‘Egypt will blow up that dam,’ US president Donald Trump told Sudan's Prime Minister in October.
He was speaking to Abdalla Hamdok during a live broadcasted phone call on the US-backed peace deal between Sudan and Israel.
The famously thin-skinned leader was clearly still smarting over Addis Ababa’s rejection of a similar US-brokered agreement between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over the country's controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project.
‘I had a deal done for them,’ said President Trump.
‘And then unfortunately, Ethiopia broke the deal, which they should not have done.
‘That was a big mistake,’ the president continued, using his famous catchphrase.
‘It’s a very dangerous situation because Egypt is not going to be able to live that way.
‘And I said it and I say it loud and clear - they'll blow up that dam.
‘And they have to do something.’
Critics of the US president may have scoffed at what they see as Trump’s hyperbolic comments, but the president was, in fact, only echoing something the Ethiopians are war-gaming for, and which many experts have been warning for more than a decade could lead to the world’s first real ‘water war’.
Egypt receives over 90 percent of its fresh water from the Nile River and over 85 percent of that water comes from Ethiopia’s Blue Nile, which meets the White Nile in Khartoum, Sudan.
The Egyptians have long argued that a dam on the Blue Nile would choke them of the fresh water on which more than 100 million Egyptians and the entire agricultural industry relies.
Sudan, geographically located between the two regional powerhouses, says the project could also endanger its own dams.
Unperturbed by its neighbours’ objections, Ethiopia ploughed ahead with construction of the $4.6 billion gravity dam in 2011.
The landlocked country has said it needs the dam to provide a reliable electricity supply to its 115 million inhabitants, the majority of whom are currently not connected to the grid.
Many Ethiopians contributed to the dam through private donations and consider it as a major catalyst for driving millions of their people out of endemic poverty.
The dam, now more than three-quarters complete and already starting to fill with water, will reach full power-generating capacity in 2023.
Rumblings of a potential war between Egypt and Ethiopia have been getting louder over the past few months as water levels in the dam have begun to rise.
Ethiopia even took the symbolic decision to ban all air traffic over the project in early October over fears of an Egyptian-led strike.
Yet despite the long-running saga, Trump's comments provoked outrage on the Ethiopian side. Ethiopia’s foreign minister, Gedu Andargachew, summoned US Ambassador Mike Raynor to demand an explanation.
The ministry also released a stinging statement in which the president’s comments were referred to as an ‘incitement of war’.
Experts on the row over the Blue Nile dam expressed concern over the US president’s statement. Professor John Mukum Mbaku, from the Africa Growth Initiative of The Brookings Institution in Washington, told NewsAfrica: ‘President Trump’s actions are reckless and are likely to escalate the conflict, especially given the relationship between Egypt and the United States.’
The Cameroonian added: ‘The United States provides Egypt with significant amounts of military aid and hence is in a position to have significant influence on the country’s leadership. Unfortunately, the US president is misusing that influence.
‘President Trump’s efforts to bully Ethiopia into signing an agreement, that they do not believe is beneficial to them, can be counterproductive.’
During the tri-party negotiations in February, there was widespread concern in Ethiopia that its delegation was being pressured by the US to accept a deal it couldn’t live with.
A few dozen Ethiopians in Washington protested in front of the US Department of State building, urging America to stop its pressure campaign against Addis Ababa.
After Ethiopia walked away from the talks, the US president suspended millions of dollars in aid to Ethiopia over the dispute, angering Addis, who accused the US of being biased in its earlier efforts to broker a deal between the three countries.
There hasn’t been any comment from the Egyptian government on Trump’s recent remarks, but pro-government media covered them extensively.
Geopolitical tensions between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have escalated this year since satellite imagery revealed a significant filling of the dam prior to reaching any agreement.
Ethiopia insisted the filling occurred naturally from rainfall and runoff during June and July without needing to close the dam gates.
Cairo has repeatedly said it wants to settle the dispute through diplomatic means, but it also has said it would use ‘all available means’ to defend the interests of its people.
‘Egyptian President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi’s recently remarks that Egyptian air forces have to be ready to handle targets inside and outside of the country was interpreted as a threat, not only to Turkey in Libya but also to Ethiopia,’ said Ahmed Soliman, Research Fellow for the Horn of Africa at the Chatham House policy institute.
Professor Mbaku, however, believes that despite the ‘incitement’ by President Trump, Egypt is unlikely to take military action over the dispute.
‘A war with Ethiopia would be extremely costly and would force the country to squander scarce resources that are needed for poverty alleviation,’ the professor stated.
‘And perhaps, more important is that there is no guarantee that such military intervention in Ethiopia will guarantee Egyptians the water that they so desperately need.’
The economics professor added that if Egypt unilaterally attacked Ethiopia, it would be violating ‘various international and regional agreements’ and would ‘face sanctions’ from the international community, as well as from the African Union and its member states.
‘It is not likely that Sudan will side with Egypt because the Sudanese stand to gain significantly from the electricity generated by the GERD, as well as increased trade and investment with Ethiopia,’ he said.
If Egypt does launch a surprise attack, however, the professor expects a strong response from Ethiopia.
‘The GERD has become a symbol of national pride and identity for Ethiopians. Hence, any effort by Egypt or any other country to destroy this national symbol would be seen by Ethiopians as an attack on their very identity and would be made with a very robust response.’
He added that Egypt would also suffer ‘significant damage to its national territory’ in any Ethiopian response.
Perhaps most crucially, though, a military strike on the dam would be disastrous for all sides, according to Abebe Yirga, of the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education.
Speaking to Associated Press the expert said the dam already held ‘more than 4.9 billion cubic meters of water’.
He added: ‘It will affect thousands of people along the way if this huge amount of water gushes out of the dam.’
Although the chances of an Egyptian attack may be small, wars have erupted for less significant reasons, and certain circumstances might raise the risk of war.
‘Deteriorating political and economic conditions at home could force Egyptian leaders to use threats against Ethiopia as a distraction from their inability to govern effectively and deal fully with peace and security issues,’ explained Professor Mbaku.
‘Perhaps, more importantly, Egypt could be pushed into such an untenable situation – that is, war with Ethiopia – if its leaders continue to listen to benefactors, such as the United States, whose president has already intimated that the Egyptians should blow up the GERD.’
The negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the contentious dam are set to restart, after the African Union had extensive consultations with the three countries, according to African Union chairman and South African president Cyril Ramaphosa.
The US president has been interested in the GERD project since he agreed to intervene on Egyptian President el-Sisi’s request in September last year. He has since invited officials from the three countries to at least two Oval Office meetings, and called Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali to discuss the matter.
Professor Mbaku, however, doubts whether international involvement will really help in solving the conflict about the mega dam.
‘Ethiopians and Egyptians are more likely to understand and appreciate the challenges that they face, particularly in the areas of water security, climate change, food production, and poverty alleviation,’ said Mbaku.
He added: ‘Both citizens and governments should be made part of the solution to the water-related conflicts that now threaten peace and security in the Nile Basin.’