Analysis: The GERD after Washington

Mohamed Hegazi, Tuesday 28 Jan 2020

With a joint ministerial meeting in Washington set to sign an agreement on the GERD, it is essential that all the parties are cool-headed, even-handed and wise in their approach to this crucial issue


The ministers of irrigation and water resources from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia will meet in Washington in a few days to sign an agreement at the end of intensive rounds of negotiations on the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). 

The agreement, mediated by the US and the World Bank, sets out the rules for filling and operating the dam on the basis of the six principles that the three parties agreed to in their last meeting in Washington on 15 January. Listed in the joint statement of Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, the US and the World Bank posted on the US Department of the Treasury website that day, the six points are as follows:

- “The filling of the GERD will be executed in stages and will be undertaken in an adaptive and cooperative manner that takes into consideration the hydrological conditions of the Blue Nile and the potential impact of the filling on downstream reservoirs.” (It should be noted, here, that these are general principles. The statement did not clarify executive measures and left room open for possible disagreements that would be worked out in further discussions.) 

- “The filling will take place during the wet season, generally from July to August, and will continue in September subject to certain conditions.” (It has always been understood that the filling would take place in the rainy season. No mention is made of the relationship between the first filling of the GERD and the water levels in the reservoirs of downstream dams in Sudan and Egypt.)

- “The initial filling stage of the GERD will provide for the rapid achievement of a level of 595 m above sea level (m.a.s.l.) and the early generation of electricity, while providing appropriate mitigation measures for Egypt and Sudan in case of severe droughts during this stage.” (Essentially this means that some 14 billion m3 of water will be retained in the early weeks of the first filling without consideration for the total level of rainfall during that season, because this is impossible to predict so early on. Also, no mention is made of how much will be retained as dead storage and how much will be released through the dam’s outlets for electricity generation.) 

- “The subsequent stages of filling will be done according to a mechanism to be agreed that determines release based upon the hydrological conditions of the Blue Nile and the level of the GERD that addresses the filling goals of Ethiopia and provides electricity generation and appropriate mitigation measures for Egypt and Sudan during prolonged periods of dry years, drought and prolonged drought.” (As there is a linkage to sustaining certain water levels in the reservoirs of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam and the Sudanese dams, this means that the GERD’s electricity generation capacity will not be affected by drought and that the burden will fall on Egypt and Sudan with some unspecified mitigations at some point during “prolonged” periods of drought.)

- “During long-term operation, the GERD will operate according to a mechanism that determines release based upon the hydrological conditions of the Blue Nile and the level of the GERD that provides electricity generation and appropriate mitigation measures for Egypt and Sudan during prolonged periods of dry years, drought and prolonged drought.” (In other words, the same rules apply to subsequent refillings as to the initial filling. They guarantee the GERD’s electricity production and provide mitigation to Egypt and Sudan in the event of prolonged drought.) 

- “An effective coordination mechanism and provisions for the settlement of disputes will be established.”

It is important to consider the likely dynamics and output of the ministerial meeting in Washington and to develop a plan of action accordingly. Clearly, the primary result from the meeting should be a comprehensive political, legal and technical agreement binding on the parties, especially Addis Ababa, whose previous behaviour has underscored the need for an explicit, unambiguously worded and authoritative text deposited with regional and international organisations and that will have the power to govern future cooperation in the management of shared water resources, open horizons for regional cooperation and promote the concept of collective regional security, as opposed to rival national security initiatives. 

Such an outcome will achieve Egypt’s water security and stability on the condition that it ensures Egypt’s right to 86 per cent of the waters of the Blue Nile regardless of possible reductions in the flow due to the impacts of the GERD. If this is set as a ceiling, binding on all sides, then, even if in the event that Blue Nile flows are lower than expected, compensation for shortages can be made either through cooperation with Sudan in accordance with the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement or through projects that aim to reduce water loss, regulate consumption, redesign cultivation systems, engage new irrigation technologies or upgrade water recycling methods and uses. 

Obviously, the desired agreement must be worked out in a spirit of compromise and serve to suggest horizons for comprehensive cooperation in which water is only part of the cooperative vision. Despite the grave concerns raised by the GERD project, a framework of cooperation that opens horizons to broader inter-regional partnerships compels Ethiopia to set a ceiling to its ambitions and to resolve on a stable water relationship with Egypt and Sudan. 

After all, sustaining a healthy relationship with downstream nations is an essential condition for sustained benefits from Ethiopia’s main mega-project, the GERD, after all the resources it has invested in developing it and mobilising international support for it, and after all the social, political and economic hopes and plans it has built around it. 

For Egypt, pinning down Ethiopia through such cooperation will be a major strategic gain achieved by the hoped-for agreement in Washington, especially since the US and the World Bank, which acted as sponsors, mediators and witnesses, will serve as guarantees and authorities to turn to in the event of any future disputes. 

Perhaps it is important now for Egypt and Sudan to hold an emergency meeting of the Permanent Joint Technical Commission created by the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement to discuss ways to respond to the Washington agreement and how to manage their common water concerns in the light of anticipated shortages arising from the first filling of the GERD reservoir. 

In this regard, they would apply point two of the fifth section of the 1959 Waters Agreement, which provides that Egypt and Sudan would share the burden of such shortages equally. 

Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam


As part of the institutional framework for cooperation between the Blue Nile states, Egypt should take courses of action during the forthcoming period to help the agreement to take root and to make cooperation attractive to Ethiopia.

I will suggest two proposals towards this end, if, as hoped, the parties sign an agreement that provides for the cooperative management of water resources. 

- A Regional Committee for the management of cooperation in the Blue Nile Basin:

This committee could be created within the framework of a comprehensive agreement between Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum that in its first section would lay out the aims and principles of their cooperation. Subsequent sections would address the establishment of a joint authority for the management of water resources and development projects, the mechanisms for supervising and managing the three countries’ dams and controlling the waters discharged from them, and methods for managing the technical and legal relationship between the three Blue Nile Basin countries, such as resident missions at the dams in order to coordinate their operations in accordance with agreed on standards. 

This proposal includes subsidiary projects such as connecting overland roads and railroads and a shared electricity grid. Such projects could be carried out with the aid of the infrastructure fund that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi proposed on the sidelines of the Africa Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh in 2016 and reiterated in the Tripartite Summit in Addis Ababa on 26 January 2018. 

The proposed fund was also mentioned in the outputs of the “3x3” meeting in Addis Ababa on 15 May 2018. These underscored the need for a unified management authority as a means to regulate the joint utilisation of water resources and systematise cooperative relations under a comprehensive and stable agreement. 

It is an established fact that river basins are discrete and comprehensive ecosystems. Accordingly, the Nile should be treated as a single, natural, geographical and environmental entity, and its water resources should be managed in a collective and coordinated manner, as should the development of its agricultural and industrial resources and, indeed, its social, human and cultural resources.

- The Eastern Development Corridor:

In addition to major economic gains, this comprehensive development project, which would be overseen by the Blue Nile Basin Authority, would promote a regional political consensus and reduce the potential for tensions and clashes between the Blue Nile Basin states. It would also achieve geo-economic benefits. Ethiopia, a landlocked nation, would find a maritime outlet in the Mediterranean via Egyptian ports, making closer cooperation particularly attractive to Addis Ababa, while promoting the interests of all three parties. 

In the framework of the project, water-resource management would become part of a broader and multifaceted cooperation ecosystem. The Eastern Development Corridor would include cooperation in numerous and diverse fields, such as electricity and overland and maritime passenger and freight transport. Generating such close and extensive ties would promote mutual gains and incentives, as opposed to dissension and division, and their consequent tolls.

A major component of the Eastern Development Corridor project, which begins with the GERD and the agreement to coordinate its operations with those of downriver dams in accordance with agreed-upon standards, is an electricity grid covering the three countries, enabling them all to share a clean energy source for use in industry or export. The project also envisions a transnational highway and railroad from Ethiopia through Khartoum to Aswan, giving landlocked Ethiopia an overland link to Mediterranean ports. 

As a further incentive, Ethiopia could join Sudan and other Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) countries in using the Suez Canal Economic Corridor as a logistics hub for freight and export, facilitating the marketing of its agricultural and other products to Arab, European and American markets. 

One of the priorities of the Blue Nile Basin Authority would be to explore possibilities for cooperation in various fields within the framework of the Eastern Development Corridor. As soon as it is launched, the joint authority would host a conference of donor nations keen to support the three countries and invest in the above-mentioned projects, which will generate a large Nilotic environment conducive to mutual cooperation, political stability and regional security. 

The authority could also extend its invitation to others, such as the Chinese who might be interested in the Eastern Development Corridor in the framework of its Belt and Road project and Beijing’s drive to strengthen relations with pivotal countries along it.

The Egyptian minister of irrigation’s proposal of a river transportation system linking Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean offers another avenue for broadening the scope of the Eastern Development Corridor. In this broader context, Khartoum would become the meeting point for two major regional projects: the Eastern Development Corridor centred on the Blue Nile and the Lake Victoria-Mediterranean river transportation project. Both connect landlocked countries to Mediterranean ports, which may be one reason why Addis Ababa has already expressed interest in the latter project. 

This comprehensive vision for the management and development of the Blue Nile Basin is consistent in its aims and substance with the outlooks and mechanisms of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) that established the Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office (ENTRO) as one of its three centres. It also situates it in the larger scope of Nile Basin management and other Nilotic hydraulic projects, opening avenues for cooperation with South Sudan, for example, and water loss reduction projects in the Sudd region and other development projects in southern Sudan and South Sudan. 



The two proposals above represent approaches to managing Egypt’s relations with Ethiopia and Sudan in a regional cooperative framework in the event that the negotiations in Washington reach a binding legal agreement on the GERD.

 The following is a third proposal that would be called into play if the negotiations fail or in the event of a setback in the implementation of the agreement due to any Ethiopian failure to abide by its commitments. The proposal is to compile a comprehensive, three-part portfolio on the subject. The first part would cover technical aspects related to Egypt’s vision for the management of Blue Nile hydraulics, inclusive of a complete set of rules for filling and operating the GERD in coordination with downstream dams so that the three countries can benefit from the Blue Nile in a spirit of mutual respect for their right to develop and their right to life. 

Accordingly, Ethiopia would be able to fulfil its electricity generation aspirations, Sudan would be able to implement irrigation projects utilising Blue Nile waters, and Egypt would be able to safeguard its vital share of these waters. 

The second part would include a proposal for comprehensive regional cooperation that would include an important initiative for the joint management of water resources as the key to the conservation of the riparian ecosystem, the preservation of peace and security, and the guarantee for the sustainable development of the three countries dependent on the Blue Nile. Like the second project mentioned above, this also envisions the Nile waters as a part of a broader cooperative system that extends beyond the mutually beneficent coordinated management of the Ethiopian, Sudanese and Egyptian dams to electricity linkups and road and rail networks that would offer Ethiopia an outlet on the Mediterranean. 

As for the third part, it would incorporate the first two (the technical section covering the rules of filling and operation and the regional cooperation proposal) into a draft agreement. Conceived along the lines of the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between Egypt and Sudan, this would be legally binding on all parties and regulate their relations concerning the management of their common water resources in a mutually beneficial manner that would allay all their concerns. 

The work involved in this third proposal is essential in order to confront any backsliding on the part of Ethiopia, which has a record of equivocation and evasiveness on the question of the GERD. A binding agreement set in the framework of a project for mutual cooperation is the only way to ensure that Addis Ababa sets a ceiling to its water ambitions and helps to create a Nilotic ecosystem that is environmentally, economically, politically and culturally beneficial to all its inhabitants and that opens horizons to interregional cooperation, fostering sustainable collective security, stability and prosperity. 

At the same time, the work involved in compiling this three-part portfolio would vary in the event that the negotiations in Washington fall through and the question of the GERD proceeds through other tracks involving third-party mediation, the UN Security Council or the International Court of Justice. That said, I find it hard to believe that the leaders of Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt cannot come together over a matter that has such important implications for the stability and security of their countries and, indeed, for the continent as a whole, and that also holds such promise for a major regional development project of great potential benefit for all the peoples in the north-eastern corner of Africa.  

We stand at a historic crossroads. As President Al-Sisi has indicated, what is needed at this critical juncture is a cool-headed, even-handed and wise approach to the crucial matter of the GERD. If it is well-managed, all the parties will emerge as winners.


*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

**A version of this article appears in print in the 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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