Despite how Covid-19 news has overwhelmed the media and the world, international geopolitical problems have lost none of their momentum. The Syrian, Yemeni, Iraqi, Iranian, Libyan and Palestinian crises continue to whirl in their eddies of complexity as they had before the pandemic struck. Our concern, here, is the case of Ethiopia which set into motion its Grand Renaissance Dam project during the so-called Arab Spring and now, nearly 10 years later, is trying to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis in order to engineer a unilateral breakthrough in the dispute over the dam by beginning to fill the reservoir without having reached an agreement with downstream nations. In its last move, Ethiopia submitted a memorandum to the UN Security Council, prompting various international parties into urging the resumption of US-brokered negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, attended by the World Bank.
The Ethiopian memorandum, submitted by Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew on 14 May, epitomises the many problems in the Ethiopian approach to this dispute. The first problem, which may be the source of the others, is the Ethiopian attitude that Egypt is somehow to blame for the poverty and hunger in Ethiopia and for the “recurrent droughts, severe food insecurity and lack of adequate water supply to fulfil the needs of its people”, despite that country’s abundant water resources. It argues that whereas more than 65 million Ethiopians have no access to electricity, “almost all Egyptians have access to electricity. As a result, almost two thirds of school children in Ethiopia are forced to stay in darkness and millions of women still trek long distances to fetch water and firewood.”
That unfortunate condition stems from historical circumstances particular to Ethiopia. Egypt and its consumption of Nile water played no role whatsoever in shaping those circumstances. Also, if all Egyptians have access to electricity, that is the product of a great development drive undertaken by the Egyptian people and their government. We should simultaneously bear in mind that hydropower — electricity generated at the High Dam in Aswan — accounts for only eight per cent of the total amount of electricity generated in Egypt. But the more basic fact is that Egypt never took a drop of water or ounce of food from Ethiopian mouths or a volt of electricity from Ethiopian homes. It is also a fact that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is being constructed in a part of the country remote from the Ethiopian plateau where the bulk of the Ethiopian population lives, is not designed to meet Ethiopian food needs but rather to generate electricity. Egypt, which has always supported hydraulic projects for developmental purposes, never objected to this.
The second problem with the memorandum is that it suggests that handling the Nile waters question in accordance with previous agreements and conventions is an anomaly in world history whereas the reverse is actually the case. Humankind has generally tried to conduct and regulate its affairs on the basis of traditions, conventions and pre-existing agreements, including those handed down from the colonial era. The Organisation of African Unity, which is now the African Union, is effectively based on geopolitical foundations from the colonial era. Ethiopia’s present-day borders, as is the case with Egypt’s borders, are a legacy of that era. Moreover, the negotiations that eventually gave rise to the Eritrean state revolved around interpretations of colonial era agreements. The world was not suddenly born after countries won their independence. The formulation of international laws of the seas, transnational watercourses and the use of natural resources were founded on precedents in international conventions and treaties. So when Egypt refers to international agreements dating from 1902 (Ethiopia was an independent nation at the time and would subsequently become a member of the League of Nations), 1929 and 1959, it does so because such treaties form the sole solid legal frame-of-reference, not because they are “colonial instruments”, which would make no sense coming from a country that has always been in the vanguard of the national liberation movement against colonialism.
Thirdly, Ethiopia refuses to make a clear distinction between the Blue Nile’s source country (Ethiopia), the intermediary country (Sudan) and the country at the river’s mouth (Egypt). To compare Egyptian hydraulic projects to optimise the use of available Nile waters with the GERD project, which all parties concerned agree may have detrimental impacts on Egypt, is a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the issues and jumble the cards. The Aswan High Dam, the Peace Canal, the Toshka project and other such projects are a continuation of the projects that Egypt has pursued for two centuries in order to expand agricultural development and prevent fresh water from going to waste in the Mediterranean. Moreover, projects such as the Peace Canal do not use more water from the Nile than before. They purify and recycle previously used water. Let us also recall again that Egypt is the Nile’s last stop before reaching the Mediterranean. Egyptians have worked to tame it for thousands of years in order to use its waters for agriculture and civilisation building, activities which never harmed upper riparian nations.
Fourthly, the Ethiopian letter is very expansive in its discussion of “historical” relations in connection with the current situation. “The Nile Basin countries enjoy one of the oldest relations in human history,” it says. “We are ancient civilisations inseparably linked by this noble river. We believe that the Nile can deliver a new level of fraternity and cooperation for the betterment of our people.” We could not agree more. Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s hypersensitivity to Egypt’s use of the term “historic rights” is inconsistent with this outlook. It also jars with the behaviours of other countries in the world that share watercourses and that also used this term when it came to regulating their use of shared water resources. Historic rights are not just chronological, dating to the times when states were formed and civilisations built. The concept applies to the natural sources of water wealth, just as it applies to other natural resources such as oil and gas when fields overlap land or maritime boundaries. In the case under discussion, the source of the water is rain which has fallen on Ethiopia since time immemorial like the rays of the sun. No one can dispute the fact that Ethiopia receives more than enough of that natural resource for its development needs, as long as it sustains its developmental efforts.
It is a matter of historical record that Egypt spearheaded the initiative to establish an international organisation for Nile Basin countries with the purpose of promoting the development of the Nile Basin as a whole. It is also a fact that Egypt helped other Nile Basin countries to develop their use of Nile waters through the construction of dams and other such projects. However, it must remain clear that such projects have to proceed in accordance with the rules and principles of international law and conventions, and that they must not deprive Egypt of its essential right to water.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly