This year has seen dramatic changes regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that Ethiopia is constructing on the Blue Nile in the Benishangul-Gumuz region some 40 km from the Sudanese-Ethiopian border.
The year started with Ethiopia’s pledge not to harm the water interests of Egypt amid verbal assurances by Ethiopian officials without their taking any action on the ground. The situation has ended with the “readiness to mobilise millions if a war is a necessity,” as the young Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has said. Though he later toned down his statement citing misquotation, it is all vine and no tatters on the Ethiopian side.
As the dam issue has been the talk of the town, an Egyptian independent think-tank organised an important gathering that brought together the intelligentsia and water and law experts for the first time in October. Held under the title “The GERD: Between Imposing a De Facto Situation and the Prerequisites of Egypt’s National Security,” the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies enlightened many about the negotiations and put forward a set of recommendations for a way out of the stalemate.
The participants debated Ethiopia’s attempts to regard water as a “commodity” that would fill Addis Ababa’s coffers just like oil did those of the Arab world. They also spoke of using the dam as a political means of manipulation, imposing a new hydropolitical reality in the region. Law experts argued that Ethiopia’s shallow talk of “sovereignty” over the water resources flowing from its borders was in effect bringing something out of mothballs, a reference to the already buried Harmon Doctrine on trans-national resources. The most important message that the participants delivered was that “the Nile remains an existential issue for Egypt, and the country will do whatever it takes to preserve its people’s right to life.”
But since successive waves of meetings held between the three riparian nations of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have ended in no binding agreement, Egypt has decisively taken action by halting the futile discussions. The country has also called on the international community to shoulder its responsibility and intervene to prevent further deterioration. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi delivered a strong message before the UN General Assembly in September that should the international community fail to address the standoff, the stability and security of the region would be at stake. This was the first time Egypt had raised the issue before an international platform, having ignored Ethiopia’s intransigence in that respect.
Al-Sisi’s call has finally been given due attention, as the United States then invited the foreign ministers of the three concerned nations to discuss the issue in Washington. The meeting yielded a clear-cut timeframe, as the three countries agreed on reaching a final and binding agreement by mid-January 2020 or Article X of the Declaration of Principles signed in 2015 would be invoked. In other words, international mediation will be a must.
Regarding the Declaration of Principles, some observers have erroneously levelled accusations against this agreement, claiming that it was the reason for the standoff in the dam talks. In truth, the agreement has been instrumental in reasserting Egypt’s rights to the Nile’s water. Some Ethiopian researchers have unveiled the fact that the agreement puts Ethiopia in a disadvantageous position because it secures the water needs of Egypt now and in the future. Others have pointed out that some principles of the agreement were drafted in harmony with the principles of the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses in order to reaffirm Egypt’s water rights based on international criteria. Thanks to the agreement, it has also been possible to allow for international intervention, should the parties concerned fail to address the issues and reach a binding solution.
Egypt has consistently requested that the filling of the dam reservoir be regulated in accordance with the hydrology of the Blue Nile. This should tell how long it will take to fill the reservoir based on the over-flooding or low-flooding of the river. The process would be all to the good of upstream Ethiopia because in case of over-flooding, the dam’s 74-billion-cubic-metre reservoir would be filled in only three years, as Addis Ababa wants it to be. But in case of low-flooding, the reservoir would be filled in a range of seven to 10 years, thus ensuring the uninterrupted flow of the River Nile for downstream Egypt and Sudan.
Cairo has also requested that the operation of the GERD be done in a manner compatible with that of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam in order not to interrupt power generation or disrupt irrigation schemes in the country, something which could cost Egypt millions of dollars. Earlier, Egypt had requested that the level of water in Lake Nasser be maintained above 165 metres, but Ethiopia adamantly refused this legitimate request.
The repeated Ethiopian refusal of Egypt’s legitimate calls means Cairo’s concerns that the GERD would be a means for permanent control over the volume of water reaching downstream countries have grounds. If Ethiopia’s goal is that the dam will be for power generation only, what is the reason for its blocking Egypt’s legitimate demands? In practice, the issue goes far beyond reaching a temporary solution for the filling and operation of the Ethiopian mega-project, because in the long run the joint management of the dam is a must given the unsteady nature of the flooding in any upstream nation and to which Ethiopia is no exception.
Ethiopia officially holds the view that the Nile’s water should be utilised in an equitable and reasonable manner. Yet the “Water Tower of Africa,” a reference to landlocked Ethiopia thanks to its abundant water resources, usually still turns a deaf ear to the specifications of such an equitable utilisation of a shared watercourse.
Article VI of the UN Convention on International Watercourses has detailed things to say relevant to the equitable utilisation among states of a shared resource. This needs to heed, among other things, “the availability of alternatives, of comparable value, to a particular planned or existing use,” the convention stipulates. Egypt does not have any other alternatives to depend upon for water other than the Nile. The overcrowded narrow strip of Egypt called the Nile Delta has the only source of fresh water in the roughly one million-square-km nation. At the same time, Ethiopia has been blessed with almost 20 basins and lakes and an annual rainfall estimated at 2,200 mm (or 936.4 billion cubic metres) of water versus 20 mm (or 18 billion cubic metres) in Egypt.
In the absence of a binding agreement for the operation and filling of the GERD, all the parties would go back to square one, triggering endless disputes over the Nile. Instead of quarreling over a limited amount of Nile water, the Eastern Nile Basin countries need to work on a permanent solution for the huge waste of water resources that are poured on a yearly basis onto the Ethiopian Plateau. As populations grow in Ethiopia and Egypt, and given the rising economic demands of both upstream and downstream nations, such a call must be attentively hearkened to.
An innovative approach for settling any future disputes must be discussed now before it is too late. This would include implementing irrigation projects in Ethiopia for the cultivation of a staple like rice, a daily diet for most Egyptian families just like injera bread in Ethiopia, after Egypt, because of the acute shortage of water for this highly water-consuming crop, has banned its cultivation, making prices skyrocket.
The ball is now in Ethiopia’s court, and it is up to it to put into practice the late Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi’s dictum that we must either swim together or sink together.
*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 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.