The GERD Issue: a US diplomatic defeat

The GERD Issue: a US diplomatic defeat

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt should move towards a “mutual agreement” on the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD). His words came on Tuesday, August 25 during his visit to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed also arrived in Khartoum at this time. The State Department said that “The Secretary and Prime Ministers agreed that achieving mutually beneficial agreement among Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd) is crucial to regional stability.”

It is noteworthy that the US has found no other way to achieve mutual understanding – except through direct pressure on Ethiopia. As Foreign Policy reports, Pompeo approved the suspension of US aid to Ethiopia in the amount of $130 million.

These include security assistance programs, counterterrorism and military education and training, anti-human trafficking programs, and broader development assistance funding.

The principal problem

The problem of construction and filling of the reservoir of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a stumbling block in relations between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.

The capacity of the HPP, which will be a cascade of four dams, will be 5250 MW. Addis Ababa intends to put it into operation in 2022-2023. The cost of the project is $4.6 billion. For Ethiopia, the construction of the plant is a gigantic economic project, the implementation of which will provide the country with electricity and allow energy to be exported to neighboring countries.

Ethiopia, as the main beneficiary, is interested in the early launch of power generation at the GERD, which requires early accumulation of water. Egypt and Sudan rightly fear that the active withdrawal of water from the Nile will cause them drought and reduce electricity production at the Sudanese hydroelectric power plant “Roseiris” and the Egyptian Aswan hydroelectric power plant.

As a result of the operation of the Ethiopian hydroelectric power plant in the Nile, there may be an acute shortage of water, which will lead to numerous socio-economic and environmental problems in Egypt and Sudan. Therefore, both countries are trying to consolidate for themselves the norms of water resources and to maximize the duration of the dam filling.

The diametrically opposed interests of Egypt and Ethiopia are exacerbated by the fact that these countries have different interpretations of international law. Egypt believes, based on agreements of colonial times, that it has special rights to the Nile waters. Ethiopia, in turn, rejects these agreements. Each party cites its own documents and international agreements, in which the other party is not involved. At the same time, a comprehensive agreement has not been reached.

According to the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1929 and the other agreement signed 30 years later between Egypt and Sudan, Cairo has the right to veto the construction of any dams and dams on the Nile. Ethiopia does not believe that these treaties obliges it to anything, and stresses that its territory is home to three tributaries of the Nile, which provide more than 80% of the water flowing into Egypt and Sudan.

Cairo is worried about the lack of a mechanism to resolve any contradictions on water use between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan in the future. Egypt and Sudan would like to have as detailed a treaty as possible for regulating the functioning of GERD and the sharing of Nile resources. However, Ethiopia is not going to tie its hands in this matter.

An American failure

At the beginning of the year, Egypt appealed to the US for help in settling the dispute, but the Americans could not cope with the task. The document drawn up by the US Ministry of Finance was not signed by Ethiopia because it did not take into account its interests when distributing Nile water resources.

At the same time, Donald Trump was looking for any pretext for foreign policy success and expected that he would be able to reconcile Cairo and Addis Ababa. However, this did not happen.

American diplomacy had demonstrated its inconsistency. It chose direct pressure on Addis Ababa over careful diplomacy. However, the African country did not obey the US, but showed its own will and rejected American conditions, thus humiliating Washington and Donald Trump personally.

The GERD case shows that even African countries, which only pretend to be regional powers like Ethiopia, no longer meekly submit to the US’ will.

The US is no longer the global hegemon, the unipolar world is in the past. The American approach to international relations, based on pressuring other countries, is coming to an end. But the US itself has not yet realized this yet, preferring to try to impose its power all the same.

By doing so, Washington has also let Cairo down, which should have a negative impact on US-Egyptian relations.

Obviously, it was a mistake for the US to try to use such a complex and almost insoluble international issue to raise prestige on the international arena in a short term. This was another sign of adventurism and arrogance of the Donald Trump administration in the foreign policy domain.

Now, the US is hurriedly trying to solve the problem it has found itself wrapped up in. However, they are doing so clumsily, through direct pressure on Ethiopia again, which is unlikely to be positively perceived in Addis Ababa. Thus, the US risks turning the Ethiopians and Africans against them and not getting the desired concessions, only helping Ethiopia’s position. Thus, Washington will not help Cairo, but only further complicate the problem.

Prospects for conflict

In the summer, after a series of debates, new prospects for reaching agreements emerged. At the African Union mini-summit on July 21, Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa came to an understanding, although they did not sign any agreement.

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In July, Ethiopia started filling the reservoir, which met with a negative reaction from Egypt and Sudan. At the same time, each party interpreted the reached agreements in its own way.

On August 4, Egypt announced suspension of only recently resumed negotiations over the dam under construction on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia because of the controversial position of Addis Ababa. As Egypt’s Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation said in an issued communiqué, Ethiopia’s statements contradicted what had previously been agreed to in the trilateral talks, and Egypt requested a suspension of dam consultations.

GERD: how to avoid catastrophe for Europe, the Middle East and Africa

The experts are afraid that the failure of the negotiation process may lead to military conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt. At least in Egypt, thoughts are constantly voiced about the need for a military raid that would disable the GERD. Ethiopia, in turn, promises to respond to any act of aggression.

The Ethiopian Dam: a game bigger than generating electricity

The US, continuing to link the situation around the dam with its role as mediator, is taking a serious risk: in this situation, the blame for such a conflict will fall on Washington.

Searching for a solution

Obviously, it is necessary to find a mutually acceptable solution to the situation with the GERD. For Africa and Europe, the social and political problems it may cause in the largest Arab country, Egypt, may turn into major regional upheavals, power changes in Egypt, mass migrations and growth of terrorism and extremism. The scenario of war also promises nothing good.

Perhaps, the trilateral format – Sudan-Egypt-Ethiopia and the mediation of the African Union are the only possible negotiating instruments so far… though certain initiatives in this direction were put forward by Russia. It would also be interesting to involve China in the process. Both countries are still in a neutral position, not supporting either party to the conflict. However, against the background of failure of US mediation, other world powers will be cautious to want to tie themselves to such a problematic topic.

One thing is clear, Washington is not the best partner for any agreements, including those between Egypt and Ethiopia, because in recent years it has systematically violated international law and promoted unilateral agreements (as in the case of the “Deal of the Century” between Israel and Palestine, pursued by Donald Trump).

Trump’s “Deal of the Century”: a stillborn plan for legalized apartheid

The US, being incapable of productive diplomacy, should be isolated from addressing such sensitive international issues as the GERD problem. Otherwise, they risk jeopardizing the safety of millions of people with their cowboy style international relations.

United World International

Independent analytical center where political scientists and experts in international relations from various countries exchange their opinions and views.

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March 2024