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A flickering hope

Resolution of the water dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia may be at hand, but it will require the latter to abandon its intransigence in negotiations

Mostafa Ahmady , Friday 20 Dec 2019
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Without a joint statement on the form and substance of issues between Egypt and Ethiopia, the ministers of water resources drawn from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan finalised their meeting in Cairo dated 2-3 December. The filling and hydraulic operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) with that of Egypt’s High Dam remain unsettled. Having finished the meeting, Ethiopia rushed, as usual, to accuse Egypt of stalling negotiations by tabling a set of “unreasonable” requests. Some Ethiopian media outlets quoted an Ethiopian source as saying his country put forward in the Cairo meeting a balanced and reasonable proposal based on the principle of equitable and reasonable utilisation of Nile waters.

Again, Ethiopia has failed to recognise the fact that equitable has nothing to do with fair. Equitableness means all parties are treated the same way, paying no heed to their needs or requests. But fairness pertaining to the utilisation of water, based on international criteria, requires taking into account many factors, the most important of which is the availability of alternative sources of fresh water to a given downstream nation. Without a fair share of the Nile that would consider the growing demands of population, whether for potable water or for different irrigation projects necessary for ensuring the food security of the people, Egypt would suffer the most now and in the near future.

Initially, after the US Treasury Department invited the three eastern nations of the Nile for a meeting in Washington DC to discuss the standoff, Ethiopia said it would engage in the upcoming meetings with a new spirit of openness and transparency to reach a binding compromise. But Ethiopia’s actions do not make the grade as they are derailing the whole process. Ethiopia sees Egypt’s fair request of linking the operation of GERD with that of the Aswan High Dam and the release of at least 40 billion cubic metres during the process of filling the dam as “non-cooperative” and “non-adaptive”.

Satirically enough, Ethiopian officials have dubbed Egypt’s request of a linkage between GERD and the Aswan High Dam as “unscientific”! So, was it scientific to construct a huge gravity dam on a deep gorge in the African Great Rift Valley region known for its volcanic nature? And was it adaptive to obstinately aim to produce a huge volume of electricity while knowing that the Ethiopian national power grid will not be able to process it, whether for local consumers or for the so-called goal of turning Ethiopia into a regional power hub?

Turning into a regional power hub is, in reality, Ethiopia’s and other nations’ right at large. The question is the efficiency of the national power grid, at the present time, to process the would-be generated power, roughly standing now after downsizing the dam’s electricity output installed capacity to some 5,200 megawatts against 6,450 megawatts initially. Technically speaking, outages occur either by a lack of power sufficient for local consumption or because of an overloaded power grid. The latter is the current situation of the Ethiopian national power grid.

Amid the failure of the Cairo meeting to settle the pending issues, Ethiopia has, however, employed a void rhetoric, broadly circulated under late prime minister Meles Zenawi, that Egypt contributes nothing to the Nile and wants to deny Ethiopia the right to use the waters that flow from the Ethiopian highlands. Officially speaking, the Egyptian administration, under President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, has embraced a new policy towards Ethiopia that the latter has, like other riparian nations, the full right to utilise the Nile without harming Egypt’s water rights. In practice, Egypt does not oppose Ethiopian endeavours to build the GERD, despite the fact that Ethiopia may have used other means to generate power other than damming the lifeline of Egyptians. Egypt’s objection is to manipulating with the only source of fresh water it is entirely dependent on.

Things are looking up after the United States, the broker of a compromise between the three nations, had again invited them for a sub-meeting in Washington DC on 9 December, which resulted in a joint statement that had two major points worthy of deliberation. First, the ministers agreed that the “strategic direction of the next two technical meetings (in Khartoum and Addis Ababa) should be the development of technical rules and guidelines for the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”. Second, the ministers of foreign affairs of the three nations would reconvene in Washington on 13 January 2020 for “finalising an agreement” in that respect.

This means there is no time to waste and that Ethiopia needs to depart from the policy it has been following for eight years; namely, buying time till July of next year, the date in which Ethiopia should, theoretically, start filling the GERD reservoir. It also means that top international players are finally aware of Ethiopia’s intransigence during the course of negotiations. That is why the US set a deadline for Ethiopia to implement the “technical rules and the guidelines for the filling and operation of the GERD”. Failure to reach an agreement by mid-January 2020 would mean no agreement would be reached soon. This is not taking a dim view on current talks; rather, it is an assertion of reality. It would take the three nations some time to agree on a third party, after triggering Article X of the Declaration of Principles on inclusion of international mediation into the debate. And given the current Ethiopian policy of “no deal-good deal”, it will not be foreseeable to reach any agreement before the start of the next rainy season in Ethiopia.

While delivering his acceptance speech as a Nobel Peace Laureate, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made a touching remark in Amharic that he graciously translated as “For you to have a peaceful night, your neighbour shall have a peaceful night as well.” For this peaceful night of Egypt, a far neighbour of Ethiopia, it is a must for Ethiopian officials to take up the slack, because sweet words will never make peace a reality. Ethiopia’s neighbour in Egypt needs firm assurances that its share of the Nile, which hardly suffices basic needs now, will never be infringed upon. The Egyptian people have based their life around a narrow strip of their vast country because it is the only part blessed with a renewable source of fresh water.

*The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly. 

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