All nations pass through critical junctures when their fates hinge on vital decisions taken by their leaders. Unfortunately, the people inevitably bear the brunt of any mistakes, whether the decisions were informed and full of foresight or whether they were precipitous and narrow-minded.
The intransigent, short-sighted, and self-serving behaviour of the Ethiopian government has caused negotiations over its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project to fail for over two years running.
During that period, two major rounds of negotiations were sponsored by the African Union (AU), first under the chair of South Africa and then under the chair of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Before that, Ethiopia jettisoned the opportunity to find a solution made possible by the US under former president Donald Trump. A nearly final agreement was ready for initialling after 12 rounds of negotiations hosted by Washington from October 2019 to mid-February 2010, but then Addis Ababa failed to turn up for the last round.
Not only has the Ethiopian behaviour pushed bilateral relations with Egypt into the danger zone, but it also threatens regional security in the Nile Basin and East Africa, jeopardising maritime traffic in the strategic corridor for the movement of oil, commercial shipping, and naval vessels from the Gulf of Aden through the Bab Al-Mandeb, the Red Sea, and Suez Canal to the Mediterranean.
On top of this looms the spectre of spreading turmoil and its detrimental impacts on the Nilotic environment and its ecological equilibrium.
Cooperation between the three parties to the dispute over the GERD, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, is the solution, but the prospects should be as attractive as possible. Towards this end, I propose a collective and comprehensive regional development project called the Eastern Development Corridor (EDC) as a way of solving the conflict over the GERD.
In addition to its purpose of enabling the cause of collaboration to prevail over the sources of conflict, the project could serve as a model for the optimal management of a transboundary river in a manner that observes its geographical and ecological unity, conserves the riparian ecosystem, maximises the river’s potential, and makes its resources available for the benefit of all countries that share its banks.
This institutional mechanism would be an output of the trilateral contractual agreement on the GERD. Its first section would deal with the technical aspects of water-resource management, coordinating the operations of the various dams in the three countries, the system for the joint supervision of their operations, the composition and duties of resident observation teams at the various dams, the reservoir levels, the scheduling of refilling and discharge, the management of silt and run-off, and other concerns and arrangements. The second section would address joint development projects.
The EDC, which would be governed by the Blue Nile Basin Authority, could achieve major economic benefits for the three riparian states and also eliminate the sources of acrimony, alleviate tensions, reduce the risks of recurrent disputes, and promote peace and stability in the region as a whole. Ethiopia, a landlocked country, would have the additional advantage of a maritime outlet through Egyptian ports on the Mediterranean. Sudan, too, would gain. With the Nile at its heart, the multifaceted EDC would foster cooperation in energy production, overland and maritime shipping, passenger transport and communications, and other areas.
This broader framework for collective benefit would further the cause of collaboration and integration over the forces of division and discord. Indeed, the nature of this project is organically suited to its environment. River basins are complete, integrated ecosystems, and they should be treated as distinct geographical entities. It therefore makes sense to manage the Nile’s water resources collectively and to pursue holistic approaches to the development of this Basin’s agricultural, industrial, social, human and cultural resources and potentials.
The three countries that share the Blue Nile, namely Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, stand at a precarious historical juncture. A solution to the GERD dilemma is now of the essence, and it involves reaching a mutually satisfactory arrangement based on a comprehensive vision of equitable development in conformity with established international law. Such a vision would guarantee Ethiopia’s right to development and Egypt’s right to its share of Nile water, which is to say its right to life.
Most immediately, the focus should be on the crucial question of the standards of construction of the body of the GERD and its water storage in coordination with the downstream dams in Sudan and Egypt. The scheduling of these operations should take into account the river’s hydrology, variations in flow, and cycle of drought seasons so as to safeguard the structural and operational wellbeing of the hydraulic installations and operations in Sudan and Egypt.
The tripartite technical teams that met in the negotiation rounds on the GERD in Washington came close to meeting these conditions. Moreover, the technology exists to develop the required formulas. Engineers are now able to test diverse scenarios and solutions using computer simulations to arrive at workable schedules and ratios for reservoir filling and discharge rates that ensure no country is harmed.
It is also not too soon to look ahead to the types of projects that the EDC could generate. The EDC infrastructure fund and its scientific research and development mechanisms would be the organisational and intellectual hubs for establishing and broadening the scope of regional cooperation. Already planners have envisioned an extensive electricity grid linking the three countries, making clean energy available to Sudan and Egypt for use in their industries or for export to Europe or the Gulf. Then there is the transportation and shipping grid: highways stretching from Ethiopia through Sudan to the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal Economic Corridor, and a 940 km railway from Ethiopia through Khartoum to Aswan, linking up to the Egyptian railway system.
The EDC and its subsidiary projects would not be short of potential funders. In addition to international financial institutions and donor agencies, China, for example, would most likely be interested in the framework of its Belt and Road Initiative, especially given how Beijing has been keen to strengthen its bonds with pivotal countries along its routes.
The Blue Nile Basin Authority could also look eastward for inspiration on multilateral cooperation projects linking countries in a transboundary river basin. One of these is the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which was formed to “promote and coordinate the sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the mutual benefits of the lower Mekong countries and the people’s well-being,” according to its Website. The MRC has initiated joint projects worth more than US$22 billion to serve the sustainable development of its member countries, which, in addition to China, include Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar.
The proposed EDC for the Eastern Nile Basin countries conforms to the international trend to finance multipurpose projects that benefit more than one country. Moreover, the project could also expand to include all the Nile Basin countries.
Since the announcement of the Nile Basin Initiative, donor nations have been waiting for all the Nile Basin countries to come together in the Cooperative Framework Agreement, more familiarly known as the Entebbe Agreement. Unfortunately, only the upper riparian nations signed the agreement, preventing the emergence of a comprehensive agreement for Nile Basin water-resource management that would serve both upstream and downstream nations. As a result, potential donors have shied away. However, the EDC may inspire a solution from another direction and induce upper and lower Nilotic countries to bridge their differences.
However, Egypt and Sudan, on the one hand, and Ethiopia, on the other, must first bridge theirs. Now, at least, they have a good amount of time until the next flooding season in July to reassess their positions in the light of the experiences of previous negotiating rounds over the GERD. Hopefully, with the help of their international partners, they will then be able to put forward new proposals that will end the current stalemate and achieve the much-needed breakthrough.
A solution is possible as long as the parties concerned summon the necessary will and Ethiopia begins to act in good faith. Ethiopia must understand that it will not be able to reap the fruits of the development it expects from the GERD unless it considers the welfare of its downstream neighbours, Sudan and Egypt, and resolves to work together with them for the benefit of all.
It needs to shed its narrow, short-term blinkers and open its mind up to the vast horizons of possibility that would become available through cooperation. With resolve and perseverance, an Eastern Development Corridor could become a reality, ensuring the sound management of the Blue Nile and its resources for the benefit of all its countries and sustaining the River Nile as a source of life and growth for all.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly