Dedicated to preserving Egypt’s historical water quota from the River Nile, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi signed the Declaration of Principles on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on 23 March 2015, along with the then leaders of Sudan and Ethiopia.
In 10 Principles, the agreement stated, though not explicitly, Egypt’s historical rights to the river’s water. “Where significant harm nevertheless is caused to one of the countries, the state whose use causes such harm shall, in the absence of agreement to such use, take all appropriate measures in consultations with the affected state to eliminate or mitigate such harm and, where appropriate, to discuss the question of compensation,” reads Principle III of the agreement.
Unfortunately, this agreement has nevertheless been branded by some for the sake of argument as the cause of the deadlock in the GERD talks. Yet, the simple facts show that the Egyptian negotiators, here citing the English text of the agreement itself, have done their best to ensure that no harm whatsoever would be inflicted on Egypt during the filling or operations of the dam.
Here one must cite some studies done by Ethiopian researchers on the agreement. Endalcachew Bayeh from the Department of Civics and Ethical Studies at Ambo University in Ethiopia has produced a study entitled “Agreement on the Declaration of Principles on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project: A Reaffirmation of the 1929 and 1959 Agreements?”
The title of this may give a clear-cut response to those vehemently criticising the agreement on the Egyptian side. In this study, dated 13 April 2016 which has received over 250,000 readings since it was first published, the researcher argues that the incorporation of Principle I of the agreement, sub-article 2, which reads “to cooperate in understanding upstream and downstream water needs in its various aspects” “will bind Ethiopia to consider such water demands of Egypt in its utilisation of Nile waters, thereby putting Ethiopia in a disadvantageous position.”
More importantly, he goes on to say that “the treaty seems to be an instrument for securing and maintaining the water needs of Egypt. All the foregoing elements of the principle affirmatively work for Egypt. This, in turn, keeps Ethiopia loyal to the water interests of Egypt, thereby compromising its domestic interests.”
His remarks in that department tell everybody concerned with the agreement that the Declaration of Principles was not a go-ahead for Ethiopia to proceed with the dam’s construction and that it was not the means by which Egypt legitimised this huge project, as some who have talked to hear the sound of their own voices have claimed. Instead, it, as best as it could be at the time of signature, was by far in favour of Egypt.
Moreover, on the operation and filling of the GERD, the researcher says that the above article “shows the deterioration of an ownership right of the Ethiopians. This is due to the reason that the agreement subjects the dam to the joint management of the three countries.” The flawed and ineffective rhetoric that the agreement on the Declaration of Principles was in breach of the very principles of preserving Egypt’s water rights is thus ridiculous, to say the least.
Even though they talked until they were blue in the face, those who opposed the agreement seemingly had not read its articles, or in the best-case scenario, never showed a proper understanding of it.
Another study by three Ethiopian academics led by Minga Negash, the holder of a PhD in economics from the Metropolitan State University of Denver in the US, has suggested that the Declaration of Principles bypasses the Cooperative Framework Agreement reached in Entebbe, Uganda, in May 2010 for a new distribution of the waters of the Nile.
According to a lengthy study entitled “Ethiopia: Perspectives on the Declaration of Principles regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam,” the phrase “principles of international law” in Principle I of the Agreement “neither implicitly nor explicitly recognises the existence of the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement.” The three researchers also argue that the above-mentioned principle was in complete harmony with the “spirit of the framework for cooperation that was signed between Egypt and Ethiopia in 1993,” referring to the agreement signed under former leaders of Egypt and Ethiopia, Hosni Mubarak and Meles Zenawi, respectively.
The study also asserts that the intention behind the invocation of Principle I was to cite “the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses” adopted on 21 May 1997. In other words, this means that the aforementioned phrase is another assertion of Egypt’s water-rights based on international criteria, given that the 1997 UN Convention stresses the infliction of no significant harm by upstream countries on downstream ones.
The most important principle enshrined in the Tripartite Agreement between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan remains that “the purpose of the GERD is for power generation,” as stated in Principle III. Here, the study points out that the text of the agreement left no room for Ethiopia to utilise the Nile waters for any purpose whatsoever other than generating power. In reality, this article has prevented now and in the future any use of the waters around the dam for “fishing, recreation, education and small-scale industrial and irrigation projects,” as the study reveals.
On the equitable utilisation of the Nile, Principle IV of the Agreement details the means of equitable distribution of the Nile waters, leaving no room for any speculation in that department either. The principle states that the equitable and reasonable utilisation of water has to consider, among other factors, the “existing and potential uses of the water resources” for the three nations. Moreover, the sub-articles attached to Principle IV “legitimise the increased demand for water by downstream countries,” as the study by the Minga Negash-led team elaborated. In other words, Egypt’s historical 55.5 billion cubic metres of Nile water and even any future demands are reaffirmed in the agreement.
Thanks to Principle X of the Tripartite Agreement, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan did find a way out of the current stalemate. The principle on the peaceful settlement of disputes stipulates, in case the three nations are incapable of resolving their disputes, that they may request “mediation”. Though it was not clearly announced that the meeting held this month in Washington DC was based on invoking Principle X, it remains effective towards that end.
Upon an invitation from US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met in Washington in a bid to break the deadlock. In reality, the Trump administration sent a letter dated 21 October 2019 to the three nations to settle the standoff. The meetings, in which the World Bank participated, did outline a precise timeframe-based roadmap to end the dispute, something which Cairo has repeatedly requested and has now at last become a reality.
The three nations agreed on the completion of a binding agreement by 15 January 2020, adding that should no agreement be reached by the deadline, Principle X of the Declaration of Principles on international mediation should be invoked.
In effect, the agreement on the Declaration of Principles has been a win-win one, as it recognises the rights of all the signatory parties. Ethiopia will utilise the Nile for power-generation, without the use of waters around the dam for any other purpose. Egypt has reasserted its position on its historical quota of the Nile water and showed a good spirit in order not to stonewall development in the upstream nations.
After seven years of building up tensions over the GERD, a binding and viable agreement looks attainable for the betterment of all the peoples living along the Nile.
*The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.