On Friday 28 August, yet another attempt to resolve the dispute over the exploitation of the Nile waters between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan failed. Everything revolves around the construction of the Ethiopian mega dam Great Renaissance. Its construction was entrusted to the Italian construction company Salini Impregiglio after various international companies (including Chineses) had refused to enter in this colossal business full of “secondary effects”: from the violation of human rights of the populations who lived in the area destined for the dam top the serious doubts of negative environmental impact and the risk that the regional dispute would transform in regional war.
The meeting, held in the capital of Sudan: Khartoum, ended without reaching a consensus on a draft agreement to be presented to the African Union regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). “The three countries involved in the dispute have decided to conclude the current round of talks without consensus on the draft integrated agreement that was supposed to be presented to the AU on Friday. The continuation of the talks in their current form will not lead to practical results.” , said Yasir Abbas, Sudan’s ministry of irrigation and water resources.
The Sudanese minister also stressed that reaching an agreement requires political will that is currently very lacking. The Sudanese government stressed that dialogue is the only way to reach an agreement, stating that Sudan is ready to resume negotiations at any time after communicating with the AU.
The lack of agreement is clearly originated from the instrumental and ambiguous position adopted by the Addis Ababa government, which continues to ignore the social and economic consequences that the GERD dam (with a production potential of over 6,000 megawatts of electricity) will cause to Egypt and Sudan, countries downstream of the Nile basin which depend on the river.
Egypt is particularly outspoken about its concerns about the Renaissance dam, which would seriously deplete its Nile water supply, vital to Egyptian farmers’ irrigation of crops. Ethiopia insists that the project will do no harm to downstream states and that the project is key to overcoming poverty and energy shortages nationwide.
Egypt has gone so far as to support its cause with the United Nations Security Council to prevent Ethiopia from starting the dam filling phase. Both states failed to agree on a timetable and conditions for filling the dam, and despite urges from the United States, Sudan and Egypt, Ethiopia refused to give up its commitment to start the filling process at July.
In blatant challenge to the United States and Egypt, and taking advantage of the start of the rainy season, the Ethiopian government last July began filling the dam’s reservoir with the aim of activating two turbines and starting energy production within one year. The decision sparked wild celebrations in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Industry experts suggest gradually filling the reservoir in a minimum of 4 years in order not to create an immediate decrease in the volume of the Nile waters in Sudan and Egypt with catastrophic economic, social and environmental consequences for the two countries. Egypt has requested to complete the filling of the dam’s reservoir over a period of 7 years. Filling it in less in a year could cause a decrease in the volume of water of the sacred river by 30%. This would result in enormous damage to agriculture and the supply of fresh water for hundreds of thousands of Sudanese and Egyptian farmers.
Ethiopia is using negotiations to take the time to fill the basin in peace as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government needs to show economic and technological success to the nation for electoral purposes. PM Abiy is using GERD dams issue to distract public opinion from social and ethnic tensions with the Oromo, the risk of secession of the Tigray, the risk of a conflict between the regions of Tigray and Amhara that could lead to a frightening civil – ethnic war and to the balkanization of the country.
In addition, Ethiopia needs hard currency (chronically lacking at the Central Bank) obtained by selling the energy produced by the dam to African countries. At least 50% of the energy that will produce GERD is destined for export. The umpteenth failure to find an honorable compromise for the three countries brings the risk of a regional war closer and represents a setback for the diplomacy of the African Union which, ironically, is based in Addis Ababa.
A setback already suffered by the United States whose mediation has been interrupted by the accusations of complicity with Egypt raised by the Ethiopian government. The exclusion from the talks as a mediator was not digested by President Donald Trump. The United States on the Nile water dispute is in a difficult situation as both Egypt and Ethiopia are strategic allies in the region. Now Trump has submitted to Congress the proposal to activate economic sanctions on Ethiopia as a punitive measure for its refusal of the White House mediation in the dam controversy.
According to a report published in the prestigious Foreign Policy magazine, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has approved a plan to withhold up to $ 130 million in planned foreign assistance for Ethiopia’s military and anti-human trafficking programs. The cuts would have no impact on US funding for emergency humanitarian aid, food assistance, or health programs to tackle COVID-19 and HIV / AIDS, Mike Pompeo said. The proposed economic pressures would have the objective of convincing Ethiopia to accept US mediation again, which represents one of the few diplomatic initiatives in Africa in which President Trump has played a personal and active role. Washington continues to affirm that the United States can be an impartial mediator in the negotiations and a valuable support to the African Union.
The move is seen in Ethiopia as a clear demonstration of support for its rivals in the dispute, especially Egypt. Ethiopian authorities have not yet officially reacted to the news. Some Ethiopian officials, on a personal level, told Foreign Policy that they believe the Trump administration is siding with Egypt in the dispute by calling General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi (current Egyptian head of state) the “favorite dictator of Trump “. These officials note that the Trump administration has never considered economic sanctions or cuts in foreign assistance to Egypt despite the blatant human rights violations committed by General El Sisi’s government.
Many Senators, both Republicans and Democrats, have doubts about the proposed sanctions on Ethiopia. In their view, this form of pressure on the Addis Ababa government would undermine the role of the United States to provide impartial help to facilitate an agreement between the three African countries involved in the dispute.
According to the opinion expressed to the Foreign Policy of some Congress assistants who are familiar with the issue, the doubts raised at the Congress could create the conditions for a rejection of the presidential proposal. They underline that it would be a serious mistake to choose between one of the two main regional allies above all if the lack of agreements should escalate into a military conflict.
The doubts and criticisms about the work of the Trump administration date back to last year, when General El Sisi asked Trump for assistance during a visit to the United States. Following this request, the US President asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to coordinate and direct the US diplomatic mediation work, ignoring the State Department, which deals with all foreign diplomatic matters.
Mnuchin’s appointment has caused friction within the administration, with some State Department officials privately venting that the administration is mishandling its role in the negotiations by putting the Treasury in the lead. When Ethiopia preferred the mediation of the African Union, these officials emphasized that the disastrous outcome for the White House was inevitable as “Trump has no idea of the complexity of the dispute and doesn’t knows neither the Egyptians nor the Ethiopians“.