The battle against the coronavirus is currently dominating headlines and monopolising the time and resources of governments around the world.
We, in Egypt, are no different. However, in addition to taking aggressive measures to contain COVID-19, Egypt is also contending with another matter that is equally urgent and that is potentially of greater consequence to long-term regional stability, which is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Ethiopia has almost completed the construction of the GERD, which will become Africa’s largest hydropower dam. The danger that the GERD represents to water security in Egypt cannot be overstated. Egypt is, essentially, a desert oasis that depends entirely on the Nile as its sole source of life. Just check Google Earth – over 100 million Egyptians live in a densely populated and slender strip of green that snakes through an ocean of desert, which eventually opens up into the Nile Delta as it approaches the Mediterranean.
With a water storage capacity of 74 billion cubic metres, which is twice as large as the Hoover Dam in the US, the GERD could, if filled and operated unilaterally, constitute a clear and present danger to Egypt.
That is why it is essential that Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan, the three states that share the Blue Nile where the Dam is being built, agree on the rules governing the filling and operation of the GERD. As a hydropower dam, the GERD is not a water-consumptive project, which means that, if the three countries agree on appropriate rules on its filling and operation, the Dam would not appreciably reduce the quantity of water flowing in the Blue Nile and would not harm downstream communities.
In other words, a win-win solution is attainable. Moreover, Egypt has repeatedly affirmed that it wholeheartedly supports Ethiopia’s right to development, including by harnessing the benefits of the Nile River. However, it always takes two to tango. Ethiopia must also have the requisite political will to reach an agreement that enables it to fill and operate the GERD without affecting Egyptian water use.
Unfortunately, however, almost 10 years of negotiations on the GERD have failed due to Ethiopia’s obstructionism and its adoption of a consistently unilateralist approach. Initially, these talks were intended to ensure that studies on the transboundary and environmental impacts of the GERD were conducted after a panel of world-renowned experts issued a deeply troubling report that highlighted flaws in the Dam’s design and criticised Ethiopia for not undertaking studies on the downstream effects of the GERD.
To manage the process of preparing these studies and to ensure that the rules on the filling and operating of the GERD are developed on the basis of them, an international treaty titled the Agreement on Declaration of Principles (DoP) was signed by Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan on 23 March 2015. This treaty stipulated that the transboundary and environmental studies were to be completed and that the rules on the filling and operation of the GERD were to be agreed on the basis of these studies within 15 months. Five years later, that obligation has still not been fulfilled.
At each and every juncture, Ethiopia has adopted a policy of prevarication that prevented the completion of these studies and that undermined attempts to reach an agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD. That was why Egypt called upon the United States, which is a strategic partner for both Egypt and Ethiopia, to join the negotiations as an observer and facilitator. After 12 rounds of talks that were held in Addis Ababa, Cairo, Khartoum, and Washington DC from November 2019 until February 2020, and after an herculean effort by US secretary of the treasury Steven Mnuchin, who was tasked by president Donald Trump to oversee the talks, the US, in coordination with the World Bank, prepared a compromise text of a treaty on the filling and operation of the GERD.
This agreement is not an American attempt to impose a solution on the three countries. It was developed on the basis of the positions expressed by Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan during the negotiations and provides a fair, balanced, and mutually beneficial formula that preserves the core interests of the three countries. It enables Ethiopia to realise a return on its investment by rapidly and sustainably generating hydropower from the GERD, while protecting downstream states against the adverse effects of the dam and mitigating the ravaging effects of potential droughts.
Like in any compromise, Egypt is not entirely comfortable with everything in the US-drafted agreement. After all, it is often said that a good compromise is one where all the parties are equally dissatisfied. However, in a show of its good will and genuine commitment to enabling Ethiopia to achieve the objectives of the GERD without harming downstream interests, Egypt accepted this agreement and initialled it on 28 February 2020. Ethiopia, on the other hand, refused to attend the final ministerial meeting that was held in Washington DC on 27-28 February 2020 and rejected the text prepared by the US.
Moreover, Ethiopia recently declared that it plans to commence the filling of the GERD without an agreement with its downstream co-riparians. This act of brazen unilateralism would breach the 2015 DoP and, given the potentially disastrous effects of the GERD, would also constitute an intolerable infringement on Egyptian national security. Egypt cannot and will not stand idly by as Ethiopia empowers itself to control the destiny of the Egyptian people.
That is why the US must remain engaged in this process. Not only are America’s prestige and credibility as the pivots of global governance on the line, but also an agreement on the GERD would contribute to maintaining regional stability and security and chart a new course for cooperation among the Nile River riparians.
We now have a unique opportunity to strike a historic deal that promises to change the face of the region. Secretary Mnuchin and his assistants worked hard for an agreement, and the US and the international community must now send a clear message to Ethiopia that a policy of unilateralism is untenable and that it must sign the agreement that is now on the table, which was the outcome of the negotiations in which it participated, and which will open limitless possibilities for the Nile River riparians and realise the aspirations of over 250 million Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Sudanese.
*The writer is a former minister of water resources and irrigation and a professor of water resources at the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University