Nuts and bolts on the dam

Mostafa Ahmady
Tuesday 22 Oct 2019

A recent meeting in Cairo underlined the fact that the Nile is an existential issue for Egypt despite Ethiopian attempts to impose a de facto solution to negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, writes Mostafa Ahmady

Last week, the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS), an independent think-tank gathering the cream of the intelligentsia in Egypt, organised a conference on Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). 

The conference, entitled the “GERD: Between Imposing a De Facto Situation and the Prerequisites of Egypt’s National Security,” was an attempt to investigate issues that have been all the rage in Egypt since it was announced that talks on the dam had reached a stalemate. It brought together water and law experts, members of the diplomatic corps accredited to Egypt, and others concerned with the matter, along with a powerful media presence. 

Head of the ECSS Khaled Okasha noted at the opening of the event that imposing a de facto situation in no way complied with the very nature of cross-boundary water basins. The failure of the three nations – Ethiopia upstream and Egypt and Sudan downstream – to strike a balanced deal on filling and operating the giant dam with due attention paid to Egypt’s historical share of Nile water put the whole region in the balance, he said. 

Displayed at the event was an informative documentary film whose title also sent out a resounding message – “A Dam on the Lifeline”. The Nile has been at the origin of all the progress seen over the more than 7,000 years of Egyptian civilisation. But the way Ethiopia has been handling the talks on the consequences of the GERD for Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water has not given a hoot for Egypt’s legitimate concerns, and as a result the talks risk complete collapse.

Over the past eight years, Ethiopia has been slacking off, and it seems apparent by now that the East African nation that triggered the GERD project did so without paying proper attention to basic concerns. Mohamed Nasr Allam, a former minister of water and irrigation resources in Egypt, has had a lot to say in that department. The efficiency of the GERD in producing electricity will not exceed, in the best-case scenario, 28 per cent, he has said. In other words, the dam will only produce 2,100 Megawatts of electricity, meaning that the original design of the dam at 90 metres high with a reservoir holding 14 billion cubic metres of water would have been enough to attain Ethiopia’s goal of power generation. 

The question then arises of why Ethiopia changed the design and expanded the reservoir’s capacity to 74 billion cubic metres. The answer, Allam said, is that Ethiopia has plans for “cultivation” projects that will affect some 1,618,741 hectares of land, or roughly half of Egypt’s cultivable land, depending on the irrigation schemes used and with the water from the GERD’s gigantic reservoir.  One can now understand why Addis Ababa has remained so stiff over the course of the negotiations on the dam and why it summarily rejected Cairo’s proposal for the release of 40 billion cubic metres of water per annum during the filling process. 

Ethiopia sees water as a form of “white gold” when compared to the Arabs’ “black gold” (oil). Or this is how Hani Raslan, a well-versed Nile Basin expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, puts it. A former Ethiopian foreign minister who once led the government has also alluded to the possibility of his country’s “selling” water, saying that water is much more precious than oil, an alarming truth. Two years ago, Ethiopia started providing water to neighbouring Djibouti via a 63-mile pipeline running from the Ethiopian town of Hadagalla to the cities of Ali-Sabieh, Dikhil, Arta and Djibouti itself. The project was funded by the Import-Export Bank of China at a cost of $329 million and is crucial in supplying 700,000 people with their daily needs of potable water in a country that receives some 200 mm of rainfall annually, compared to the almost 1,000 billion cubic metres of rainfall that Addis Ababa can count on. 

Perhaps Djibouti traded these generous free-of-charge water supplies from its landlocked neighbour for a stake in the Port of Djibouti after the two nations sealed a deal last year to that end. 

Amassing huge amounts of water in the GERD reservoir may result in Ethiopia’s control of the flow of the Nile, Raslan warned. He was concerned that Ethiopia wanted to “politically” use the dam, he said, releasing or preventing the flow of water when it wanted to do so. This is what another expert stated at the ECSS gathering, when Mohamed Salman Tayie, a professor of Political Science at Cairo University, took the GERD issue to another level, that of the hydropolitical hegemony of Ethiopia over the Nile. 

The GERD aimed to achieve “declared” and “undeclared” goals, he said. Tayie, author of “The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Ethiopian Challenge of Hydropolitical Hegemony over the Nile Basin,” said that Ethiopia wanted to impose hydroelectric hegemony over the Nile Basin in order to attain political and geostrategic leadership of the region later. He went as far as to say that Ethiopia wanted to use the dam for “political manipulation and blackmail.” In reality, this hits the nail on the head, given Ethiopia’s obstinacy and unwillingness to reach a win-win deal honouring Egypt’s historical share of the River Nile. 

However, the Harmon Doctrine that Ethiopia thus seeks to reinvigorate is null and void, Mohamed Sameh Amr, a professor of international law at Cairo University, pointed out. This Doctrine, dubbed the most notorious theory in international natural-resources law, holds that a country is sovereign over international watercourse within its borders, and it has been roundly rejected by all informed commentators. Nevertheless, Ethiopia’s minister of water and irrigation recently rejected Egypt’s fair requests for its legitimate share of the Nile, branding them as a violation of his country’s sovereignty. Ethiopia seems to be seeking a resurrection of a long-discredited Doctrine. 

In the final analysis, during the 21 or more meetings held to reach a win-win compromise on the GERD, Ethiopia has effectively run amok. Its non-commitment to the Declaration of Principles on the Dam makes that agreement null and void. Under international law, Ethiopia is obliged to honour historical agreements. There is no legal way that Ethiopia may impose a de facto situation, and Egypt has the full right to preserve its share of the Nile. 

The ECSS event thus sent out a clear-cut message: the Nile remains an existential issue for Egypt and the country will do whatever it takes to preserve its people’s right to life.  

The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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