At the roots of the GERD

Attia Essawi , Tuesday 31 Mar 2020

Attia Essawi traces the long history of Ethiopian intransigence on Nile water negotiations

At the roots of the GERD
GERD under construction (photo: Reuters)

Both before and after Addis Ababa began to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Egypt was untiring in its efforts, first, to promote consensus between countries at the sources of the Nile and downstream countries, and, second, to promote the optimum utilisation of the River's resources for the benefit of all the inhabitants of the Nile Basin.

To meet these ends, Egypt has taken numerous initiatives to foster agreements over hydraulic projects and arrangements that would enable the Nile Basin countries to implement diverse development projects funded by international donors in order to modernise infrastructure, eliminate water and food shortages, and raise the living standards of their peoples while preventing billions of cubic metres of water from going to waste through seepage, evaporation, transpiration and other processes.

In 1999, Egypt proposed the Nile Basin Initiative that called for development projects that would raise the overall Nile water utilisation rate from its current four per cent to 6.6 per cent. The Initiative also contained 34 projects, including one for irrigation development in the Egyptian Delta, a second for irrigational development in Ethiopia, a third to create an electricity grid covering Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, and a fourth to create another electricity grid between Uganda and other countries in the Equatorial Great Lakes region.

The initiative reaffirmed all Nile Basin countries' rights to the water of the Nile, the principle of the avoidance of harm to fellow Nilotic nations, the prevention of the transport and sale of Nile waters to others outside the Nile Basin, and the principle of the preservation of Egypt's historical rights to the Nile. Unfortunately, the Upper Nile countries rejected the initiative even though they agreed to 41 out of its 44 points.

In 2010, the Egyptian Initiative to promote the above-mentioned projects, to which international donors had pledged around $20 billion, reached a dead end because of the ongoing dispute over just three points, which had to do with guaranteeing acquired rights to the water of the Nile. Then Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda hastily concluded the Entebbe Agreement, later joined by Burundi, ignoring Cairo's demand that they not infringe on its established quota of Nile water and notify it in advance of any project on the Nile that could harm the downstream countries. This was despite the fact that such principles are enshrined in bilateral and international agreements and World Bank rules.

As the Upper Nile countries focused on the Entebbe Agreement, Egypt did the best it could to modify the articles pertaining to prior notification, the voting system, and the equitable utilisation of water in the hope of safeguarding its rights and resolving a dispute that was obstructing cooperation between the Nile Basin countries over major development projects.

According to reports at the time, Egypt offered to return to the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement in exchange for being allowed to carry out projects to optimise water utilisation and to develop agriculture in the Upper Nile countries. It also proposed a compromise solution that would restrict the application of prior notice and unanimous voting to projects that could affect the Nile’s flow, thereby excluding barrages for electricity production and reservoirs to collect rainwater and conserve water that would otherwise be lost in marshes and mountain areas.

The Upper Nile countries also ignored an Egyptian proposal that projects or amendments should be approved by majority vote, provided that Egypt and Sudan were among that majority. The purpose, of course, was to ensure the avoidance of harm to the downriver nations, namely Egypt and Sudan. In the end, Egypt was forced to refuse to sign the Entebbe Agreement and Sudan, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo sided with it. The dispute brought the cooperation projects to a halt, and the $20 billion pledge from donor agencies expired.

In June 2017, the Nile Basin Summit in Uganda, the first to convene since the impasse reached between members in 2010, renewed hopes that the Entebbe signatories would now take the initiative to search for a solution to this impasse. Unfortunately, the intransigence of the upper riparian nations prevented any progress at all. No one had expected the summit participants to reach full agreement due to the hardline stance of Ethiopia, but there was hope that they would be able to work out something that could be built on.

The Upper Nile countries refuse to recognise agreements that date to the colonial era, such as the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement, which gives Egypt the right to veto any upstream hydraulic project if it threatens to cut or reduce the amount of water that reaches it, and the 1959 treaty between Egypt and Sudan. They insist that the Entebbe Agreement should supersede all previous agreements and override Egypt's established 55.5 billion m3 quota of water.

The Entebbe Agreement calls for an equal distribution of water, but it fails to take into account the fact that Egypt's quota amounts to less than four per cent of the 1,680 billion m3 of rainwater that the upper riparian nations receive a year. It also prohibits encroachment on the Sudd Marshlands in southern Sudan, and thus obstructs development projects, such as the Jonglei Canal project that aims to conserve huge quantities of water lost due to transpiration and evaporation. On other matters, the wording of the Agreement is dangerously ambiguous, as is the case with the provision that every signatory may avail itself of the water it needs for irrigation and electricity generation without causing harm to other members.

It was intransigence such as this that encouraged Ethiopia to begin the construction of the GERD before reaching an agreement with Egypt and Sudan in keeping with the treaties Addis Ababa has signed and with international law regulating the utilisation of transboundary water courses. It then proceeded to procrastinate and dodge its commitments during seven years of negotiations. Such behaviour reached a new height with Ethiopia's boycott of the 27-28 February meeting in Washington at which it was expected to sign a final comprehensive and equitable agreement that would have enabled Ethiopia to realise its declared aim of generating electricity for development projects while avoiding grave harm to Egypt during the filling and operation of the GERD.

This long record of Ethiopian intransigence puts paid to Addis Ababa's misleading propaganda that Egypt is opposed to Ethiopian development by means of the GERD.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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