The future of talks between Egypt and Ethiopia on the latter’s gigantic Nile River dam is uncertain after Ethiopia absented itself from a recent meeting on the dam in Washington.

What Happened?

The foreign and water ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan were scheduled to meet in the U.S. capital on February 27 and 28 to sign a final and important deal on the dam, following four months of talks sponsored by the White House and the World Bank. The deal determines regulations for the filling of the dam reservoir and its operation, as well as mechanisms for dealing with droughts and disputes between Ethiopia and the two downstream states, Egypt and Sudan. However, Ethiopia did not send its delegation to the meeting, giving rise to fears about what the future may hold in the stalemate over the Ethiopian project.

Egyptian Anger

Egypt has been trying to get Ethiopia to commit to signing a deal on the dam for several years now. The Nile River is the only source of water for Egypt’s population of 100 million. It gives Egypt 55.5 billion cubic meters of water every year, but this is around 30% below national needs. The same share has also been the same over the years, while the population keeps growing.

The dam will significantly lessen the amounts of water arriving in Egypt, further exacerbating its water shortages. The prospect of reduced water revenues from the Nile puts Egypt’s agricultural sector in peril, threatens the nation’s livestock, and opens the door for water shortage-induced social and political unrest.

Previous Attempts to Reach a Deal

The two countries started negotiating over the dam five years ago, but failed to reach a deal. In March 2015, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan signed a declaration of principles on water sharing. The same document allows the three countries to seek international mediation in case of their failure to reach a deal. In October last year, Cairo demanded mediation from the U.S. and the World Bank.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury held a series of meetings with the delegations of the three countries since then. The meetings culminated in a deal that should have been signed by the three states during the February 27-28 meeting. However, the Ethiopian delegation was nowhere to be found.

Egypt initialed the deal on February 28. It also criticized the Ethiopian absence, describing it as “unjustified.”

“Egyptian institutions will deal with this issue with all due seriousness and defend the interests of the Egyptian people with all available means,” the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

US Warning for Ethiopia

The U.S. Department of the Treasury said Ethiopia should not fill the dam reservoir before signing the deal with Egypt and Sudan. It added in a statement on February 28 that it looked forward to Ethiopia’s conclusion of its process of national consultations on the deal with Egypt and Sudan as soon as possible to provide for its signing at the earliest possible time. Final testing and filling of the dam reservoir, the Department of the Treasury said, should not take place without an agreement.

“We also note the concern of downstream populations in Sudan and Egypt due to unfinished work on the safe operation of the dam, and the need to implement all necessary dam safety measures in accordance with international standards before filling begins,” the statement said.

It added that the U.S. is committed to remain engaged with the three countries until they sign the final agreement.

The Department of the Treasury noted that an agreement would be transformational for the region, resulting in significant cross-border cooperation, regional development and economic integration, and improvement in the lives of the more than 250 million people of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan.

Ethiopian Persistence

Ethiopia countered the Egyptian criticism and the U.S. warning against filling the dam reservoir before signing the agreement by saying that it would start filling the dam reservoir in July. In a joint statement, the Ethiopian water and foreign ministers expressed disappointment over the statement of the Department of the Treasury.

“Ethiopia had notified Egypt, Sudan, and the US that it needed more time to deliberate on the process,” the ministers said.

The dam is Ethiopia’s national mega project. Addis Ababa says the project is necessary for social and economic development in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is investing close to $4 billion in the construction of the dam. It should generate 5150 megawatts of electrical power after its completion and full operation in 2021.

The foreign and water ministers of Ethiopia said in their statement that their country would commence first filling of the dam reservoir in parallel with the construction of the dam in accordance with the principles of equitable and reasonable utilization and the causing of no significant harm as provided for under the 2015 declaration of principles with Egypt and Sudan.

“Ethiopia does not accept the characterization that the negotiation on the Guidelines and Rules on the First Filling and Annual Operation of the dam is completed,” the two ministers said.

They added that the text initialed by Egypt in Washington is not the outcome of the negotiation or the technical and legal discussion of the three countries.

“Ethiopia is set to fill the dam reservoir step by step with a maximum period of seven years,” the ministers said. “According to the plan, the first round of filling the dam will begin in July this year,” they added.