Egypt-Sudan Spat Muddies Prospects for Deal on Big Nile Dam
Talks are stalled over how to deal with the impact of a $5 billion dam that could threaten Egypt’s lifeblood.
BY KEITH JOHNSON | JANUARY 12, 2018
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, currently under construction, on May 15, 2016. (DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)
A diplomatic spat between Egypt and Sudan is spilling over into the long-running dispute over a dam Ethiopia is building on the Nile River, which Cairo sees as an existential threat.
On Thursday, Sudan officially warned of threats to its eastern border from massing Egyptian and Eritrean troops, while Egypt has also moved into a disputed triangle of territory claimed by both Cairo and Khartoum. Late last week, Sudan abruptly recalled its ambassador to Egypt, the latest chapter in a fight that started last summer with trade boycotts and that has only intensified in recent weeks.
At heart, the bad blood is part of a broader regional conflict pitting Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other countries against what they see as Turkey’s meddling in the region. Ankara has supported Qatar in its diplomatic battle with other Gulf States, and it is now jumping squarely into the Red Sea, making Egypt increasingly nervous. Cairo was particularly incensed when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Sudan in December 2017 and won rights to Suakin Island, a port city on the Red Sea, raising concerns that Ankara could build a military base there.
That diplomatic dustup is making it much harder to deal with another potentially explosive problem in the relationship: Sudan’s support for Ethiopia’s construction of a massive $5 billion dam on the Nile River that could choke off vital supplies of water downstream. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has called the dam a matter of “life or death.”
All the regional rivalries around the Red Sea are intertwined, said Kelsey Lilley, associate director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, “but the dam itself is a big irritant among the three countries.”
And while the three countries have butted heads over the dam for years, the feud between Egypt and Sudan is escalating quickly.
“The tensions are significant and real and higher than they’ve been,” said Steven Cook, a North Africa and Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Things are starting to come to a head.”
The broader dispute has cemented a freeze in talks between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia on how to manage the impact of the dam, even as the clock is ticking. The dam is more than 60 percent complete, and Ethiopia could start to fill the reservoir as soon as this summer, leaving little time to find workable solutions.
“This should act as a political wake-up call for immediate action for joint decision-making on the filling issue, because 2019 will be a critical year,” said Dr. Ana Cascão, an expert on Nile hydropolitics, who has written extensively about the dam.
A dam at the head of the Blue Nile in the Ethiopian highlands has been a dream since the 1960s. But it was only in 2011 — when Egypt was rocked by the Arab Spring and facing domestic upheaval — that Ethiopia unilaterally decided to start work on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the biggest hydroelectric project in Africa.