US mediation looks to break Egypt-Ethiopia dam deadlock

The talks raised questions about the motives of the Trump administration for taking such a hands-on role in the Nile crisis.

WASHINGTON - After months of deadlock over the highly anticipated Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan agreed to continue negotiations in Washington.

Talks are to resume December 9 and January 13 and a final resolution target date is set for January 15.

A statement from Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan reads: "The [foreign] ministers reaffirmed their joint commitment to reach a comprehensive, cooperative, adaptive, sustainable and mutually beneficial agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and to establish a clear process for fulfilling that commitment in accordance with the 2015 Declaration of Principles.”

If an agreement is not reached by January 15, negotiators will invoke the Declaration of Principles, a document signed in 2015 to facilitate disputes between countries dependent on the Nile River.

William Davison, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the new talks could make a serious difference in negotiations.

“This new arrangement for concerted talks over the next three months increases the possibility of reaching a compromise on the technical issues of filling and operating the dam that could get political approval,” Davison said.

However, Michele Dunne, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said she was sceptical about an agreement after years of dispute about the dam. “There have been dozens of rounds of failed diplomacy and a quick fix seems unlikely,” she said.

The talks raised questions about the motives of the Trump administration for taking such a hands-on role in the Nile crisis.

Davison said the administration sees a US benefit from a peaceful resolution of the dispute. “I think the US shares the same interest as other countries in the dam,” he said. “If successful, it will boost electricity generation and regional cooperation and the alternative will be harmful to all parties involved, including the US.”

The $4 billion dam is designed to generate 6,450 megawatts of electricity, doubling Ethiopia’s output and making it Africa’s largest power exporter.

Ethiopia says the project is crucial for its economic development but Egypt fears the dam would severely restrict its water supply from the Nile, which provides 90% of the country's fresh water. Egypt already faced a massive water shortage and if a drought were to occur, the GERD would leave Egypt in serious trouble.

“Egypt has been behaving like a country with plentiful fresh water for many years, while, in fact, it has entered an era of water scarcity for many reasons, including rapid population growth and climate change as well as the GERD,” said Dunne.

Ethiopia said it will not stop building the dam. Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said it will be difficult for Ethiopia to make concessions to Egypt. “Ethiopia has not been sympathetic to Egypt’s demands or open to US or other third-party mediation,” he said.

The talks come following months of negotiations that ended in a deadlock between Ethiopia and Egypt. Most recently, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at a Russia-Africa summit in late October when the two leaders discussed the need for a final agreement.

On October 29, the Egyptian government requested Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari act as mediator over the dam project but Washington seems to have stepped in as a third-party negotiator in place of Nigeria. “It appears that the US saw an opportunity to apply its influence and increase the pressure on Egypt and Ethiopia to come to an agreement,” said Davison.

Ethiopia may not be as welcoming to Washington’s mediation role, Hanna said. “Egypt is eager to portray the meetings as US-mediated talks while Ethiopia has downplayed that aspect, suggesting simply that the United States is serving as a host for the parties to discuss the issues,” he said.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.