It has been almost a decade since Ethiopia launched the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile, triggering tension with downstream Egypt and Sudan over their future quota of the Nile waters alongside the dam’s permanent adverse effects on the livelihood of their peoples. Persistently, Egypt has been eager to strike a win-win deal based on honouring “historical” water agreements and considering the growing “humanitarian” needs of its 100-million people who cannot afford, now or in the future, to lose a single cubic metre of their 55.5 billion cubic metres (BCM) of the Nile. Though Egyptians are already below the water poverty line, their government has been “flexible” enough during the lengthy marathon of talks with water-resourced Ethiopia to reach a fair compromise in which Ethiopia’s right to utilisation of the Nile for generating power is respected while Egypt’s right to “life” is never jeopardised.
Since meetings at the national level between experts from the three nations — Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt — have failed to attain that end, third-party engagement looked inevitable, with the consent of the parties signatory to the Declaration of Principles agreement signed in 2015, to request “mediation” in order to help the three nations solve their pending issues unequivocally. The Washington process has been hoped to end once and for all any future “conflict” between upstream and downstream nations over the Nile, via reaching a “fair and doable” pact so that they can further their cooperation for a better life across the Nile River.
Just before the signing of the US-drafted agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD, which was only possible after thorough discussions on each and every technical issue on the project, Ethiopia declined to sign the deal citing “internal” concerns, sending the whole process to square one! Earlier, Ethiopia wanted a “partial” agreement, calling on Egypt and Sudan to accept a plan for an “initial” filling of the reservoir, a proposal that was rejected by the downstream nations as the goal has usually been to reach a “comprehensive” agreement to nip in the bud any disturbances in the future.
Still, Ethiopia bluntly put it: the reservoir of the GERD would be filled as per schedule next July, even if no agreement is reached. A unilateral action does, in reality, risk present and future “amicable” relations between the owner of the dam, Ethiopia, and those that would suffer the most over a lack of water, Egypt and Sudan.
Before things could reach a point of no return, Egypt has recently sent a letter to the UN Security Council detailing the stages of the decade-long negotiations between upstream Ethiopia and downstream Sudan and Egypt. The letter sent by Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri to Sven Jurgenson, president of the Security Council, has warned that Ethiopia’s unilateral filling of the GERD reservoir “potentially poses a serious threat to peace and security throughout the region”. He also noted that any significant harm to downstream nations would “jeopardise water security, food security and the very existence of over 100 million Egyptians, who are entirely dependent on the Nile River for their livelihood”.
Furthermore, the “Note Verbale”, addressed by the Permanent Mission of Egypt to the United Nations to the president of the Security Council, has made it clear that Ethiopia, under the rules of the Declaration of Principles, has “an obligation not to commence the impoundment of waters for the purpose of filling the GERD reservoir without an agreement with Egypt”.
The problem Egypt has been dealing with since engagement in talks with Ethiopia reveals itself again: non-commitment to any agreement, findings, studies or recommendations as long as they do not “serve” the sole interests of Ethiopia. This landlocked nation is not willing to honour whatever agreement, and is ready to “employ” such terms as “sovereignty” and “national pride” out of context. A win-win deal looks unforeseeable given the incumbent, and even former Ethiopian government’s policy of hell-bent dallying until a “de-facto” situation is imposed on the ground.
A huge project like GERD should not be self-operated in the manner Ethiopia wants it to be. This may have been the case if the Nile was an Ethiopian river, a view Addis Ababa seems to commit to. The Nile is a shared resource of a transboundary nature, which simply means any related project in an upstream nation needs to be “thoroughly” discussed with downstream nations, not because the latter infringe upon the sovereignty of the former, but due to the fact that any would-be ramifications could not be mended once a given project goes online.
Though Ethiopia is aware of this crystal-clear truth, its evasive policies right from day one of sitting with its neighbours to discuss the dam project explicitly sends a clear message that GERD is not meant “solely” for “power generation”. It is meant to “control” the water flows downward to Sudan and Egypt, propagandising such “bright” goals as “the right of development” and “equitable” utilisation of the Nile River. Ethiopia has repeatedly declared that it would not be constrained from pursuing any “future” projects on the Blue Nile, further testimony that the purpose of GERD has never been power generation alone.
The right of Ethiopia or any riparian nation to development has never, however, been questioned by Egypt. On the contrary, Egypt has been providing technical assistance to its fellow Nile Basin nations for rainwater harvesting, digging wells and better irrigation schemes, among others. Utilisation of the Nile should never be used as a pretext to sinisterly deprive downstream Egypt of its sole source of fresh water.
This is such a serious situation that it would ultimately lead to a zero-sum game. Extensive talks, technical consultations, a real show of good faith for cooperation by downstream nations and even “international” mediation by the world superpower, the United States, have all led to no tangible progress.
It is time the international community shouldered its responsibility and put due pressure on Addis Ababa to accept a final and binding deal on GERD. Failure to do so would exacerbate the already volatile situation and would leave downstream nations with no more cooperative options to protect their peoples against a real and imminent threat.
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 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly