Never the twain: Ethiopia’s ambitions and Egypt’s rights

Nader Noureddin
Thursday 20 May 2021

It may be a case of never the twain shall meet when considering the aggressive ambitions of Ethiopia and the legitimate needs of Egypt in the management of the Nile

The problem in the talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) over the past ten years has not been a failure to compromise to make the negotiations successful, but the fact that Ethiopia has been coveting the water of the branches of the Nile that originate on its territory. 

It does not want to abandon this water because of its failed development policies and corruption, despite its being home to a vast freshwater lake, nine river basins, 100 million cattle, 35 million hectares of agricultural land and thousands of hectares of pasture. Administrative corruption has allowed bartering to take place over water rights to one river out of the nine, and Ethiopia claims that this river alone, and not the others with their dozens of tributaries, can save it.

Egypt, by comparison, relies on a single river that has no tributaries throughout its vast desert land, whereas Ethiopia aggressively covets the water of the Blue Nile, a small river with a flow of no more than 49 billion cubic metres of water. Ethiopia has given itself the right to reserve 75 billion cubic metres of water from this small river, and it has unilaterally decided to divert this river to a lake. 

It has also given itself the right to make the GERD a reservoir on this river in violation of its natural route which should flow through Egypt and Sudan towards the Mediterranean Sea.

The purpose of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam was to halt the waste of the water of the Nile in the salty waters of the Mediterranean, not to deprive its neighbours of water. Ethiopia, by contrast, is lying in its claim that electricity generation from the GERD will save it from poverty and propel it into a more developed position. No power-generating dams in history have ever saved a people from poverty or been the cause of their wealth.

Ethiopia says that its giant dam, which violates international law on the building of dams on transboundary river systems, is legitimate and only serves the purpose of generating electricity. However, it is deceiving the world in doing so and is hiding the fact that it objected to language in the Declaration of Principles on the Dam, signed in Khartoum in 2015, describing it as solely intended to generate power. 

Instead, it insisted on adding that this was also a dam meant for economic development, meaning that Ethiopia reserved the right to establish factories and farms around its reservoir and to use the water for various economic purposes, including for sale, something not approved by the UN.

Ethiopia has told the world and the source countries of the White Nile that Egypt and Sudan intend to monopolise the river’s water, depriving the source countries of their right to benefit from it. However, it has not produced a shred of evidence from either Egypt or Sudan directed to Ethiopia or any White Nile source country demanding that they do not use the water of the Nile’s tributaries for agriculture, industry, domestic consumption or to protect the environment.

Ethiopia claims that the water of the Nile constitutes its major resource, ignoring its fresh lakes, abundant rainfall, marshlands, and subterranean water. The six source countries of the White Nile benefit from the fresh water lakes Victoria, Albert, Kyoga, George and Edward that together contain billions of cubic metres of water, as well as from two cycles of rain that allows for rain-fed agriculture. 

All these countries are satisfied with their freshwater resources, and none have picked fights with Egypt. They do not covet the small amount of water that reaches Egypt and Sudan from the White Nile, no more than 13 billion cubic metres annually since the river loses 30 billion cubic metres of water in the marshland of South Sudan.

The problem lies in Ethiopia’s greed for the White Nile’s annual 71 billion cubic metres of water that come from three rivers, the Blue Nile, the Atbarah and the Sobat. For this reason, it persuaded the White Nile countries to sign the Entebbe Agreement that divides the river’s water. These countries do not benefit from this agreement, which Ethiopia tricked them into signing, because no matter how many dams they build or water they reserve this will not hurt Egypt or Sudan, even if they capture half of the 13 billion cubic metres of water. 

Ethiopia wants to use the 71 billion cubic metres of water that flows into the Nile from Ethiopian sources as a bargaining chip, because the Ethiopians have failed to achieve development or take advantage of the country’s nine rivers and other natural resources to generate prosperity. It has decided to barter using water, even to the detriment of its neighbours, forgetting that water is a matter of life and national security and that neither Egypt nor Sudan will shy away from war if need be to liberate every drop of water withheld by Ethiopian greed.

Ethiopia denies that it makes use of every drop of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile with a volume of 40 billion cubic metres, and that it has built the Tekeze Dam to reserve another ten billion cubic metres of water. As a result, it has some 50 billion cubic metres of water from its three rivers, while 71 billion cubic metres go to Egypt and Sudan combined. The White Nile source countries are satisfied with their share of water, but Ethiopia denies receiving water from the Tekeze Dam and Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile.

It seems that it is a case of never the twain shall meet when we consider the aggressive ambitions of one country and the legitimate demands of others that for thousands of years have received a certain amount of water from the Nile without any outside interference, agreements or treaties. Ethiopia, however, claims that the Blue Nile alone, and none of its other nine rivers, can lift it out of poverty. It should focus on its own failures of vision, development and education before it resorts to aggression and trafficking in water.

The writer is a professor of land and water resources at Cairo University.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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