The differences concerning the Washington Agreement that seeks to resolve the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) centre around a handful of points. To some, especially those familiar with the details of this crisis, the problems are major, whereas for others it will only take more mutual trust, flexibility and understanding to overcome them and reach compromise solutions. This article will begin by briefly describing the perspectives of each of the three main stakeholders so that we can better understand their differences.
Ethiopia is a densely populated country that suffers from high rates of poverty and poor public services. It has no real water deficiency problem apart from occasional droughts that wreak major human, economic and political tolls.
Sudan suffers from the political and social instability inherited from the rule of former president Omar Al-Bashir. The secession of South Sudan from the rest of the country taking its water and petroleum resources with it delivered a debilitating blow to the economy of the north. The recent Sudanese revolution and consequent changes in the country’s political leadership have further shaken its economy and public services. Meanwhile, the government is still grappling with civil unrest in several states of Sudan.
Egypt, which has a range of domestic concerns of its own, especially economic ones, is home to a large population concentrated primarily in the Nile Valley. It suffers from severe water shortages and the largest food supply gap in Africa.
These parties’ differences over the draft Washington Agreement on the GERD can be summed up in four main points. The first pertains to the exchange of information, coordination and cooperation between the three countries to ensure their commitment to implementing it. The sticking point here is that Ethiopia has constantly pleaded the principle of national sovereignty when asked to fulfil its pledges and commitments and reassure the other parties.
Ethiopia must understand Sudanese and Egyptian anxieties over potential flaws in the structure or operations of the dam. Such concerns apply to any dam and have been substantiated by precedents, such as the collapse of several dams in the US or the devastating flooding of northern Uganda and South Sudan due to the poor management of the reservoir of the Owen Dam.
Structural or operational problems with the GERD could unleash highly destructive floods or, conversely, disastrous droughts on the downstream nations of Sudan and Egypt. All necessary guarantees and arrangements thus need to be put into place, including mechanisms for tripartite coordination and consultation whether on the implementation of the provisions of the agreement or on introducing changes to the rules if these benefit all the parties without infringing on their sovereignty.
The second set of differences revolves around how to resolve problems or disputes that may arise over the interpretation or implementation of the agreement. The dispute-resolution provision is crucial to ensuring its lasting success because it seeks to introduce a mechanism to avert misinterpretations or possible lapses. Egypt’s and Sudan’s concerns on this matter stem, in part, from their current experience with Ethiopia’s misinterpretation of the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles, which led Addis Ababa to declare its intention to begin to fill the GERD reservoir in July this year despite Egypt’s and Sudan’s opposition.
Differences over the interpretation of the Agreement on the Declaration of Principle have also given rise to other problems, such as Ethiopian demands to bring in the Equatorial Nile Basin nations and South Africa or the African Union (AU) as intermediaries or observers, the effect of which has been to protract the negotiations for years on end. I should stress that the purpose here is not to assign wrong or right, but to clarify the causes of the differences. Attention to averting mistakes made earlier is essential to the success of the agreement and to preserving it from the type of corrosive disputes we are currently witnessing in increasingly strident media campaigns. One suggestion would be to create an African Union resolution dispute committee made up of members who would serve for set terms and be selected with the approval of the three concerned parties.
Thirdly, in its memorandum to the UN Security Council, Ethiopia expressed reservations on the filling of the GERD reservoir under various drought conditions because of possible impacts on electricity production. I must acknowledge a certain scepticism regarding the motives behind these reservations since the Americans, Sudanese, Egyptians and even Ethiopians had publicly stated that the parties had reached agreement over the rules of filling the dam under different hydrological circumstances, including drought and extended drought.
The last area of difference, according to my reading of the statements made by all sides, concerns the previous agreements concluded during the colonial period. Without reiterating the details discussed in previous articles, neither the 1959 nor the 1902 agreements fit into this category. However, let us broach this from another perspective: how many years has it been since these were concluded? Has their substance been applied on the ground and, if so, under what arrangements?
One of the agreements is over a century old, and the other is just over 60 years old. In other words, they span at least three or four generations. In Egypt, they have been applied to the latter. Egypt’s full quota of Nile water is based on the 1959 Agreement, which was formulated in the light of the 1902 Agreement as well as the 1929 Agreement. I have no doubt that all these agreements reflected and sought to preserve a previously existing reality, which is that which Egypt has lived with for thousands of years, having roughly the same amount of Nile water (until some additional quantity became available with the construction of the Aswan High Dam and the implementation of the 1959 Agreement).
Egypt has important reservations regarding the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), otherwise known as the Entebbe Agreement, on the Nile. As it stands, this agreement is formulated in a manner that increases the water disparity between the Nilotic source countries and Egypt, which is hemmed in by desert and compelled to desalinate its drinking water. Instead of working to bring the Nile Basin countries together, the Entebbe Agreement works to drive them apart. Moreover, it contains provisions that hamper hydraulic projects that aim to conserve Nile water lost to evaporation and transpiration in the vast marshes and swamps that extend across most Nile Basin countries. Recovering these billions of cubic metres of water lost every year could resolve disputes and even meet Nile Basin water needs for years to come.
The CFA needs to strike a more equitable balance between the countries at the sources of the Nile and the country at its mouth. It needs to encourage development and investment in projects that bring the Nile Basin countries together rather than discriminate between them. Instead of recalibrating quotas, it should focus on how to support countries in their efforts to meet their water needs. In this spirit, not only should it uphold the principle of the fair and equitable use of water, but it should also engage respect for long-established realities on the ground as a result of the previous agreements that the upper riparian countries want to abolish.
The CFA should include provisions that encourage cooperation in the construction of hydraulic projects that conserve and increase the amount of water available to needier countries. The costs would be distributed among the beneficiaries in proportion to their benefits. Egypt strongly supports the move towards regional African blocs to promote the development of all, as opposed to the development of some countries at the expense of others.
Indeed, the African Union was established precisely to promote the development of the whole of Africa. But if it seeks to build a strong Africa, this goal cannot be achieved without a strong Ethiopia, a strong Egypt and other strong and prosperous Nile Basin nations. This is why we hope for and encourage the creation of an AU Nile Basin Commission tasked with furthering the development of the Nile Basin nations and strengthening cooperation among them and attracting investment to them.
I do not expect everyone to agree with my views. But I do hope they encourage calm, rational and constructive discussion.
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.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly