Tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia have reached a new peak due to the Ethiopian intransigence that caused the breakdown in negotiations between the irrigation ministers from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia on 4 October.
Ethiopia’s procrastination and evasiveness have compelled Egypt to internationalise its dispute with Ethiopia over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), as President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi made clear in his address to the UN General Assembly in September. Egypt should now prepare a complete dossier on the dispute to advance its case.
This should consist of three sections, the first detailing Egypt’s vision for a just and equitable timetable and set of rules for filling the GERD reservoir and operating the dam in coordination with downstream dams in Sudan and Egypt. This vision would enable the realisation of a mutually beneficial partnership between the three countries, grounded in mutual respect for their right to live and to develop freely. Ethiopia would be able to meet its electricity needs, Sudan would be able to organise its hydraulic operations, and Egypt would be assured of its quota of Nile water.
The second section would lay out proposals for comprehensive regional cooperation. It would present an important initiative for the joint management of the Nile’s water resources, which is the logical approach to the preservation of the Nile River environment and peace and security and the realisation of sustainable development in the Nile Valley. The initiative would be merged into a more extensive cooperative system that would work to the advantage of all, sustaining sufficient water flows to downstream nations and simultaneously allowing for the development of an electricity grid extending across the three countries with the possibility of exporting electricity to other parts of the region or to Europe.
This larger system would also include land and rail transport networks that would end Ethiopia’s landlocked condition by linking it to the Mediterranean and giving it access to Egyptian ports.
The third section of the dossier would take the first two sections and render their contents into a proposal for a binding agreement, along the lines of the 1959 Agreement between Egypt and Sudan. This would then serve as the basis for handling issues related to the Nile in future and put an end to the anxiety over the 86 per cent of the Nile’s water that hails from Ethiopia.
If we manage our negotiating position well, all concerned will emerge the winners. Discipline and strategic awareness will need to be brought to bear in the manner expressed by President Al-Sisi during the awareness-raising seminar on 13 October on the occasion of the commemoration of victory in the 1973 October War. The president also embodied this spirit when he took the initiative to congratulate Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed on his being awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
The Egyptian dossier should not just seek to persuade our Ethiopian partner, however. It should also open the eyes of the international community, which could be brought in as a mediator that would appreciate the responsible and equitable stance Egypt has taken and would put appropriate pressure on Addis Ababa to respect the needs and welfare of all the countries bordering the Nile.
I suggest that Egypt submit the dossier to regional and international governments and agencies in the framework of a systematic drive that would begin with diplomatic activities and extend if need be to action in the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice. After all, this is a question of a potential threat to international peace and security resulting from Ethiopia’s unwarranted persistence in the wrongful assertion of a sovereign right in violation of the UN Charter, international law and international conventions governing transboundary watercourses.
It might be appropriate, if forthcoming summit meetings fail to produce the hoped-for breakthrough, to turn to a third party for arbitration, in accordance with Article 10 of the Declaration of Principles Agreement signed between Addis Ababa, Cairo and Khartoum in March 2015. Such a step has been the norm in other water disputes since the World Bank and its then president Eugene Black brokered the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan in 1960.
Diplomatic activities at this week’s Russia-Africa Summit could open new horizons for an agreement on a dispute of such potentially dangerous consequences, especially given the simultaneous presence of the three leaders who hold the keys to what could be the most important development project in Africa – the Blue Nile Basin Development Corridor.
A new proposal on the GERD
A LARGER PROJECT: The project in the second section of the proposed Egyptian dossier on the GERD would be more than just a comprehensive regional cooperation project.
It would be an exercise in the optimum management of a transboundary watercourse in a manner that respects its geographical and environmental integrity and preserves the river and its resources, optimises its capacities and benefits, and enables all partners to share equitably in it.
It is useful to bear in mind the outputs of the meeting of foreign ministers, hydraulic experts and intelligence officials from Addis Ababa, Cairo and Khartoum that took place in 2018, because they offer mechanisms that if formulated in a legal framework could lay the groundwork for a tripartite Blue Nile Basin Management Authority at the heart of the envisioned regional project.
This Authority could be steered by a tripartite summit meeting every six months. Below that would come the mechanism of the 3 X 3 trilateral meetings of the foreign ministers, intelligence officials and hydraulics experts of the three countries. At a third level, there would be the technical mechanism, the Tripartite National Committee (TNC), which would consist of the irrigation and water resource ministers from the three countries. Then there would be the executive mechanism in the form of an Infrastructure Fund that would oversee cooperative relations in infrastructural development and other developmental fields. All this would be complemented by the Independent National Studies Group for Scientific Research that the three parties would agree to establish.
This comprehensive development project, when launched and overseen by the proposed Blue Nile Basin Management Authority, could achieve major economic and developmental gains and consolidate and deepen a political consensus that would lay to rest major sources of tension between the three countries. In the framework of the proposed project, the Nile waters would become part of a multifaceted cooperative order: the above-mentioned Development Corridor that would include cooperation in the fields of electricity production, the development of land and maritime transportation routes and the movement of individuals, goods, products and services in the framework of a spirit of mutual harmony, as opposed to division and acrimony.
It is a fact that river basins are distinct and cohesive ecosystems. This certainly applies to the River Nile, which should therefore be treated as a single geographical, natural and environmental entity. Accordingly, the Nile’s resources should be managed collectively in a systematic way, as should agricultural and industrial development and social, human and cultural development in its Basin.
This vision for the collective management and development of the Nile Basin and the establishment of a Blue Nile Basin Management Authority for this purpose is consistent with the outlooks and mechanisms of the Nile Basin Initiative that envisioned a coordinating mechanism for the countries of the Blue Nile Basin. The three countries of this Basin, being the three partners in the Blue Nile of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, are now at a historic turning point. Through their concerted efforts and with proper management, they have the opportunity to find and carry out the solutions called for by earlier agreements in a manner that will respect Ethiopia’s development rights and safeguard Egypt’s water rights.
They should be able to agree to formulas to ensure that enough water is released through the GERD to sustain the current discharge rate at the Roseires Dam in Sudan before the convergence of the Blue and White Niles in Khartoum. In like manner, they should determine whatever adjustments would need to be made at the Meroe Dam in order to maintain the current rate of flow to the Aswan High Dam in Upper Egypt. Resident technical missions at the GERD and the other dams would be in charge of operating them in coordination with each other on the basis of the provisions of a binding legal and technical agreement between the three countries.
In like manner, the three countries should be able to devise a timetable and commensurate mechanisms for filling and operating the GERD in two stages. Perhaps the rate of the first stage could be set at that originally recommended by the US Bureau of Reclamation in 1964 for the Ethiopian Border Dam, namely 14 billion cubic metres. That would make it possible to control any adverse effects, and it would give Sudan and Egypt sufficient space to accommodate gradually to the impacts of the dam.
In short, there are ways to meet the interests of all sides and transform the Nile River Basin into an oasis of development and prosperity for all. With patience and persistence, it should be possible to realise the hope of a jointly administered Development Corridor that would sustain the Nile as a source of life and development for all.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.