I have long advocated a vision for an “Eastern Development Corridor” as a comprehensive framework for cooperation in the Blue Nile region between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Such a project would permit for a more holistic approach to the question of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and promote the welfare of all three countries through a system for coordinating the operations of their dams. The plan also provides for subsidiary projects for road, rail and electricity linkages between the three countries. Such a comprehensive development corridor would transform water into a cornerstone of a multi-dimensional cooperation environment that would incorporate networks for electricity distribution, and land and maritime freight and transportation networks, facilitating trade and the movement of goods and people.
In addition to important economic advantages for the three countries, the application of the concept would reduce tensions and the risks of dispute between the three countries. It would also offer Ethiopia— a landlocked country — the prospect of access to Mediterranean ports, a form of cooperation that Khartoum would also find attractive.
River basins are indivisible environmental systems. The Nile Basin should be approached in this manner, which is to say as a geographic, natural whole. Its water resources, together with its agricultural and industrial resources and, indeed, its social, human and cultural resources, should be managed in a collective, harmonised way. The integrated development of international river basins has become crucial to the preservation of riparian resources, the protection of the environment and sustainable development. It is also a key to ensure that the river basin remains a source of peaceful coexistence as it puts into place mechanisms that safeguard the rights of all parties while enabling them all to benefit from the fruits of sustainable growth as well as from international aid, especially given that international donor agencies have grown more inclined to support projects that serve several countries and several purposes at the same time.
This vision for the integrated development and management of the eastern Nile Basin is consistent in its substance and goals with the outlooks and mechanisms of the Nile Basin Initiative which established a special coordinating mechanism for the Blue Nile called the Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office (ENTRO). The regional cooperative vision also brings on board South Sudan with an eye to engaging in projects that help reduce water loss due to evaporation and transpiration, and promoting other development projects in the south that fall within the overall framework of the Nile Basin Initiative.
The proposed regional cooperation plan for the eastern Nile Valley is also consistent with the declaration of principles signed between Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in Khartoum on 23 March 2016. The declaration affirmed the good will of the three parties and their desire to overcome all obstacles. President Al-Bashir, at the time, said that cooperation was “the only path to understanding between our peoples” and that “without cooperation we will forego the opportunity for a dignified life”. The Ethiopian prime minister stressed that GERD would not harm Egyptian interests while the Egyptian foreign minister held that the declaration of principles marked the beginning of greater political and technical cooperation between the three countries.
My proposed vision for regional cooperation in the eastern Nile Basin and Nile Basin countries in general is also consistent with the international trend to fund multipurpose projects that serve several countries at once. Since the outset of the Nile Basin Initiative, donor agencies have been looking forward to a consensus among the initiative’s countries. Unfortunately, only the Upper Nile Basin nations signed the Entebbe Agreement, effectively turning what should have been a comprehensive regional agreement into what might best be termed a quasi-regional agreement for cooperation between the upper riparian countries alone. As a result, it has been unable to attract the anticipated international investments and support from partners.
As we know, nature determines how the Nile Basin countries use their resources and how they set their priorities for development. While Egypt and Sudan are dependent on irrigation for agriculture, Ethiopia and Uganda are looking at developing their hydroelectric generating capacities while river transportation is of prime concern to other Nilotic countries, especially the landlocked ones such as Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Ethiopia. But for Egypt, the Nile is, above all, an existential issue. To Egypt, the Nile equals life. Therefore, at this crucial juncture in Egypt’s relations with other Nile Basin nations, and Ethiopia above all, we need to combine our diplomatic, parliamentary, legal and technical in an effort to formulate a solid Egyptian position on the question of the Nile waters. This position should attempt to conceive the best possible manner for dealing with GERD in the framework of a just formula for implementing a vision for just and sustainable development that takes into account the welfare of the three parties in accordance with established legal principles and that makes it possible to develop the Blue Nile valley to the advantage of all three states. The stance would simultaneously make it clear that Egypt is not opposed to any development project in the other states as long as it does not harm Egypt’s welfare.
From this perspective, we need to work to overcome the current impasse on the technical track concerning GERD. Ethiopia and Sudan have objected to the preliminary report, one of the conclusions of which calls for two French companies to continue their studies on the dam’s environmental impact on Sudan and Egypt and to determine fair reservoir filling rates and schedules that would not harm the two downriver countries as well as fair water release rates that serve the interests of the downriver countries while enabling Ethiopia to generate electricity in accordance with the natural flow of the Blue Nile.
As much as possible, the same release rate would apply to Sudan’s Roseires Dam, which is situated on the Blue Nile before it converges with the White Nile in Khartoum, and to other Sudanese dams before the Nile reaches Egyptian borders. Thereby Sudan would remain committed to the provisions of the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement and the preservation of the current flow.
The Blue Nile water’s management scheme would provide for trilateral technical committees stationed at the various dams in order to supervise the agreed-upon system for coordinating the operations of the dams in the three countries and for overseeing the proposed development projects in the vicinities of the dams. The provisions would be laid out in a binding, technical and legal agreement, perhaps an expanded version of the 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan.
Through trilateral talks and consultations with the French consultancy firms, it might also be possible to work out a two-phase plan for filling the GERD reservoir. For example, the first phase would apply the rate that had been planned for the Ethiopian Border Dam, namely 14 billion m3. This rate, which had been proposed for the Border Dam by the US Bureau of Reclamation in 1964, would make it possible to control adverse effects and enable parties to gradually adjust to the water and environmental impacts. The second phase, which would commence several years later, could apply the method used with the Owen Dam in Ethiopia. That dam was constructed with Egyptian cooperation and funding in 1949-1953 and subsequently heightened in 1991 following consultations and an agreement with Egypt.
Whatever formulas are worked out, Egypt should strive to make cooperation as attractive as possible to the Ethiopians and Sudanese, and this is where the “Eastern Development Corridor” comes in. This vision for an integrated yet diversified cooperative development project linking the three countries would take GERD as its starting point, following an agreement on how to coordinate its operations with those of the dams in Sudan and Egypt. In addition to a potentially lucrative electricity grid linking the three countries, the project would incorporate international road and rail networks offering Ethiopia, as well as Sudan, rapid transport routes for its goods and products to Egypt’s Mediterranean ports. Moreover, to increase the project’s economic attractiveness to Sudan and Ethiopia, I propose, here, making the economic zone in the Suez Canal available to the two countries, and perhaps other members of Comesa, as a collection, storage and export hub for their meat, dairy and agricultural products, facilitating their access to Arab, European and American markets.
Further encouraging the “Eastern Development Corridor” project is a vision for creating a river highway from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean. Egypt is currently studying this possibility in collaboration with international consultancy firms. The prospect would be particularly attractive to Khartoum, which would become the centre where two regional projects (the Eastern Development Corridor and the Lake Victoria-Mediterranean river highway) would converge. Addis Ababa has already expressed an interest in the river highway project, which would expand the dynamics of regional cooperation in the Nile Basin.
What is certain is that an effective collective management of the Blue Nile Basin and its water resources would realise untold benefits for all countries involved, as was the case with the Mekong River Commission in Southeast Asia. That inter-governmental organisation, which works directly with the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Myanmar to jointly manage their shared water resources, generated more than $22 billion worth of development projects for these countries, creating a system that promotes cooperation and reduces risks of conflict. Not only has the collaboration benefited the economies of all Mekong River nations, it has improved the environment of the river itself.
The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.
* This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper