Addis Abeba, March 31/2020 – The COVID-19 pandemic and disparate international response to the deadly virus has put diplomacy on a standstill. International organizations, including the United Nations, have virtually shuttered their offices. Bilateral engagements have also dwindled amid travel restrictions and countries turn their attentions inward to managing the Corona virus.
Perhaps one exception is North-East Africa region, where heightened tensions and diplomatic squabble is quietly playing out in the background following stalled negotiations between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Egyptian officials are jet-setting across Africa and the Middle East to shore up pressure on Ethiopia.
This is not surprising. The Nile, one of the longest river basins in Africa, is home to a little over half a billion people, who depend on its waters for their livelihood. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a major development project on the Nile river, is playing a central role in water development discourse with tremendous potential for regional integration and economic development. However, progress on reasonable sharing and utilization of the Nile waters has eluded the Nile Basin countries thanks to unseemly politicking by Egypt and its insistence on maintaining externally imposed colonial-era agreements that are contrary to the interests of other countries.
Ethiopian and Egyptian divergence over the GERD began in 2011 when Addis Abeba launched the project. It returned to international spotlight in September 2019 after Egyptian President Abdelfattah Al Sisi used his speech at the United Nations to frame the Dam as a threat to his country’s “water security” and enlisted the international community, specifically the President of the United States, to personally intervene. Subsequently, the two countries and Sudan agreed to involve the U.S. government and the World Bank, as observers, in their trilateral technical negotiations to reach an amicable agreement on the initial filling and operation of the GERD. However, the negotiations broke down after promising start and much progress.
Ethiopia and Egypt are back to trading accusations over failure to reach an agreement. The questionable role of American facilitators further exacerbated diplomatic wrangling, public mistrust and politicization.
Egypt has cunningly built the narrative that it is the only natural benefactor of the Nile waters; that the Ethiopian Dam poses an existential threat to the Egyptian people; that the issue of water security is a matter of human rights for Egypt, and that given the threat of water scarcity amidst rapidly growing population even an iota of its share of the Nile water should not be reduced. (Egypt currently receives 55.5 billion cubic meters per annum under the 1959 agreement between Khartoum, Cairo and Great Britain. Ethiopia was not party to that agreement.)
It is time for Ethiopia and the Nile basin countries to straighten the facts and unmask the flagrant injustice and correct the hegemonic Egyptian narrative. For one, the Nile water is a resource and wealth for the over 500 million people living in and around the river system. In Ethiopia, where about 86 percent of the Blue Nile water originates, it is a lifeline for more than 40 million people who eke out a living in the basin areas. The river also covers 63 percent of land in Sudan and provides 77 percent of fresh water for more than 45million people. Hence, no country should have an exclusive right to the Nile’s water on the basis of obsolete colonial treaties.
The Egyptian stranglehold on the Nile waters is unacceptable. Egypt has twice ignored protests from upper riparian countries when it built the Aswan High Dam, and two other colossal projects, namely the Toshka and Al-slam canals that took the Nile water from its natural course in contravention of established norms. Yet, Cairo seeks to dictate what other riparian states can and can’t do with the Nile waters. Basin countries must now come together anew to challenge this hypocrisy and seek a judicious and equitable use of the Nile waters.
Contrary to the deceptive portrayal of Egyptian politicians and media, Ethiopia or all Nile Basin countries have no illusion to understand the economic and psychological significance of the Nile river for the people of Egypt. It is also unnatural to think that Ethiopians have a desire to block the water from flowing downstream or make the Egyptian people and civilization perish. The fear-mongering narrative is not only politically expedient, it is also intended to sow discord in the region.
One thing must be crystal clear: In this day and age, no one would be allowed to starve and perish from deprivation of water resource. All the same, it is important to understand that upper riparian states face tremendous demographic and developmental pressures. They need to feed a growing population; respond to rapid urbanization; modernize subsistence agriculture and light their hospitals and education facilities using hydropower.
Demographic change has always been the primary driving force for social, economic and technological advancement. The Nile basin, with more than 500 million people, is heavily impacted by population growth, in which the youth constitute the largest portion. Generally, demand for water is expected to increase in the coming decades as population growth raises water consumption levels, not to mention added demand from new investments, particularly in agriculture and manufacturing.
Egypt often points to its projected population growth to assert its exclusive use of the river Nile. However, all basin countries, including Ethiopia, can make an equally compelling argument given their similar or even more pronounced population explosions. Ethiopia and Egypt are also arguably more heavily dependent on the Nile river than any other basin country and hence there should not be an exclusive case to make than cooperation for fair and equitable sharing of the Nile water.
Access to electricity as a human right
If Egypt is worried about “water security,” abject poverty is a matter of existence for millions of Ethiopians, who depend on recurrent humanitarian assistance and safety net programs. The dire straits of the economy and demands from fast-growing population makes the use of water resources ever more critical. Energy production is a key pillar for the country’s economic development.
Still, above and beyond aspirations of development, access to electricity, in and of itself, is a fundamental human right. Under the globally agreed 2030 Agenda, access to energy is a vital, cross-cutting element of infrastructure that is critical for achieving poverty reduction in all its forms and many of the Sustainable Development Goals. However, recent rates of growth in electricity access indicate that Africa will not meet this target. Furthermore, the current number of people without electricity is expected to continue with Africa’s population boom.
Egypt, as a state party to the SDGs as well as the African Union Agenda 2063, is fully aware that efficient utilization of water resources is central to achieve many of the goals set by these development targets.
For context, Egypt, the main beneficiary of the Nile river, has 100 percent electricity access while nearly 60 million Ethiopians still live off-the-grid. According to a recent World Bank and African Development Forum joint Study, a number of other Nile basin countries have less than 25 percent access to electricity. Only 25 to 50 percent of Kenyan and Sudanese households have access to electricity.
If African nations want to see their economies transform, the issue of electricity must be tackled head-on as access to reliable electricity is the backbone of any modern economy.
To be clear, this does not justify arresting the flow of the Nile waters. And that is not what upper riparian states are demanding. Rather to apply the principles of equitable and reasonable utilization of the waters to allow the people of the basin at least an opportunity to have a light bulb above their heads.
GERD is at the heart Ethiopia’s development aspirations and poverty reduction strategy. But it also offers many benefits to the other riparian states, ranging from energy export to flood management as well as silt reduction at downstream dams in Sudan and Egypt.
“The Dam will greatly reduce the problems of silt and sediment that consistently affect dams in Egypt and Sudan,” the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, noted at the launch of the project. “When the Dam becomes operational, communities all along the riverbanks and surrounding areas, particularly in Sudan, will be permanently relieved from centuries of flooding.”
He touted further benefits to Sudan and Egypt, including the potential for increased power supplies and reduction in wastage from evaporation.
Water security for Egypt or Ethiopia?
The principle of “water security” must be understood as the right of all Nile Basin States to reliable access to and use of the river system for health, agriculture, livelihoods, production and environment. It is not exclusive to a single country in the Basin.
According to reliable scholars and scientific studies, Egypt is more endowed than Ethiopia with groundwater resources. For example, from the Nubian aquifer alone, Egypt can harness some 150,000 BCM of water. By contrast, Ethiopia has only an available surface water in the order of 122 BCM, 70 percent of which is generated in the Nile basin. The studies further indicate that Egypt can produce a fresh water in the order of 5250 BCM only if 100 meter thickness of the ground water storage is utilized. In addition to this, unlike landlocked Ethiopia, Egypt could access additional water resources through desalination from its huge coastline, using advanced and yet cheaper technology. Therefore, an efficient way of water use coupled with reduction of wastages through traditional agricultural and urban practices would enhance the available water resource in Egypt as well as other riparian countries.
The way forward
Ethiopia had the full trust on the observers, the U.S. Treasury and the World Bank, as well as the negotiating parties, Egypt and Sudan, to take the issue of filling and operation of the Dam one step closer to finalization. However, Egyptian intransigence has once again led to stumbles in the tripartite negotiations. The negotiations were further complicated by other geopolitical considerations, very much attached to the interest of Egypt, and yet far from Ethiopia and the Nile basin countries. Still, there is only one feasible way out of the GERD stalemate. All riparian states, including Egypt, must agree to manage the Nile waters in a more sustainable, efficient and equitable manner than the hegemonic efforts to politicize and internationalize the issue.
Egypt’s ongoing efforts to envelope multiple actors, including the League of Arab States and the European Union, who are not directly affected, will only stifle the dialogue. Egypt has finally turned its gaze to Africa as the last stop on the list of its diplomatic offensive. This shows not only the place and attention Egypt gives for Africa and its political and legal instruments but also the Egyptian tendency to try and impose hegemonic will on the upper riparian states.
A good illustration of this Egyptian contempt for and lack of trust in African mechanisms is the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) negotiated among ten Nile basin countries in 2010. The agreement was signed by all, except Egypt and Sudan. Four of the signatories have ratified the framework through their legal mechanisms. Egypt refuses to abide by the negotiated agreement, yet it insists on the implementation of a colonial-era agreement. President Al-Sisi sought U.S. and World Bank intervention at a time when he served as the Chairperson of the African Union, which has prioritized African solutions for African problems.
Despite lack of any treaty obligations, Ethiopia has nevertheless persisted in upholding principles of causing no significant harm. It should spare no efforts to reduce impacts on lower riparian countries. The three countries are closer, more than ever before, to reach an agreement on initial filling and operation of the GERD. This is no time to resurrect technical details already settled, including dam safety concerns, by the Panel of Experts.
It is, however, high time to restart good-faith negotiations, within the purview of the Nile Basin Initiative and the legal and political instruments of the African Union. If Egypt truly believes in being part of the African family, there is no reason to look elsewhere for deliverance. Ethiopia must insist on Africanizing the GERD negotiations and for Egypt to respect regional bodies and instruments.
Furthermore, Ethiopia should continue to hold firm in resisting any and all external pressure on this African project, solely built and financed by Ethiopians. That includes possible offers for compensation during the filling period as it undermines in monetary terms the value of GERD and obliges Ethiopia to compromise on its legal right. AS
Editor’s Note: The writer can be reached at email@example.com