After nine years of Ethiopian intransigence and evasiveness Egypt was forced to turn to the UN Security Council (UNSC) in an attempt to check Addis Ababa’s bid to begin filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam reservoir unilaterally, without a prior agreement with Sudan and Egypt.
Ethiopia, which recently thumbed its nose at a US-World Bank brokered draft agreement based on the input of the three principles, rushed to the arms of Pretoria, in its capacity as chair of the African Union, crying that African problems require African solutions.
Evidently, Africa was born yesterday: clearly Ethiopia did not think it existed last year when Egypt chaired the AU, or during the eight years of negotiations before that.
Ethiopia believes that by confining the management of this dispute to AU headquarters in Addis Ababa it can keep its behaviour hidden from the world as it continues to procrastinate and evade accountability. Meanwhile, let’s not forget that Ethiopia, which now touts its African affiliation and wants to keep the negotiations African, is the same Ethiopia that contracted an Italian firm to build the dam, a Chinese firm to build its electricity grid and zero African firms for any construction or engineering works related to the dam. To Ethiopia, Africa is only good as a negotiating shield, which is why Egypt was right to give the AU talks two weeks and to ensure that the UNSC was abreast of this process, especially since it is still the UNSC’s role to resolve disputes that threaten international peace and security.
While the Egyptian president’s statements following the meeting of the AU Bureau attended by the heads of state of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia were balanced and consistent with Egypt’s diplomatic heritage, those of the Ethiopian prime minister were tendentious and intransigent. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed clung tenaciously to his African solutions only routine, despite how dependant his country is on the World Food Programme, World Bank assistance and loans, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation’s food security and irrigation development programme, and other UN organisations.
As for the Ethiopian water resources minister, his tack was to unleash a vicious attack on Egypt based entirely on falsehoods and misinformation. Describing the 1959 Nile Waters agreement as a “colonialist” document despite the fact that both Egypt and Sudan were fully independent sovereign states at the time, the minister claimed that Egypt obtained 87 per cent of Nile water, Sudan only 13 per cent and Ethiopia, the source of 85 per cent of Nile water, “zero per cent”. If he is going to try to drive a wedge between Sudan and Egypt, which appears to be one aim here, he should be less fanciful with the facts. The truth is that Ethiopia obtains the largest share of Nile water, mostly from Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. The 55 billion m3 of water from this it uses to generate electricity at the Chara Dam. Around the lake it has constructed numerous freshwater stations, factories and farms, including fish farms which yield more than 100,000 tons of fish a year.
In addition, Ethiopia has nine billion m3 from the Takezi Reservoir which it uses to generate electricity and produce drinking water. Ethiopia thus has 64 billion m3 from Lake Tana and the Takezi Reservoir, while Egypt and Sudan obtain 60 billion m3 from the Blue Nile and Atbara. This, alone, betrays the fiction being marketed by the Water Tower of Africa, as Ethiopia has been dubbed. It claims that it does not get a drop of water from the Nile whereas, in fact, it gets the lion’s share.
By contrast, the countries at the headwaters of the White Nile — the other tributary to the River Nile — have no problem with acknowledging that they receive most of the waters of this branch of the Nile, whether from Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world, or Lakes Kayoga, George, Edward and Albert, through which the Nile proceeds to South Sudan. Similarly, South Sudan acknowledges that it sits atop some 40 billion m3 of water in the Sudd, the largest freshwater marsh in the world.
Ethiopia wants to throw dust in everyone’s eyes with its fiction about the Blue Nile and by ignoring the nine other river basins it possesses. Ethiopia has 10 river systems, complete with lakes and tributaries, all fed by abundant rainfall. Egypt has only a single river, the Nile, that cleaves its way through the desert which covers 93 per cent of the country. Ethiopia receives 937 billion m3 of rainfall. Egypt receives about 18 billion m3. Compared to Ethiopia’s 1650 m3 of water per capita, Egyptians obtain only 500 m3 of water per person per year, which is below international water scarcity levels.
The Ethiopian minister deliberately overlooks such facts and continues to weave his fictions. He claims that GERD will help Sudan access more than seven billion m3 of the Blue Nile which goes to Egypt but is actually a part of Sudan’s quota. He does not bother to explain how this will work. He also overlooked the fact that the Roseires, Sennar and Khashm Al-Girba dams ensure that Sudan does receive its full quota of Blue Nile waters. In fact, the latter dam was constructed after the 1959 Nile Water agreement precisely for this purpose. Sudan also has the Jebal Aulia dam on the White Nile and the Merowe Dam north of the confluence of the White and Blue Nile.
Nor does the Ethiopian minister mention the fact his government will deduct 15 billion m3 from Sudan and Egypt’s quotas during the seven years it will take for the first filling of the GERD reservoir or that it intends to deduct 17 billion m3 more on a permanent basis. If GERD is supposed to be for electricity production, as Ethiopia claims, why does it need to retain such a large amount of water. And by what mathematic feat will Sudan’s quota increase?
The Ethiopian water minister is unconcerned by such inconsistencies as he proceeds to toss in red herrings. Ethiopia does not recognise Egypt’s “historic rights” to the Nile. If anything, we should be talking about “accepted rights”, a principle recognised under international law and that refers to the amount of water that Egypt received from the Nile as the result of its natural flow for thousands of years. But even this is beside the point, because Egypt did not bring up the 1959 Nile Water agreement in the negotiations. That agreement grants Egypt a quota of 55.5 billion m3 of the waters of the entire Nile system to which the Blue Nile contributes only 49 billion. There is no connection between Egypt’s quota and negotiations over the dam.
The Ethiopian minister has indulged in familiar appeals to pity. The majority of Ethiopians have to carry wood on their backs for fuel and lighting because they have no electricity, whereas all Egyptians have electricity, he said. What about the Sudanese? Moreover, what about the Nile River Basin Initiative (NRBI) report last year that found that 100 per cent of Ethiopia’s urban inhabitants and 60 per cent of rural inhabitants have electricity. Apart from this, is it fair to equate the right to electricity with the right to life, which is at stake for the Egyptian people.
It is hard to make up for lost lives, whereas electricity can be produced from a number of alternative sources which Ethiopia also possesses in abundance: wind on the Ethiopian plateau and sunshine. Meanwhile, while millions of Ethiopians are carrying wood on their backs, according to their minister’s narrative, their government is selling the power generated from the three dams on the Omo River to Kenya and Djibouti. They will probably have to go on carrying wood on their backs in order to sustain their ministers’ ad misericordiam appeals for future dams.
Turning back to Egypt, the minister argues that Egypt loses 10 billion m3 of water due to evaporation from Lake Nasser. Before the High Dam, Egypt lost 22 billion m3 of water to the Mediterranean which means that dam has made at least 12 billion m3 available to the people if we factor in that 10 billion m3 ostensibly lost through evaporation. Evidently, he would rather Egyptians not have that extra water at all, because he makes no mention of the 45 billion m3 lost through evaporation and transpiration in the Sudanese marshlands in the Sudd and Sobat. He also overlooks the approximately five billion m3 that will be lost to evaporation from the GERD reservoir, not to mention the equal quantity of water lost due seepage.
On its official webpage, Addis Ababa claims that Egypt exports water in the form of $5 billion worth of agricultural products, yet claims water poverty. Ethiopia exports five times that amount, but it felt no need to add this on its website, or the fact that Egypt imports 65 per cent of its basic foodstuffs at a cost of $15 billion a year, precisely because of its water scarcity. Instead, the Ethiopian misinformation campaign bills GERD as a “Sudanese dam” because it will enable Sudan to cultivate the area around Roseires and other areas three times a year instead of twice. It does not mention that GERD will withhold the fertile silt from the water that reaches the Roseires and Sannar dams, which may never refill after Ethiopia completes its dam from which Addis Ababa will dispense judicious amounts like a parent giving his children a daily allowance for a school lunch. If, indeed, Sudan plans to keep that land under cultivation after Ethiopia closes the taps to a trickle it will have to construct an enormous irrigation network to the tune of billions of dollars. It will also have to use tons of chemical fertilisers to compensate for the loss of Nile silt, and incalculable quantities of insecticides and other products to fight the insects and diseases that will infest Sudanese soil as it succumbs to salinisation due to the lack of annual replenishment from Nile floods.
Is Ethiopia going to fork out some money to help the Sudanese make the necessary readjustments to their agricultural economy? Not very likely. More in keeping with the current Ethiopian government’s thinking is the conclusion, drawn by the German Strategic Studies Institute, that Addis Ababa plans to aggravate Egypt’s water poverty in order to force Egypt to purchase water from Ethiopia. Such realities should help the international community to appreciate the true nature of Ethiopia’s intentions.
The writer is a professor of soil and water sciences at Cairo University’s Faculty of Agriculture.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly