Addis Ababa claims that Egypt is an intransigent country that refuses to allow Ethiopia to exploit its own water resources and build dams with the aim of achieving development and generating electricity for the poor Ethiopian population deprived of services. Furthermore, Ethiopia claims that under the previous regime, relations between the countries witnessed a lack of cooperation, provoking internal unrest, while the truth is that Ethiopia realised great gains during this period, as Egypt turned a blind eye to the construction of the Tekeze Dam on Atbara River, in addition to the construction of the Tana Belestunnel on the Blue Nile in order to generate electricity and cultivate vast areas of Ethiopian lands. Egypt also agreed that the Nile Basin Initiative would fund feasibility studies of four major Ethiopian dams on the Blue Nile (Karadobi, Beko-Abo, Mandaya and Border) with a total capacity of 140 billion cubic metres, or nearly three times the annual yield of the Blue Nile, in order to expand agricultural land by about one million feddans.
In 2008, Egypt agreed that the World Bank would fund the feasibility study of Border Dam with an estimated capacity of 14 billion cubic metres. It is worth noting that after the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, Border Dam was replaced by GERD (the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) after increasing its capacity to 74 billion cubic metres, and Ethiopia undertook unilaterally the design and construction of GERD without notifying downstream countries or consulting them about its negative impacts and risks.
This Ethiopian behaviour towards Egypt in regard to GERD has been always characterised by seizing opportunities and evading any obligations imposed by international law, while no other country in the world pursued this approach except Turkey by building the Ataturk Dam during the period of Iraq’s preoccupation with its war with Iran, a dam that deprives Syria and Iraq of most of their historical water share. Similarly, Ethiopia took advantage of turmoil and internal struggles in Egypt amid the 2011 revolution and laid the foundation stone of GERD, announcing the beginning of its construction even before performing the required studies. In spite of this, Egypt willingly entered negotiations over the dam with Ethiopia and accordingly an International Panel of Experts (IPoE) was formed in order to assess Ethiopian studies of the dam and share the results with the countries immediately concerned (Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia). Ethiopia requested that the experts' report be consultative and not binding.
By the end of May 2013, the IPoE issued its final report which stated that there are many important observations to make regarding the constructional design as well as the hydrological, environmental and socio-economic studies of the dam, which should be started over. In order to consider the recommendations of the IPoE, two meetings of the water ministers of the three countries were held during the months of November and December 2013 where both Ethiopia and Sudan agreed that it would be sufficient to form a committee of national experts from the three countries with the aim to supervise the implementation of the IPoE’s recommendations, while Egypt called for the participation of international experts in the committee to ensure impartiality. Unfortunately, the two meetings failed to achieve their objectives and Egypt was forced not only to waive its demand, but also to accept the Ethiopian request "not to conduct dam safety studies through the committee." Meetings continued to select an international consultant to conduct the required studies without any results on the ground, even after the three countries signed the Declaration of Principles in March 2015.
In 2016, the three countries agreed to contract two French consultancy firms (according to Ethiopia's desire). The consultant submitted the inception report, but Ethiopia rejected it and suggested to form a scientific committee that comprises academics from the three countries in order to work instead of the consultant! Egypt went along with the Ethiopian request, which intended to exclude the participation of any international experts who might condemn the Ethiopian side for the massive repercussions of GERD on Egypt and Sudan. The scientific committee did not succeed to reach any agreement between the three countries, and Egypt announced the failure of negotiations and resorted to request international mediation. The United States with the World Bank agreed to supervise the negotiations with a view to reaching an agreement concerning the filling of the dam and its operation. Subsequently, serious scientific and technical negotiations took place through several sessions where dam filling and operation rules were agreed upon. However, disagreements emerged on both operational rules and how to settle disputes that may arise during the filling or operation of the dam, as well as the means of coordination and application of the rules agreed upon in this agreement.
The United States and the World Bank drafted a compromise agreement regarding these differences, to be discussed during the last round of negotiations. Egypt initialed the agreement, while Ethiopia was absent from this meeting under false pretences. It then refused to continue negotiations under US and World Bank supervision.
Ethiopian behaviour of assuming absolute sovereignty over its resources, including shared international rivers, is a public policy applied with neighbouring countries Kenya and Somalia, a clear example being the case of the Omo River shared between Ethiopia and Kenya where Ethiopia had constructed a series of dams to generate electricity, cultivate large areas of sugar cane, and build sugar factories without taking into account the interests of Kenya. The Omo River has historically flowed into one of the most beautiful African lakes, Lake Turkana in Kenya, a habitat for rare wild animals and a source of fish wealth, drinking water and agricultural water for local people. The river dried up, which drove its local population to migrate. Similarly, Ethiopia built a series of dams on the Ganale Dawa River, which is the source of the Juba River that flows into Somalia and into the Indian Ocean, causing great problems for the citizens of Somalia, taking advantage of instability in this sister country.
In recent weeks, Ethiopia revealed its true direction after nine years of fruitless negotiations by declaring that any upcoming discussions should include allocating an Ethiopian water share from the Blue Nile, through the application of the rules stipulated in the Cooperation Framework Agreement, which is also called the Entebbe Agreement, neglecting the fact that both Egypt and Sudan are not part of this agreement and have concerns about it. Furthermore, Ethiopia has no hydrological relationship (from far or near) with the countries of the Equatorial plateau.
Last, but not least, Ethiopia recently announced the reduction of the number of turbines in the GERD to 13 instead of 16, so that the capacity of the power station is less than 5,000 megawatts, thus reducing the maximum water discharge of the dam by about 20 percent, which will have negative impacts on Egypt and Sudan. It is worth noting that this new power capacity could have been produced through the construction of a smaller dam of no more than two-thirds of the current dam's capacity, which confirms that the real goal is to build the largest possible dam to block water from Egypt until it has to agree to a compulsory water share for Ethiopia.
After all the previously mentioned encounters, and after the fact that Ethiopia has unilaterally announced that it will start filling GERD this coming July, what guarantees does Egypt have as to the seriousness of any further negotiations with Ethiopia?
The writer is former minister of water resources and irrigation and professor of water resources in the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University.