Earlier this month, Egypt wrote to the UN Security Council in relation to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Egypt’s complaint itemised the unilateral actions Ethiopia has taken since first using the turmoil in Egypt that followed the January 2011 Revolution as cover to begin construction of the dam without notifying downstream nations. Despite Ethiopia’s violations of the rules and conventions of international law and good neighbourliness, Egypt continued to exchange visits with Ethiopian leaders. Eventually they agreed to create an international technical panel consisting of two technical experts from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, and four leading international experts. The panel was tasked with evaluating Ethiopia’s design and engineering studies and its studies on the dam’s potential environmental and economic impacts on downstream nations.
The panel completed its first report in May 2013. Several days before it was released Ethiopia began operations to divert the Blue Nile. The move sent the message that Ethiopia would continue with its construction of the dam despite the recommendations of the international panel. It set the tone for Ethiopia’s behaviour from then on. On Monday, the Ethiopian irrigation minister said Ethiopia has “prepared a comprehensive document that provides sufficient response” to the complaint Egypt filed to the Security Council.
The panel concluded that Ethiopia’s feasibility and impact studies were not commensurate with a dam on such an enormous scale and had not adequately assessed the magnitude of the effects it would have on its neighbours. The panel called for more detailed engineering studies on the structural safety of the dam, and more studies of its potential impact on the environment, economies and water needs of downstream nations.
After the panel’s report was released, Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia met at the level of heads-of-state, foreign ministers, irrigation ministers and intelligence chiefs in order to select an international consultancy firm to undertake the recommended studies. Dozens of meetings were held over the course of two years, but Ethiopian evasiveness meant no conclusion was reached.
In March 2015, Khartoum, Cairo and Addis Ababa signed a declaration of principles in an attempt to build trust. The declaration committed the three states to completing the recommended studies and then to use the findings to draw up a set of rules for the filling and operation of the dam in a manner that serves Ethiopia’s development goals without harming downstream nations. Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum continued to exchange visits at various levels in order to choose a consultancy firm, eventually settling on a French consultancy.
Ethiopia rejected the French consultant’s preliminary report detailing its methodology and timeframe, and acted to prevent the firm from completing the required studies. It then proposed the creation of an independent tripartite committee of scientific experts to agree on the rules for filling and operating the dam. The committee was formed, the technical disagreements continued, and Ethiopia continued to obstruct any agreement.
By mid-2019 Egypt’s patience was exhausted. It announced that negotiations had failed and invoked the 10th principle of the 2015 Agreement on the Declaration of Principles which states that if the three parties are unable to settle disputes through consultations or negotiations they may turn to a neutral international party for mediation.
In November 2019 the three parties agreed to accept the mediation of the US, as represented by its Treasury Department, in collaboration with the World Bank. After several rounds of negotiations in Washington the participants were on the verge of signing a detailed draft agreement on the rules for filling and operating the dam. In a meeting at the end of February Egypt initialled the agreement but Ethiopia refused to attend the final session and sign the deal. It later claimed the draft agreement was an extension of colonial era Nile water agreements.
Ethiopia then proposed the three countries should first agree on the rules for filling the GERD reservoir and then, at some later stage, meet again to negotiate rules for operating the dam. Khartoum and Cairo rejected the idea.
Most recently, in late April, Addis Ababa announced that it would begin filling the GERD reservoir in July. In doing so it showed its determination to flout the agreement on the Declaration of Principles, the provisions of the UN Watercourses Convention and all principles of good neighbourliness with fellow Blue Nile Basin countries, Sudan and Egypt.
Egypt already faces pressures on its water supply and cannot sustain any further threats. It has suspended many agricultural expansion projects that are needed to attain food security: the Salam Canal project in North Sinai, the Hammam Canal and Hammam Canal Extension projects in the northwest Delta, and the Toshka (New Valley) project in the south have all been placed on hold. At the same time, Egypt has been working at breakneck speed to open desalinisation and agricultural run-off water recycling plants.
Any increase in Egypt’s water deficit will have severe political, economic, and social repercussions. There is already a $10 billion gap in Egypt’s domestic food supply.
The water crisis in Egypt is an existential matter. At 500 m3 per capita, Egypt receives the lowest amount of water of all Nile Basin countries. Ethiopia receives 1,000 billion m3 of rainfall a year, securing its forests, pastureland and rainfall fed agriculture, and livestock and seasonal crop exports. Yet it is seeking to take a portion of Egypt’s established annual Nile water quota of 55.5 billion m3, or five per cent of the rainfall Ethiopia receives.
Egypt can no longer afford to indulge Ethiopia’s games as it attempts to impose a fait accompli with GERD and build other dams on the Blue Nile and its tributaries. Ethiopia has form in behaving this way with other countries with which it shares watercourses: the Omo River with Kenya, the Juba River with Somalia, the Atbara River with Eritrea, and the Sobat with South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt. Egypt is also fully aware of the significant harm Ethiopia has inflicted on both Kenya and Somalia by unilaterally building dams on the rivers it shares with these countries but thinks of as its own.
Egypt has exhausted all peaceful means to dissuade Ethiopia from its destructive behaviour. This is why we hope the complaint lodged with the UN Security Council will compel the international community to press Ethiopia to respect the principles of international law, and sign the draft Washington agreement that Egypt has already initialled.
Addis Ababa has no convincing excuses not to sign. The draft agreement incorporates the suggestions submitted by all three parties. It was formulated by the mediating party, the US, as represented by the secretary of the treasury. It had the technical input of the World Bank, known for its expertise in international law on transboundary watercourses. Yet given Ethiopia’s record, the international community will have to act firmly to defuse this crisis. It must compel Ethiopia to adopt a mode of behaviour that is more rational and cooperative, and less aggressive and provocative. Its failure to do so will seriously jeopardises regional peace and security.
The writer is a former minister of water resources and irrigation and a professor of water resources at the Faculty of Engineering, Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly