Regardless of any agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) between Ethiopia and Egypt, given that the current impasse is mainly between these two countries since Sudan long ago put a spin on the so-called benefits of the dam for the Sudanese people, recent statements made by Ethiopia give a dim view of the future of Nile water uses.
Arrogantly, Ethiopian Minister of Water Sileshi Bekele, to whose stiff and rigid positions much of the country’s intransigence in the talks can be attributed, has said that any agreement on the dam would not block Ethiopia from building other dams on the Blue Nile.
The minister was obviously referring to the sequence of dams Ethiopia intends to construct on the Blue Nile: the Beko-Abo, Karadobi and Mandaya Dams. Earlier, Bekele had boggled minds by rushing to make statements that were mainly false. On one occasion during the course of the negotiations he said that Egypt had accepted the release of 30 billion cubic metres of water during the filling of the dam. This was a lie, to say the least, because Egypt officially refuted the claims, saying it had not changed its position on the release of 40 billion cubic metres of water during the filling process.
The minister lied again by saying that Egypt had requested the filling of the dam over a timeframe ranging from 12 to 21 years, a pathetic deception which Egypt once again officially refuted. Egypt said it had submitted a proposal that under given flooding conditions would allow Ethiopia to fill the GERD reservoir within a range of four to seven years. In the worst-case scenario, namely drought, the power generation capacity of the Ethiopian Dam would stand at 80 per cent, a reasonable level for both the upstream and the downstream nations.
The three dams referred to by the Ethiopian minister along with the GERD have been reported to hold as much as 200 billion cubic metres of Nile water. The height of the three dams will far exceed that of the GERD itself (Beko-Abo: 285 m, Karadobi: 260 m and Mandaya: 200 m), with an installed capacity of hydropower generation of 2,000 Megawatts (MW) each for Beko-Abo and Mandaya and 1,600 MW for Karadobi.
It is true that these three dams are still in the pipeline, and they may not be constructed at all given the huge regional implications, on the one hand, and the expected high costs, on the other. But it is still a high probability, albeit in the long-run, that Ethiopia will work on implementing them, as the Ethiopian minister said. Should those projects be carried out, Ethiopia will have the upper hand in controlling, for eternity, the flow of the River Nile, a dreadful scenario that should be heeded now.
Ethiopian officials are committing a strategic error if they hold the view that any agreement pertaining solely to the filling and operation of the GERD can wash away existing and effective previous water agreements. In other words, Egypt’s right to 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile’s waters per annum remains inalienable. Joyful remarks in some Ethiopian circles that the current Ethiopian administration has made history by reaffirming Ethiopia’s right to the utilisation of “its own resources” are alarming and further testimony that Egypt’s fears over Ethiopia’s claim to a monopoly over the Nile are justified.
Above all, the Nile is not Ethiopia’s “own resource.” It is a trans-boundary shared resource, and this cannot change by any agreement. The Nile’s use will continue to be governed by historical agreements and existing uses by Egypt of the Nile. The Nile will never turn into an Ethiopian river.
Following leaks on the would-be agreement between the three nations that imply the filling of the GERD’s reservoir over four years by virtue of 17 billion cubic metres a year, some in Ethiopian circles have received this news as if it were a game-changer for the Nile Basin. Officially speaking, Ethiopia does not recognise Egypt’s right to 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile’s waters per annum. Ethiopian officials, academics and media professionals have even branded the historical agreements, particularly the 1929 and 1959 Agreements on the Nile, as colonial!
Some are now speaking of the would-be provisions on the GERD, which everyone understands are of a temporary nature until the dam’s reservoir is filled, as a new de facto termination of the existing and historical water agreements. This is not only a premature conclusion; it is also a dangerous approach. Egypt will swallow the bitter pill and handle a temporary reduction in its water quota only during the filling process, and beyond this it does not mean that this reduced quota will continue forever.
Though now a fact on the ground, the Ethiopian Dam and other future dams on the Nile, should Ethiopia proceed with them, can never be allowed to decrease Egypt’s water quota by a single cubic metre. Most importantly, the historical agreements on the Nile will remain valid and effective, and Egypt’s historical (though the word infuriates Ethiopian officials) share of the Nile, the 55.5 billion cubic metres, can never be infringed upon. These are facts that can never be tampered with, and any tampering in any case cannot be tolerated.
Some commentators in Ethiopia have revealed this landlocked nation’s intention to change Egypt’s quota of the Nile’s waters once the GERD goes online. They also say that Egypt will now be dependent not on the Nile, but on a country it had fought for centuries, meaning Ethiopia. In reality, Egypt will never be dependent on another country, since it will be dependent only on its people’s resolve and mighty military to safeguard its national security and continue to protect the uninterrupted flow of the Nile.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the god Hapi was the deity of the Nile in a reaffirmation of their attachment to this mighty River, which they used for millennia to ensure their country’s well-being and on whose banks they founded a breathtaking civilisation. The modern Egyptians have the same attachment to the Nile, making it a source of inspiration for their national songs and poems in another manifestation of how the river has been instrumental in shaping their lives and future.
Ethiopia repetitively argues that Egypt does not have exclusive rights to the Nile, a charge Egypt has denied. But Ethiopia will never be allowed to have the upper hand over the hydro-politics of the region either.
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 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.