White House — The foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met Wednesday in Washington with President Donald Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to discuss the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) on Ethiopia's Blue Nile.
In a joint statement issued after the meeting, the ministers — Sameh Hassan Shoukry of Egypt, Gedu Andargachew of Ethiopia and Asma Mohamed Abdalla of Sudan — noted the significance of the Nile to the development of the people of their countries, and "reaffirmed their joint commitment to reach a comprehensive, cooperative, adaptive, sustainable, and mutually beneficial agreement on the filling and operation" of the GERD.
The massive hydropower dam project has been the focus of an escalating feud between Addis Ababa and Cairo over water resources.
The unannounced meeting was not on Trump's public schedule. The White House did not respond to VOA's earlier request for clarification.
"The meeting went well and discussions will continue during the day!" the president tweeted on Wednesday.
The meeting, spearheaded by Mnuchin and also attended by World Bank Group President David Malpass, came about after Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi requested that Trump mediate the conflict over the dam.
Countries at odds
All three countries are vitally important to U.S. interests, and the Trump administration's efforts to facilitate the negotiations over the dam are not at all surprising, said Bronwyn Bruton, director of programs and studies at the Africa Center of the Atlantic Council.
"Any armed or proxy conflict between these nations over the GERD would have a profoundly destabilizing effect on a region that is already facing ethnic unrest, political transition and a rising threat from jihadi extremist groups," Bruton said.
Observers of international transboundary water conflicts say an ideal outcome would be a commitment by the countries to work together to get to an agreed-upon solution.
"If countries come out of this meeting with an agreement on a process to get to a cooperative outcome, I think that would be a positive development from everybody's perspective," said Aaron Salzberg, director of the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina. Salzberg is the State Department's former special coordinator for water in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, which deals with international transboundary water issues.
The ministers committed Wednesday to work toward completion of an agreement by Jan. 15, 2020.
In an Oct. 5 statement, the Ethiopian government condemned Egypt's proposal for Nile water allocation, calling Egypt's conditions for filling the massive reservoir of the GERD "unjustified" and disruptive to "the positive spirit of cooperation."
Egypt and Ethiopia have disagreed for years about how to divert water from the Nile. Addis Ababa is proposing the reservoir behind the dam be filled over four to seven years. But Egypt wants to require Ethiopia to receive approval at various points of the filling process, a step Cairo said is necessary to avoid droughts.
"It's possible that nothing changes," said Salzberg. "It is also possible that those governments start to realize that this is a region that matters to the rest of the international community, and their approach to solving this problem could affect how partners work with them in the future."
Sudan has a 1959 Nile Waters Agreement with Egypt, reached shortly before Egypt began constructing its own Aswan High Dam, but Ethiopia was not part of that agreement.
Egypt has long sought external mediation on the GERD, while Ethiopia wants to keep the negotiations on a tripartite level.
Prior to the meeting in Washington, the Ethiopian government said the talks "are not negotiations."
Salem Solomon contributed to this report.