to fulfill the demands of the 55 percent of Ethiopia’s population that currently lacks access to electricity. It will also help reduce poverty and boost businesses: Enterprises across Ethiopia incur up to 15 percent of production costs due to power outages.

Instead of helping mediate the dispute, the U.S. decision to withhold aid to Ethiopia could disrupt the ongoing discussions. In February, Ethiopia walked away from the last round of U.S-mediated talks in Washington. The African Union, which is currently involved in negotiations, has embraced principle of “African solutions for African problems,” which seeks to prevent external interference in disputes and conflicts.

Since delaying the completion of the dam would lead to huge additional costs, Ethiopia has kept up construction. The first stage of filling the dam’s reservoir was conducted in July, and it will continue over the next five to seven years until the dam reserve stores 74 billion cubic meters of water.

The GERD is expected to significantly improve the livelihood of millions throughout the region. Ethiopia plans to supply affordable electric power to the neighboring countries, including Djibouti and Sudan. Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, and the other parties involved in mediation, should take five key actions to facilitate a win-win outcome in the current negotiations.

First, the three countries and other stakeholders must recognize that sharing Nile water resources is not a zero-sum game; it can result in a win-win situation. This basic principle undermines Egypt and Sudan’s colonial-era water treaties, which excluded upstream countries without their consent. In both the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty and the 1959 United Kingdom and independent Egypt treaties, the upstream riparian countries did not participate.

Second, the United States must remain neutral in the mediation process or risk losing credibility as an honest broker. In a phone conversation with Sudan and Israel’s leaders in October, U.S. President Donald Trump said that Egypt might “blow up” the dam if an agreement is not reached over its operation. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn said that the Trump administration was “putting its thumb on the scale in favor of Egypt.” Ethiopia’s foreign minister has called the United States “undiplomatic” in its effort to resolve the GERD dispute.

Third, other countries’ experiences with a transboundary river, such as the Colorado River Basin in the United States and Mexico, could help to resolve concerns about the management and operation of the GERD. These experiences could complement the advice of experts’ groups formed by Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan to analyze the prospects of a major drought and how to address it. Following a scientific approach and promoting the development of groundwater resources in Egypt could assuage the fears of the occurrence of drought.

Fourth, science, diplomacy, and collaboration will be important to mitigate the risks and improve resilience to multiple and overlapping shocks, such as the coronavirus pandemic, desert locusts, and flooding. The United States should provide additional support to facilitate a long-lasting solution, not cut off aid at a critical time. Since July, more than 300,000 people have been displaced by flooding in Ethiopia, exposing them to malaria and waterborne diseases more likely to affect vulnerable groups such as women and children.

Finally, given the importance of U.S. aid to Ethiopia’s economy, cutting it off as the country faces multiple daunting challenges is unwise. It will negatively affect the U.S. government’s image in Ethiopia, increase tensions, and undermine the perception of U.S. neutrality in the GERD negotiations.

Above all, managing the GERD dispute will not only help Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan but also the entire East African region. Ethiopia is too big to fail; if it does, the entire region will be dragged down with it. The African Union has begun a conflict resolution discussion with the Ethiopian government over the Tigray conflict, in collaboration with the United Nations. Likewise, the African Union-led talks on the GERD dispute should be scaled up to reach an agreement on the filling and operation of the dam.

There is no peaceful way to resolve an issue such as the GERD dispute other than diplomacy and collaboration. Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan have a long history of diplomatic relations with the United States and look forward to working with the incoming Biden administration—which should serve as a truly neutral broker—when it takes office in January 2021.

Governing the Nile River water with a new transboundary cooperative framework can accommodate the interest of both upstream and downstream countries on sharing the Nile River rather than relying on the controversial colonial-era treaties. In this case, all three countries, as well as stakeholders in the negotiations, would be winners.

Tigist Mekonnen Melesse is a former development economist with the World Bank, where she worked on poverty analysis, regional integration, trade, and agriculture-industry linkages.