It appears that we still have several months to go before we see an agreement that spares Egypt from the potential dangers of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
The statement released by the Ethiopian ministries of foreign affairs and water resources following their refusal to attend the 27-28 February round of US-brokered talks in Washington on the GERD, when a final agreement was scheduled to be signed with Egypt and Sudan, is worrying. It says that any agreement on the dam will be about the rules for filling and operating it and not about water. Yet, water is at the heart of the negotiations because the main problem with the GERD is its impact on the flow of water to Sudan and Egypt. The dam’s actual specifications are not our concern as long as Ethiopia ensures no significant decrease of the quantities of water reaching downstream nations.
Ethiopia has continually claimed that Egypt will not be harmed by the dam. On a recent visit to Egypt, its prime minister said that Egypt’s quota of Nile waters could actually increase after the GERD goes into operation. But if this is the case, why has Ethiopia refused to pledge to sustain the current flow of the Blue Nile of approximately 50 billion m3 of water a year? Why did it even refuse to agree to guarantee a flow of at least 40 billion m3 of water a year, forcing Egypt and Sudan to share a loss of 10 billion m3 during the period of the first filling?
Why has Ethiopia all of a sudden started to say that it would not negotiate over water quotas? Where did that come from? Ethiopia needs only to sustain the current level of flow from the Blue Nile, or at least to ensure a reasonable deduction that Sudan and Egypt can live with. No one asked for Addis Ababa’s approval of the currently existing Nile Waters Agreement that entitles Egypt to 55.5 billion m3 of water a year and Sudan to 18.5 billion m3 of water a year, let alone its approval of the 84 billion m3 of water that reaches Aswan from the Blue and White Niles together. Ethiopia has also recently begun to speak in terms of “excess harm”, as opposed to “harm” using an ambiguous term that is consistent with its preferred negotiating method of offering nothing in exchange for everything.
The Ethiopian statement claims that the dam belongs to it, the land the Dam is built on belongs to it, and the water belongs to it. Nobody contests the first two statements. But Ethiopia does not own the water in the Nile. The Blue Nile is not an Ethiopian river. It is an international river that passes through three countries: Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. It belongs to all of them. It is a natural resource. Ethiopia did not create the rain that feeds it, and Egypt did not build the river course that leads it through Sudan to the Mediterranean. It is a God-given gift meant for the benefit of all three countries, not for Ethiopia’s benefit alone.
Let’s suppose Egypt decided to humour Ethiopia and allow it to indulge in its deceptive negotiating methods. Without a doubt, Egypt would find itself at the receiving end of a replay of the Kenyan experience when former Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi held up a cup and pledged that the water that reached Kenya after the construction of a dam on the Omo River would not diminish by so much as a cupful.
But then, instead of just one dam, Ethiopia constructed a second, began construction of a third, and announced plans to build a fourth and a fifth. International environmental organisations issued a resolution condemning the third dam and ordering a halt to its construction because of the extensive environmental damage it would cause to Lake Turkana in Kenya into which the Omo flows. Yet, despite the resolution, the Ethiopian dams ended up displacing at least 200,000 Kenyans, killed tourism to one of Kenya’s most beautiful lakes, and put thousands of Kenyans out of work. Addis Ababa is sorely mistaken if it thinks it can get away with doing the same thing, if not worse, to Egypt.
Ethiopia’s egotistical negotiating approach confirms the Egyptian foreign ministry’s assessment that Addis Ababa is intent on monopolising the Blue Nile so that it can control the amount of water it gives to or withholds from Sudan and Egypt. It wants to avoid any binding commitment whatsoever, let alone the one called for by the draft agreement it has refused to sign. Under that agreement, Ethiopia would ensure the continued flow of at least 40 billion m3 of Blue Nile waters during the first filling of the dam, which should take place over a period of between seven and 13 years depending on the levels of the Blue Nile, and halt the filling completely during drought years when the seasonal flood falls below 31 billion m3. This does not even take into consideration the problem of the 136.5 million tons of silt the Blue Nile tributaries will carry toward the GERD, necessitating the construction of other dams to divert the weight.
The situation is very worrying. Egyptian negotiators must not allow the talks to end before they obtain a pledge from Ethiopia to sustain a flow of a minimum of 40 billion m3 of water per year during the first filling of the dam. Afterwards, Ethiopia can manage the dam as it sees fit, as long as it respects the principle of the avoidance of harm to downstream nations and honours their right to a watercourse that has bound these countries together for thousands of years. Egoism and aggression should have no place in such a relationship.
The writer is professor of agriculture and water resources, Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly