Three-Way Nile Dam Negotiations Resume Amidst U.S.-Ethiopia Tensions

On Tuesday, October 27th, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan resumed long-term negotiations over the construction and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa. This 4.6 billion dollar structure which sits on the Ethiopia-Sudan border has caused tensions since its beginnings in 2011. Although the Blue Nile’s source is located in Ethiopia, its water provides for the downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan who also claim ownership of it. Ethiopian control of the Nile’s water is especially concerning for Egypt given that 90% of its fresh water comes from the river, an essential aspect of daily life, agriculture, and the economy. Still, Ethiopia has argued that the dam is essential for its development. To further complicate discussions, global actors like the United States and the African Union have gotten involved. What at first glance may seem like a simple resource dispute has quickly become an issue of climate justice, sustainability, international relationships, and deliberation power.

The newfound commitment to work towards an agreement comes shortly after the United States’ September decision to cut $100 million dollars of funding to Ethiopia after ten days of failed discussions. $26 million of these funds expire at the end of the year, putting important projects such as border security and nutrition at risk. On top of controversial budget cuts, Ethiopians are calling President Trump’s Friday declaration an “incitement of war.” Al Jazeera reported that Trump recently referenced the friction in the Nile region saying: “It’s a very dangerous situation because Egypt is not going to be able to live that way … They’ll end up blowing up the dam.” In a frustrated response, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew stated that “the incitement of war between Ethiopia and Egypt by a sitting U.S. president neither reflects the long-standing partnership and strategic alliance between Ethiopia and the United States, nor is acceptable in international law governing interstate relations,” seeing Trump’s words as an attack on Ethiopian sovereignty. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed added that Ethiopia would “not cave-in to aggressions of any kind” nor “belligerent threats” (Global Construction Review).

Some believe that the United States’ actions may be a vengeful response to Ethiopia’s refusal of U.S. mediation. In the past, various groups including the United States and the World Bank have facilitated discussions without success. This time, all three countries are leaving control to the African Union which holds important implications for future multi-state negotiations. First, the desire for resident mediators is significant considering the frequency with which outside countries oversee international meetings. By understanding the cultural and historical context of disputes, a local mediator may be much more successful than one with little regional knowledge. If this round of negotiations succeeds, it could contribute legitimacy to the African Union, opening the door for more regional organization leadership.

Aside from contention over resources, Ethiopia’s unwillingness to compromise reflects the ongoing colonial legacy within Africa. The 1929 Nile Water Agreement between Britain and Egypt granted Egyptian veto power for any proposed projects along the river while a 1959 treaty gave ownership of almost all of the Nile’s water to Egypt and Sudan, ignoring Ethiopia completely. Given that 86% of Nile water starts in Ethiopia, Ethiopians have historically felt excluded and robbed of rightful possession. The GERD dispute echoes a common postcolonial frustration that a country’s global standing and rights are still affected by colonial decisions.

Lastly, these complicated negotiations reflect the rapidly changing environment and the ensuing threat of climate change. Both Sudan and Egypt have stalled approval until legal regulations establish how dam water will be managed during a drought or flood, events that are becoming more common as global temperatures rise. Despite objections to the dam, however, such a large hydroelectric power source could have positive impacts on sustainable development throughout Africa. According to BBC, the dam would provide cheap power to 65 million Ethiopians as well as Sudan, holding the potential to significantly reduce poverty. Furthermore, hydroelectric power is a renewable form of energy. Especially for developing countries like Ethiopia, a move towards sustainable development is incredibly important both for global environmental protection and international recognition.

These talks hold a variety of important global implications. If an agreement is made, the African Union’s increased legitimacy could normalize international disputes chaired by regional organizations. Regarding U.S.-Ethiopian relations, Trump’s aid cuts could have severely negative effects on Ethiopian development and services as well as its alliance with the U.S. Finally, the discussion’s outcome will set the tone for how the international community should approach past colonial agreements as well as the balance between sustainability, resource allocation, and development.

Sydney Stewart