For untold centuries, the Nile River has been the quiet and enduring lifeline of millions of people who have throughout the ages inhabited its banks, building civilisations and living peacefully with each other and benefiting from its waters without distinction of race, creed, religion or sect.
The nations that have arisen on the Nile’s banks have never gone to war in order to make sure that each one of them had its own fair share of the river’s water. Instead, they have dealt with it as their common heritage.
However, if there is one glaring difference among these nations today it is the fact that some of them rely on heavy rainfall besides the river and others depend solely on the Nile as their only or main source of water. Egypt is an example of a Nile Basin country that derives 97 per cent of its water needs from the mighty Nile. Its existence as a civilisation and as a nation is historically linked to the Nile.
As a result, any upstream projects on the Nile have a direct impact on the country and its long-term survival. This explains why the central authority throughout Egyptian history has always perfected monitoring mechanisms to measure the flow of water in the Nile and has exercised firm control on the fair and efficient distribution of the Nile’s water.
Dams and reservoirs have been built to maximise the benefits of the Nile. The Aswan High Dam is but one of many. On the other hand, Egypt has also cooperated with other countries in the Nile Basin to carry out water projects to maximise the benefits of the river’s water. The Egyptian policy in harnessing the Nile’s water has been based on the notion of cooperation and sharing with other countries on the banks of the Nile. The projects that Egypt has constructed on the Nile have never had a negative impact on other countries sharing the Nile River.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) could become the first instance in the history of the Nile of a major water project on the river that would have a highly negative impact on the welfare and well-being of millions of people in both Egypt and Sudan, if Ethiopia persists in refusing to sign an agreement with Egypt and Sudan on operating the dam.
The three countries have been negotiating technical details for the last decade and have succeeded in working out many differences. But Addis Ababa still refuses to sign an agreement on operations. Last year, and after four months of negotiations in Washington under the political patronage of the former Trump administration, Egypt initialed a draft agreement. However, Ethiopia did not show up on the pretext that the draft was pro-Egyptian. This was not the case of course.
Upon the request of Egypt, the UN Security Council met last June to discuss the question of the GERD in the context of Chapter 6 of the UN Charter entitled the “Peaceful Settlement of Disputes.” While all member states on the Security Council stressed the importance of adhering to international law and the law governing the use of international rivers and encouraged Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to negotiate an agreement that would protect the interests of the three countries, they deferred to the African Union (AU) as the forum in which to negotiate such an agreement.
From June 2020 until April 2021, the AU tried, first under the chairmanship of South Africa and then under the new chair, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to help the three parties in the dispute over the GERD to find a compromise solution that would lay to rest fears in both Egypt and Sudan on the dangers of the second filling of the GERD, which is due to start in July, without a three-way agreement.
The latest round of talks was held in DRC capital Kinshasa early this month. Some observers called it the last chance to solve problematic questions related to the dam. The failure of the Kinshasa talks has now left a dangerous void, and this is all the more alarming in that the three countries have not set a date for further talks. According to press reports, South Africa is trying to find common ground among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia so that a last-minute deal can be finalised before the second filling starts in July, according to the Ethiopian government schedule.
The Ethiopian position has proven to be a major obstacle. Although Ethiopian officials have claimed on several occasions that their country has shown flexibility in the negotiations, nothing so far has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that Addis Ababa is really interested in managing the future and long-term operations of the GERD in a transparent and multi-lateral way that would take into account the interests of both Egypt and Sudan.
On 22 March, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said that his country did not want to harm the interests of Egypt and Sudan in the matter of the Nile water and that he would be willing to sign an agreement with the two countries “tomorrow” to this effect, as he told members of the Ethiopian National Assembly.
Addis Ababa, in an attempt to demonstrate a certain openness, also proposed on 10 April to share with Egypt and Sudan what it termed “detailed data” on the second filling of the GERD. This was a non-starter, as both Egypt and Sudan rejected the proposal as it does not answer their basic and legitimate demand for a comprehensive agreement on the GERD that will govern its operations for years to come. This should be a “fair, balanced and legally-binding agreement,” as President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has recently said.
Meanwhile, the void created by the failure of the Kinshasa talks is dangerous. Uncertainty as to the true motives of the Ethiopian government in not meeting the concerns and addressing the fears of Egypt and Sudan should come to an end. Security and stability in the Nile Basin and the Horn of Africa should be a major concern and is in the interests of Ethiopia. A spirit of compromise on its part is the key to such security and stability.
Cooperation among the three countries concerned, as the Egyptian president stressed a couple of days ago, is of paramount importance. Let us hope that come next July the AU will have succeeded in pushing the three countries to an agreement.
The Nile River should remain a river of peace and coexistence for and among the nations that lie along its banks, with these bearing silent testimony to the rich history of cooperation and mutual understanding on the peaceful uses of the Nile’s water. History and geography must entail the decoupling of the Nile River from the demands of domestic politics in the countries of the Nile River Basin.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly