The House Foreign Affairs Committee touched on the outstanding issues involving Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt regarding Ethiopia’s dam on the Nile River at a hearing on Tuesday.
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs Robert Godec testified before the committee along with Sarah Charles, assistant to the administrator of USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance. Most of the hearing focused on the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
Some members also brought up the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Ethiopia built the massive hydroelectric dam to deliver water to its population of more than 110 million and help alleviate poverty. The downstream nations of Egypt and Sudan believe that unilaterally filling the dam sans an agreement could dangerously lower water levels in the Nile and connected rivers in their territories. Ethiopia filled the dam last July during East Africa’s rainy season and plans to do so again this summer.
US policy on the GERD is still in support of a negotiated settlement, and Godec said the United States continues to support the African Union’s efforts in this regard.
Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California compared the current humanitarian disaster in the Tigray war to what could happen to the “close and powerful ally” Egypt if Ethiopia fills the dam faster than Egypt can handle.
“If the dam is completed and Ethiopia chooses to fill it at the rate that they’re threatening to and that negotiations have not yet settled, the impact to Egypt at a minimum … would certainly be equally dire and devastating,” said Issa.
He said there would be a risk of "adverse poverty and starvation” if the Nile’s water is “cut off.”
Godec said there are solutions on the table that accommodate Egypt’s concerns.
“There are technical solutions that address all of the parties, that allow Ethiopia to build the dam and have electricity, that allow Egypt to have water, that allow Sudan to have water,” said Godec.
Godec said the issue on the GERD is whether the involved states are willing to reach a lasting agreement.
“The issue is really a question of political will,” he said. “The leaders in these countries really have to come to an agreement.”
Issa also warned of a war between the involved countries that would “pale in comparison” to the one in Tigray. He then questioned why the State Department has faith in the Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is facing international criticism for his handling of the war.
Godec responded by saying they continue to urge Addis Ababa to make a deal on the GERD.
“We believe it is ultimately in the best interests of the people of Ethiopia to have an agreement,” he said.
Republican Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee also asked the witnesses if there could be a war, citing the al-Fashaga border dispute between Ethiopia and Sudan and joint military drills between Egypt and Sudan.
“The al-Fashaga border dispute poses a risk of conflict in the area,” said Godec.
The diplomat said the US government has discussed the border issue with both Sudan and Ethiopia.
The conversation resembled a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Ethiopia in May. At that hearing, Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho also lamented the prospect of war between Egypt and Ethiopia over the dam. Godec likewise said there was an “absence of political will” among the involved countries then.
The hearing also included a brief mention of the role of the United Arab Emirates in the GERD dispute. The UAE is an ally of Egypt but also has warm relations with Ethiopia. Abu Dhabi has spoken in support of an agreement to the filling.
Godec referred to the “deep engagement” of the UAE at the hearing, describing this as “helpful.”