The crisis surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is a product of the manipulations of the world powers, Ethiopia’s regional ambitions, and Egyptian miscalculations and mistakes.
The GERD crisis and other Nile Basin controversies always rear their head when Egypt is weak and recede when Egypt regains its strength and demonstrates its will and determination.
It is common knowledge that Egypt has long been coveted by international and regional powers because of its unique civilisational heritage and its strategic location at the juncture of continents and astride the most important waterway in the world.
If the historical record speaks of endless conspiracies and wars against Egypt, the present is not without collusions against Egyptian interests either, and the country’s future will be at risk unless we remain vigilant against such lurking dangers. Such is the fate of Egypt. It is either a defiant hero or a slave.
The current weakness in Egypt and the Arab world began in the 1990s. It has brought the destruction of Iraq and the Iraqi nation, the devastation of Syria and the largest displacement of people in history, the internal fragmentation of Lebanon, massive human and material destruction in Libya, the partition of Sudan, the collapse of Somalia and the near total collapse of Yemen.
Among the signs of Egypt’s weakness during the period have been the international adoption of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) at Egypt’s expense, resulting in the Entebbe Agreement, the execution of Ethiopian plans to construct dams on the Blue Nile, and various other designs on the Nile Basin. In the confusion and disarray that followed the January 2011 Revolution, Egypt made a number of mistakes that ultimately brought us to the stage we are at today: the near completion of the construction of the GERD, the first filling of the reservoir and a halt in the talks due to Ethiopian intransigence.
The collapse of the trilateral talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan was inevitable because of Addis Ababa’s constant shifting of the goalposts. At first, Ethiopia led us to believe that the purpose of the GERD was to serve its electricity needs for both domestic development and export. Cairo and Khartoum approved and welcomed this aim, and the three governments signed an agreement on a Declaration of Principles that called on them to agree terms on the filling and operation of the dam on the basis of joint studies that they would set in motion.
Their guiding principle was that Ethiopia should be able to produce the greatest amounts of electricity possible at the GERD without causing harm to the downstream nations of Egypt and Sudan. But then Addis Ababa created one problem after the next in order to evade its commitments under the terms of the agreement and to buy time. As a result, the years since the agreement was signed in 2015 passed by without the necessary studies being performed and without the hoped-for trilateral agreement on the rules for filling and operating the dam.
An outside party had to be called in to mediate, and in late 2019 Washington sponsored a series of intensive technical talks on the GERD also attended by World Bank experts. By February 2020, the three parties had overcome most of their differences and had agreed on most of the rules for filling and operating the GERD.
However, Ethiopia then withdrew from the talks on the eve of the day the three parties were due to sign an agreement in Washington. Moreover, it suddenly insisted on a quota of Blue Nile water and wanted Egypt and Sudan to agree to let it build whatever dams it wanted on the Blue Nile. It also refused to commit to a binding agreement on the rules for filling and operating the GERD and rejected the principle of the recourse to international arbitration in order to resolve any disputes that might arise between Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia over the interpretation or implementation of any agreements reached.
As all involved in the negotiations agree, Egypt is in a difficult situation regarding its water resources. The government has allocated over a trillion pounds over the past 20 years to raising the efficiency of our water network from 75 to 85 per cent by lining irrigation canals to prevent seepage, replacing outworn installations, modernising irrigation systems, improving agricultural runoff water treatment, and other such measures needed to meet our growing population’s increasing demands on available water resources.
The government has also expanded water desalinisation projects along the Red Sea and Mediterranean coasts to meet the domestic and industrial water needs of the growing coastal urban areas and industrial zones. Given its already severe water deficit, any reduction in Egypt’s quota of Nile water could have grave economic, social and security impacts. Therefore, any agreement that is not legally binding on Ethiopia will not be worth the paper it is written on. In like manner, it will not be feasible to implement any agreement that lacks a provision for international arbitration because of the possible disputes that could arise.
On 29 September, the Ethiopian publication Ethiopian Insight featured an article by Raphael Lapin, a US-based law professor of South African origin, proposing a solution to the GERD dispute through “trust, linkage and cooperation.” Lapin’s suggestions included increased Egyptian investment in Ethiopia and in the GERD, expanding cultural, educational, technological and agricultural cooperation and exchanges, and signing more trade agreements as well as trilateral military and counterterrorism pacts between Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa.
Lapin suggested a resolution to the crisis over the GERD in two phases. The first would result in an immediate interim agreement covering the most urgent issues and would be of limited duration, essentially just long enough to build trust and lay the foundations of cooperation between the three countries. This would pave the way to the second phase of a long-term joint accord. Towards this end, wide-ranging negotiations would aim at building a strong and sustainable collaborative relationship centering around the optimum utilisation of the Eastern Nile Basin.
Unfortunately, Lapin did not mention the details of his plan, which is where the devil lies, but it is clear that getting the parties to come to terms over them would be a formidable task. With regard to arbitration, which he says is at the core of the disagreement between Cairo and Addis Ababa, Lapin suggests that the three parties agree on an international mediator that in the event of a dispute would attempt to reconcile the differences between them amicably. If that failed, they would turn to international arbitration as the remaining recourse.
Lapin’s proposals merit consideration, even if they are not entirely new and even though Ethiopia has already rejected similar ideas. The very fact that his article appeared in an Ethiopian newspaper at this time is a sign that Ethiopia is keen to resolve this crisis that has been taking its toll on the government domestically. Egypt, too, would like to resolve this crisis with the least possible friction with fellow African countries, and it has been working hard to promote a fair, realistic, viable and sustainable solution through its communications with the international community, the world powers involved in the region, the East African governments, international observers from the African Union, and other parties.
Some voices in Egypt have called for a targeted military strike against the GERD as a solution to the problem. They have argued that the role of the Egyptian armed forces is to safeguard national security and the welfare of the people and that Egypt’s water quota is not just a matter of national interest but also a question of life and death.
But the decision to go to war is of course a serious business. This is not a decision that should be taken by armchair generals or in the heat of anger. Questions of war and peace require a cool head and need to be based on thorough and multifaceted strategic studies and not on opinions bandied around over social-networking platforms.
In my opinion, military action should not be ruled out as an option altogether. However, it should only be the very last resort after all other peaceful and rational avenues have been exhausted and then only if it can truly serve the higher interests of Egypt and the Egyptian people. Peace is the path of a rational people, and the pursuit of fairness and justice can offer solutions satisfactory to all.
In this spirit, as we stand at the threshold of the final episode in the GERD negotiations, we must hope that it will lead to solutions that ensure peaceful coexistence with our regional partners and that pave the way to development, progress and prosperity for all the peoples of the region.
The writer is 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 8 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly