US President Donald Trump has urged his Sudanese counterpart to help secure a deal between Ethiopia and Egypt on water sharing over Addis Ababa’s major dam project on the Blue Nile river in order to avert a military escalation.
All sides have repeatedly stated that they are committed to a peaceful and mediated resolution on how to share water resources from the vital river – that supplies around 90 per cent of Egypt’s freshwater – once Addis Ababa completes and fills the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
But Cairo says it will not take any option off the table to protect its vital water supplies, calling it a threat to national security, and there have been threats of violence from both sides even as talks – that include Sudan -- continue to take place.
“It’s a very dangerous situation because Egypt is not going to be able to live that way and they’ll end up blowing up the dam and I saw it loud and clear they’ll blow up that dam and they have to do something, so anything that you can do to get Ethiopia to do that,” Mr Trump told Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in a call on Friday. Also on the call was Sudan's Transitional Council head, Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Mr Trump said it was “terrible” and Ethiopia "should not have done that" when they walked away from a deal hashed out under US mediation. He pointed out how Washington cut off up to $100 million in aid for Addis Ababa when they began the first filling of the dam in September without an agreement with Khartoum or Cairo.
“They will never see that money unless they adhere to that agreement,” he said.
Ethiopia pushed back at Mr Trump's remarks on Saturday, saying its talks with Egypt and Sudan had shown significant progress since the African Union stepped in to oversee them.
“Occasional statements of belligerent threats to have Ethiopia succumb to unfair terms still abound,” a statement from Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's office said. “These threats and affronts to Ethiopian sovereignty are misguided, unproductive, and clear violations of international law.”
Ethiopia says that the $4bn hydroelectric dam is vital to not just its own economic development but that of much of east Africa. But downstream nations worry – firstly – that the filling will lead to water shortages downstream and that – secondly – what mechanism will there be for arbitration over water disputes, especially in the event of a drought.
Egyptian President Adel Fattah El Sisi has not directly threatened a conflict over the dam but he has on two occasions said his country’s share of the Nile water amounted to an existential issue and that he would never accept an imposed status.
More recently, Mr El Sisi publicly ordered the large and well-armed military to be prepared for combat operations abroad. The two statements are seen by observers as Cairo insisting all options remain on the table.
“All Egyptian bodies will continue to give the issue the maximum attention it deserves as part of shouldering their national responsibilities to defend with all means available the interests of the Egyptian people, their fate and future,” said a July statement from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.
During a parliament question session last October, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy discussed military responses – but also urged dialogue.
"Some say things about use of force [by Egypt]. It should be underlined that no force could stop Ethiopia from building a dam," he said. "If there is a need to go to war, we could get millions readied. If some could fire a missile, others could use bombs. But that's not in the best interest of all of us."
In May this year, Ethiopia also reportedly deployed additional anti-aircraft batteries to defend the dam and has posted military units to protect the region.
While studies have concluded that if Ethiopia follows its planned multiyear filling plan for the reservoir, there is unlikely to be a significant impact on the water flow to Sudan and Egypt – so long as rainfall and temperatures remain within regional averages.
The main sticking point is that Egypt is insisting on a neutral but legally binding arbitration method for disputes and a detailed plan for water discharges in different scenarios to counter droughts.
Ethiopia, on the other hand, has rejected legally binding methods it says will constrain its rights to economic development and says that any additional reservoir discharges to counter droughts can be agreed on a case by case basis.
Sudan is caught somewhere between. It may well benefit from being able to import cheaply produced green electricity from its neighbour and the dam may help prevent the regular devastating floods. However, it insists discharges of water must be done in close co-operation with all three nations to prevent downstream flooding issues if it is done without warning and Khartoum or Cairo cannot match discharges from their own dams.
Egypt and Sudan also want a comprehensive agreement not just over the GERD project, but all future dam and water management plans that Ethiopia undertakes that will impact them.
Talks have been ongoing for the last decade with no breakthrough.