In the 1960s Washington sent a mission from the US Bureau of Land Reclamation to Ethiopia. The mission’s brief was to examine the possibility of building dams on the Nile which could generate hydropower and help Ethiopia overcome its acute energy deficit. A second, unannounced goal of the mission was to punish Egypt and Sudan for the decision to go ahead with the High Dam of Aswan in the face of opposition from the West and the World Bank’s refusal to provide funding.
The American mission identified 33 sites for dams which, if built, could generate electricity and help in irrigating new lands. They would also reduce Egypt and Sudan’s quota of Nile water by six billion cubic metres annually.
The largest four dams on the long list of possibilities were the Caradobi, Mandaia, Bica-abo and the Border Dam.
The site of the last of these, the Border Dam, was 9km east of the Sudanese border. The plan was for a 90m high dam with a reservoir of 14 billion cubic metres.
Meles Zinawi, the prime minister of Ethiopia from 1995 to 2012, subsequently revisited the idea of building the Border Dam as a part of Ethiopia’s development plans. When the scheme proved popular among the public he allocated a budget for the project and renamed it the Millennium Dam.
Tensions over the project initially focused on the Entebbe Agreement, which was signed in 2010. Egypt refused to sign the agreement between Nile Basin states which was intended to replace the 1923 convention, renewed in 1959, which fixed Egypt and Sudan’s annual share of Nile water at 55.5 and 18.5 billion cubic metres, respectively, and gave Egypt the right to veto the construction of any dams upstream.
In 2011, as Egypt passed through political turmoil in the wake of the January uprising, Zinawi took advantage of the situation to begin work on the dam project. In a speech in April 2011 he announced building work would begin on what was now being called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). A small Italian contractor with negligible experience of such a major project was hastily appointed.
During the early stages of the January Revolution, Cairo’s response was limited to trying to persuade Addis Ababa to slow down construction work, review the dam’s design, conduct field studies of the site to ensure it was safe and impact studies to determine the dam’s effects on Sudan and Egypt. Yet whatever willingness there was on the part of Ethiopia to listen to Egypt’s technical concerns was far outweighed by political considerations.
Following Zenawi’s sudden death, Halemariam Desalegn became prime minister of Ethiopia. He had a much lower profile than his predecessor, and hailed from a smaller tribe.
As the situation in Egypt stabilised with the emergence of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Cairo’s strategy was to try and convince Addis Ababa that Egypt fully supported development across the Nile Basin as long as Egypt’s historic share of Nile water was guaranteed.
President Al-Sisi had a number of meetings with Desalegn the most important of which were in Guinea in July 2014 and in Sudan in March 2015. The latter was as also attended by Sudan’s then president, Omar Al-Bashir.
Following the first meeting a comprehensive agreement of principles — 10 in total — was signed. The meeting in Sudan resulted in a comprehensive agreement based on 15 principles.
Following Desalegn’s resignation, President Al-Sisi met with his successor, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who stated clearly that Ethiopia had no intention of denying Egypt its rights to Nile water. The devil, though, is in the details. Meetings between technical experts and ministers of water and irrigation continued, though no consensus emerged. Indeed, Addis Ababa managed to win the support of Khartoum, largely with promises of cheap energy and claims that GERD would improve water management in Sudan and reduce silting at Sudanese dams.
The timetable for the filling of GERD’s reservoir remains the most vexed of a host of controversial questions.
The reservoir has a 74 billion cubic metre capacity and the timetable for its filling will determine the amount of water that flows on to Sudan and Egypt.
Last week Ethiopia rejected an Egyptian proposal on the operation of the dam in a manner that would ensure Egypt and Sudan receive an adequate share of water even during periods of low rainfall. Addis Ababa claimed the proposal violated Ethiopia’s sovereignty.
A meeting with an independent scientific group is scheduled from 30 September to 3 October in Khartoum to further discuss the issues, to be followed by a tripartite meeting of Egypt, Ehiopia and Sudan’s water ministers on 4 to 5 October.
Given the pace of negotiations, no breakthrough is expected. The most likely exit from the deadlock appears to be via mediation, by an international organisation like the World Bank, a regional one like the African Union, or even an individual such as former UN secretary-general Kofi Anan. Other possibilities include international arbitration, the United Nations General Assembly, the Security Council, or perhaps the International Court of Justice.
For Cairo, the most important point will be to keep its annual quota of water unchanged. Should Egypt lose one cubic metre of water for any reason it must demand compensation which could take the form of money to be used in making up the shortfall through desalination plants or other sources.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title Against the flow