Ethiopian leadership fears that Washington might brush aside their concerns and blindly favour Egypt, a country that has been identified as the main source of the Nile River for centuries.
Ethiopia decided not to attend the latest round of talks facilitated by Washington, aimed at addressing differences between the country and Egypt over its $4.6billion dam project planned for the Nile river.
If the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project, which will be Africa's biggest hydroelectric power plant on its completion, is successfully implemented, it could see Ethiopia become the main actor in the control of the flow of the Nile, Egypt’s only fresh water source, limiting Cairo’s access to it.
Ethiopia’s recent declaration of absentia from the talks, which were planned to be held this week in Washington, indicates that Ethiopians have serious concerns about the US mediation, suspecting that it might favor Cairo over Addis Ababa.
US President Donald Trump desperately needs to line up Sisi’s support for his ‘Deal of the Century’ concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict before the November presidential elections. In order to persuade Egypt, the US appears to be going ahead to help Cairo in its bid against the dam project.
“In the wake of his controversial peace plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Trump might be keen to strengthen his friendship with Egypt by resolving this thorny issue,” wrote Addisu Lashitew, a fellow at Brookings Institution.
But Ethiopians do not seem to be in an appeasing mood.
"Ethiopia will never sign on an agreement that will surrender its right to use the Nile River," Fitsum Arega, the Ethiopian ambassador to the US, said on Twitter.
The growing disagreement also worries Egyptians, who see the river as the lifeline of the country.
"The refusal of Ethiopia to attend the meeting in Washington DC is deeply worrying and reflects that the dispute may escalate," said Dr Maha Azzam, head of the Egyptian Revolutionary Council, which opposes the rule of the current regime.
Is the US mediation over?
The prospect of Ethiopian control over the Nile, which has been almost always identified with Egypt and its history from the time of pharaohs to the modern period, leads to great anxiety in Cairo, which previously said that it would take all possible measures, including military means, to ensure its rights to the river.
As a result of the growing rift between the two countries, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who overthrew the country’s first-democratically elected president in a military coup in 2013, leading to political instability, demanded Washington’s help to address the differences in November.
Since then, Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian officials have come together under US mediation to reach a settlement on how the dam project will be operated and what kind of mechanisms will be set up to ensure its implementation.
In the face of escalating tensions and political deadlock, Ethiopia, which is an ally of the US like Sisi, may seek other mediation options, sidelining Washington.
In January, Ethiopia's reformist nobel-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reportedly asked for South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s mediation to address the disagreement.
The US deal also says that if the countries could not reach an agreement by January 15 under the US-led efforts, they can seek another country’s mediation.
The sources of Ethiopia-Egypt row
An old agreement, which was crafted in 1929 by the British, the colonial power in both Egypt and Sudan back in the day, enabled the two countries to claim almost all of the waters of the Nile, although the continent’s longest river originates in Ethiopia.
The colonial agreement also grants Egypt a veto power over future upstream projects.
In 2011, when Egypt was going through a turbulent political process under the effects of Arab Spring movements, Ethiopia launched the GERD project to claim the Nile’s famous waters without consulting Cairo.
By now, it has completed more than 70 percent of the dam, which could produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, meeting the country’s power needs and even allowing it to sell to neighbouring countries.
But it might be a nightmare for Egypt’s future.
"The very building of the GERD threatens Egypt's water needs, be they for agriculture, electricity or drinking water. Egypt is dependent on Nile water, receiving around 55.5 million cubic metres a year from the river and believes the filling of the dam will affect the water it needs. An upstream dam could strangle the flow of the Nile," Azzam told TRT World.
"The effect on Egypt's agricultural production could be devastating if it does not receive at least 40 billion cubic meters. Ethiopia wants the release 31 bcm per year out of 49 bcm," Azzam said.
Azzam thinks that Sisi’s political shortcomings regarding Egypt’s weak reaction to the dam project could also put the nation’s future in danger.
"Abdel Fattah el Sisi by signing the Declaration of Principles in 2015 in Khartoum jeopardised Egypt's water needs and ultimately it's national security. He did not come to an agreement that would allow for the management of the Nile river resources in a way so that the livelihood of Egyptians would not be threatened, on the contrary he agreed to terms that were threatening Egypt's survival,” Azzam viewed.
“There are no checks on his decisions and that leaves the door wide open to mismanagement and fatal decisions that can affect the survival of a nation.”
On the other hand, Ethiopians also see the ancient river’s waters as a matter of national sovereignty seeing that the country could not be expected to be bound by a colonial agreement to build its own dam over the Nile.
Ethiopia’s Ahmed, who seeks reelection in next year’s tough polls, might not be able to afford any concessions to Egypt in a country where his reformist agenda has allowed suppressed political aspirations to reemerge, creating more political alternatives to him.
In October, he boldly declared that "no force" could stop Ethiopia from completing the dam.