Ethiopian pitfalls

Abdel-Mohsen Salama
Friday 22 May 2020

It is high time Addis Ababa stopped prevaricating, dissimulating and plain lying about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

More than nine years have passed through which Ethiopia has resorted to beating about the bush sometimes, and manoeuvring at other times, propagandising around what is contrary to what it really believes and uttering honey-tongued words contradicted by its stances.

Ethiopia’s bad faith appeared when former prime minister Meles Zenawi declared its intention, on 31 March 2011 — just two months after the events of 25 January 2011 Revolution broke out in Egypt — to build a dam. It chose a timing in which Egypt was suffering from chaos, demonstrations, the downfall of a regime, and pernicious attempts to bring down the state.

Ethiopia exploited this critical timing to announce its intention to construct the  Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and very swiftly it laid the foundation for it, on 2 April 2011, in a random, hurried way, confirming its bad faith and aim to exploit Egypt’s predicament when it was preoccupied with internal problems. At the time, Ethiopia didn’t declare the details of the project in full — GERD’s specifications and storage capacity. These were left to mere guessing.

Leaks started to appear about a storage capacity of around 14 billion cubic metres. However, information that came afterwards pointed out that the storage capacity had increased to 74 billion cubic metres, without any authenticated scientific studies backing the viability of this. Thus, it raised fears concerning the dam’s future and its collapse, which would surely destroy parts of the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

Until now, information remains lacking on storage capacity details, especially the dead reservoir and active reservoir. These technical details, experts assert, are key to the two downstream countries, Sudan and Egypt, in order to develop strategic plans to manage the water issue.

Ethiopia didn’t appear concerned with the technical and strategic details. Rather, it resorted to procrastination and delaying tactics in all stages of negotiations. Consequently, Egypt was recently obliged to file a memo to the Security Council, including its refusal of Ethiopia’s plan for the partial filling of GERD.

This stand came against the background of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s sending a partial agreement including only the first stage of filling the GERD. It was refused by Egypt and Sudan immediately as being in violation of the Declaration of Principles signed in Khartoum on 23 March 2015, attended by the three countries’ presidents.

The Declaration of Principles included clear and binding stipulations applicable to all three countries, the most important of which is the principle not to cause significant harm to any one of the countries, along with the right of any affected state to raise the question of compensation.

This is the third principle in the Declaration of Principles, which is a clear and explicit text giving Egypt the right to refuse any harm that will affect it, and also the right to defend its water rights and even more than that, to claim compensation whenever necessary.

Five years were enough for Ethiopia to display its good faith and show commitment to what it signed in the Declaration of Principles, and transform it into a binding tripartite treaty, which was about to come to fruition after laborious and complex marathon negotiations sponsored by the US.

These negotiations resulted in the draft of a final agreement regarding GERD. The three parties agreed that the US and the World Bank would draft the agreement in its final form and make legal adjustments to be prepared for being signed by the leaders of the three states in Washington.

Negotiations between experts and ministers from the three countries ended with setting in place all the elements that should be included in the final agreement, including the technical aspects regarding the rules of filling and operating the dam, the concept of “long and extended drought years”, which might coincide with filling the dam, and long-term operating rules and other relevant points.

Despite Ethiopian attempts to sow division between the two sister countries, the views of Egypt and Sudan were identical.

But then, after all these negotiations, Ethiopia returned to its previous tactics of evasion and procrastination and didn’t attend the final rounds of negotiations in Washington, dropping the fig leaf covering its bad faith towards Egypt and Sudan, and once again ensuring that GERD would not be an opportunity for cooperation and integration, but instead a source for problems and disputes.

Ethiopia accepted US and World Bank sponsorship of the negotiations and the agreement, but it reverted to escapism, as it did before when it signed the Declaration of Principles and then violated every article in it.

Ethiopia violated the Declaration of Principles’ fifth principle regarding cooperation on the first filling and operation of the dam through announcing it would begin filling the dam unilaterally. 

The fifth principle came as complementary to the fourth principle on equitable and reasonable utilisation, putting into consideration all relevant guiding factors such as the population dependent on water resources in each Nile Basin state and the geographic, hydrographic, hydrological, climatic, ecological and other factors of a natural character.

Egypt is the state most in need of the water resources coming from Ethiopia and Sudan, due to the “water scarcity” from which it suffers, for it has no other water resource except its Nile quota. This quota isn’t enough in the light of its population, which is growing exponentially, while Ethiopia has 10 river basins apart from the Blue Nile, and has 936 billion cubic metres of rainfall annually. 

Ethiopia’s announcement regarding the unilateral filling and operation of GERD is an outright violation of the Declaration of Principles’ fifth principle, which stipulates informing downstream countries of any unforeseen or urgent circumstances requiring adjustments in the operation of GERD, and that the three countries shall set up an appropriate coordination mechanism among them for this purpose. 

Egypt’s stand is clear and has been declared from the very beginning. It doesn’t stand against the development process in Ethiopia, and it supports its rights to development. But at the same time, it refuses any infringement on its rights to Nile waters and refuses any harm that will affect its people in this context because water is a matter of life. There is a huge difference between the right to development and the right to live  — as President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi always asserts. Nile water is essential to the life of Egyptians. Consequently, it is absolutely unacceptable to infringe on this right spanning thousands of years. 

Through its partial proposal, Ethiopia wants to go back to zero, in order to continue its “twisted” and incomprehensible policy, which hinders the plans of the African Union in rapprochement, integration and bringing peace among the continent’s peoples, especially following the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which President Al-Sisi succeeded in helping it emerge.

I hope that Ethiopia will retract its position and end continued procrastination that started nine years ago and also dissipate doubts regarding its intentions in light of existing binding international agreements ensuring Egypt and Sudan’s quotas in the Nile water. According to principles approved by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, river and water resources treaties have the same power as border treaties. There are old international treaties that designated Egypt and Sudan’s quotas in the Nile water and were asserted by the modern Declaration of Principles Agreement, signed five years ago, which confirmed in all its articles not to harm downstream countries and their right to an equitable share in Nile water.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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