Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan set a Jan. 15 deadline to reach an agreement on the filling and operation of a giant Ethiopian dam on a Nile tributary after a U.S.-brokered meeting sought to ease rising tensions.
The commitment followed the U.S.’s first significant intervention in the long-running dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which has put two of Washington’s most prominent African allies at odds over the use of crucial freshwater supplies.
The U.S. and World Bank will now act as observers at four upcoming technical meetings between the countries, while their foreign ministers will return to Washington on Dec. 9 and Jan. 13 to assess progress, according to a joint statement issued Wednesday.
The latest talks, convened by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and including World Bank President David Malpass, came after Egypt said negotiations with Ethiopia had reached a deadlock and appealed to the U.S. and others to mediate. Ethiopia disputes that description, and says a series of technical talks were already going ahead.
Tensions have flared recently over the dam on the Blue Nile that’s set to be Africa’s largest hydropower project when completed. Egypt and Ethiopia are struggling to reach an agreement on how to fill the reservoir — a process crucial to ensuring a reliable flow to Egypt, which depends on the Nile for almost all its fresh water. Egypt is urging parties to respect a 1959 pact on water allowances, which Ethiopia says should be reworked as it belongs to the colonial era.
President Donald Trump earlier met representatives from the three countries and tweeted that “the meeting went well and discussions will continue during the day!” The White House on Oct. 3 urged the governments to reach a deal that preserves their individual rights to economic development while “respecting each other’s Nile water equities.”
If an agreement isn’t reached by the deadline, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed to invoke an article of a 2015 agreement on Nile-sharing that can lead to them requesting conciliation or mediation, or referring the matter to heads of state, according to Wednesday’s statement.
The increased U.S. role is a possible vindication for Egypt, whose foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, hailed the “positive results” of Wednesday’s meeting and the “clear and specific timetable” set. President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has previously thanked Trump for his efforts in trying to resolve the dispute.
Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nebiat Getachew said before the meeting that his country would “present our stand, that there is a solution in technical discussion” and the gathering didn’t represent mediation efforts. That echoed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s comments at an Oct. 24 Russia-Africa summit that what he called “political” talks wouldn’t interfere with technical ones already underway.
Construction on the dam is five years behind schedule and likely significantly over its original 3.4 billion euro ($3.77 billion) budget. When the government ran short on funding, ordinary Ethiopians were tapped for donations and civil servants donated parts of their salaries.
Egypt and Ethiopia, which both have populations of about 100 million and are the fastest-growing economies in their respective regions, have officially dismissed any prospect of the dispute triggering a war.