U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman, left, meets with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at the foreign ministry in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, May 5, 2021.
CAIRO — The U.S. envoy for the Horn of Africa on Wednesday met with the Egyptian president as part of Washington’s new push to find a resolution to a regional decade-long dispute over Ethiopia’s massive dam on the Nile River’s main tributary.
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Jeffrey Feltman arrived in Cairo on Tuesday on the first leg of a tour that includes stops in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan amid growing concerns the dispute could escalate into a military conflict, threatening the entire region.
On Wednesday, Feltman met with Egyptian President President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who reiterated his warnings that Cairo will not tolerate any moves by Addis Ababa that could reduce Egypt’s share of water from the Nile because of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam.
El-Sissi said Egypt would not accept anyone “harming its water interests” and described the issue of the dam as “existential” to his country, urging the U.S. to play “an effective role” to settle the dispute.
Feltman, who also met with Egypt’s foreign and irrigation ministers, was quoted as saying that the Biden administration is “serious in settling such a sensitive issue.”
The dispute now centers on how quickly Ethiopia should fill and replenish the reservoir and how much water it releases downstream in case of a multi-year drought. The latest round of African Union-brokered negotiations in April failed to make progress.
Egypt and Sudan argue that Ethiopia’s plan to add 13.5 billion cubic meters of water in 2021 to the dam’s reservoir on the Blue Nile is a threat to them. Cairo and Khartoum have called for the U.S., the U.N, and European Union to facilitate reaching a legally binding deal on the dam’s the filling and operating. Ethiopia rejected the call.
In March, el-Sissi warned of regional “instability that no one can imagine” without a legally binding agreement on operating the dam, based on international law and norms governing cross-border rivers.
Egypt, which relies on the Nile for more than 90% of its water supplies, fears a devastating impact if the dam is operated without taking its needs into account. Ethiopia says the $5 billion dam is essential, arguing the vast majority of its population lacks electricity.
Sudan wants Ethiopia to coordinate and share data on the dam’s operation to avoid flooding and protect its own power-generating dams on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile.
The Blue Nile meets with the White Nile in Khartoum, from where it winds northward through Egypt and flows into the Mediterranean Sea.
In Khartoum, U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware and chairman of a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the dam dispute needs be negotiated “in good faith” to produce an agreement guaranteeing a “safe and steady flow of the Nile.”
Coons, a key ally of President Joe Biden, spoke on a visit to Sudan with fellow senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of a subcommittee on Africa and global health policy. They discussed with Sudanese leaders the African country’s fragile transition to democracy and another border dispute between Khartoum and Addis Ababa.