The picture shows two horses: one named Egypt, the other Ethiopia. Both horses drink from the same pot with the one named Ethiopia holding with its teeth the pot for Egypt to drink with ease. The caption reads: “This is how fair Egypt wants the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) agreement!” It was a picture circulated on Facebook by some Ethiopian activists and it reveals much about how the current standoff is regrettably perceived in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian people are being misguided into erroneous conclusions that Egypt does not care about their lives or development, and that it wants to continue to have “exclusive rights” to the Nile River.
Such rhetoric has exacerbated the already strained situation between Egypt and Ethiopia. Sitting with Al-Jazeera, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andergachew said Egyptians “want us to continue to live in a tragic situation”. He was referring to millions of Ethiopians who do not have access to electricity, saying that Egypt wants to maintain this status quo. Clearly, it is never Egypt’s intent to prevent Ethiopians from utilising the Nile River based on a win-win agreement, where Ethiopia could produce electricity and Egypt could be assured that the filling of the dam’s reservoir would not affect its most basic needs in water. A portrayal of the current standoff as the outcome of Egypt’s egoism, obstructing the development of upstream Ethiopia so that the benefits could be solely Egypt’s, does not allow Ethiopians to get the facts straight on the issue.
It also does not hold true that Egypt wants “no infringement on its share or ownership of the Nile”, as the top Ethiopian diplomat claimed. First and foremost, Egypt clearly does not own the Nile. Egypt believes in the river as a shared resource that does not favour Egyptians exclusively. Rather, its benefits should be shared “fairly” among all riparian and downstream nations based on the standardised definition of “fairness” for a nation that does not have any alternative to fresh water but from the Nile. All African brothers, particularly the Nile Basin peoples, are aware of the root of the problem that Egypt is an arid land that depends almost entirely on water supplies that originate outside its borders. The country, therefore, clings to its water rights to the Nile the same way it does to life: simply there is no other water resource to suffice the needs of its population.
Moreover, during the course of negotiations over the GERD that spanned seven years, Egypt has shown the utmost “give-and-take” tendency; that it is ready to “sacrifice” some of its historically recognised rights until the GERD’s reservoir is filled based on a precise timetable that would allow Ethiopia to generate power and ensure the uninterrupted flow of the Nile to downstream Egypt.
Indeed, as the devil lies in the details, little technicalities over the GERD agreement are pushing apart the second and third most populous African nations, Ethiopia and Egypt respectively, which together in the past joined hands to establish the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union) so that African voices could be attentively heard in the world. In practice, Egypt did not “internationalise” the question of the GERD, as the Ethiopian foreign minister put it. The provisions of the Declaration of Principles which Ethiopia accepted and co-signed with Egypt alongside Sudan in 2015 make way for international mediation, with the consent of all signatories, in case of their inability to strike a balanced deal.
Now, playing the blame game takes us nowhere. Mobilisation here and there will get us nowhere, either. Field visits by the Ethiopian military top brass to the GERD location and such irrational talk about “retaliation in case of any attack on the GERD” and the like endanger present and future relations between the two “ancient” nations that boast a combined heritage of 12,000 years of civilisation.
Deescalating tension requires action by all parties concerned to better accommodate the needs of their peoples. On more than one occasion, Egypt has made it clear it will never stand against Ethiopia’s right to utilise the Nile for generating power. But again, this should not be done at the expense of undermining Egypt’s historical rights to the waters of the Nile River.
Still, Andergachew may have wanted to deliver a hidden message during his interview with Al-Jazeera. He said “because Egypt knows that the GERD will not cause any harm to the nation, it should have funded it.” The minister alluded to a very earlier proposal by late Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi nine years ago. Following the launch of the dam, Zenawi said Egypt and Sudan should contribute together almost half of the funding. In effect, Ethiopia sees Egypt as a potential buyer of cheap electricity that would be produced by the mega project with a power linkage with Sudan. If this option is on the table, funding could be facilitated through the World Bank, a party of the stalled talks between Egypt and Ethiopia, in return for Ethiopian action on the ground to downsize the GERD and proportionally minimise the storage capacity of the reservoir. As such, a permanent compromise could be reached as soon as possible.
In that case, Ethiopia would generate electricity to meet the demands of its own people and suffice the growing needs for industrialisation within its Growth and Transformation Plan aimed at empowering Ethiopians to reach middle-income status within the next decade. This would also help Ethiopia cut off the financial haemorrhage owing to the delay in getting the GERD accomplished on time over local corruption cases which the incumbent Ethiopian prime minister revealed two years ago concerning the mechanical works of the project. Based on initial studies, the GERD should have produced power by 2015. Now, with additional costs and the current regional crisis with Egypt, attaining that goal does not seem viable this year either. Egypt, on the other hand, would not sustain “significant harm” because any minimal effect would be mitigated and only then the GERD could be a symbol of regional integration as Ethiopian officials want it to be.
It is high time to remember who we are, before we slide into a senseless conflict over water resources, where no party would hold all the aces.
No matter what, the Nile, the “inextricable” bond, would continue to bind the peoples of Ethiopia and Egypt for 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 19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly