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Opinion: The international media’s misrepresentation of Ethiopia on the GERD

Mekdelawit Messay Deribe @Mekdi_Messay

Addis Abeba, April 14/2020 – Following the renewed disagreement between Egypt and Ethiopia over  the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) after the failed Washington talks, it seems like the international media have given the utmost attention to the issue. While the spotlight on the GERD is very welcome, I have been observing increasingly strong mischaracterization of Ethiopia and its stand in many of these media outlets.

Many of these outlets have in one way or another used similar language to misrepresent Ethiopia. I will provide the details below. But generally speaking, besides the Egyptian media whose usual approach is being a propaganda machine of the state, even those international media which would be expected to be objective and neutral such as the National Post, Bloomberg, New York Times, the Independent, Washington Post, VoA all, in one way or another have portrayed Ethiopia as acting unilaterally in declaring to fill the dam without an agreement, creating facts on the ground, skipping the last Washington meeting deliberately and as plotting to become a hegemon in the Nile. It is such misrepresentation of facts and character that has been working in Egypt’s favor and to Ethiopia’s detriment. So, I thought it is of utmost importance to shed a light on and address some of these mischaracterizations and defamation on Ethiopia’s stance. I will address three major points in this article.

Utilizing the Nile: Whose Right?

The first point is on the claim that Egypt “also” has the right to the water of the Nile. The Egyptian media especially has been fanning this flame, stating that Egypt “also” has the right to its fair share of the Nile. This is quite honestly amusing precisely because Egypt has been denying the same rights it seeks now from the other 9 or arguably 10 (including Sudan) riparian countries for ages.

Secondly, the claim Egypt mentions regarding their “right” to the water pertains to the 1959 bilateral “agreement” signed between Egypt and Sudan allocating the entire flow of the Nile exclusively between them. This agreement gives Egypt the lion’s share of the Nile waters, 55.5 BCM out of the 84 BCM of the Nile waters, denying the other upstream countries even a drop, including Ethiopia which contributes 86% of the Nile waters. Is this really a “right”?

It is a longstanding principle of international law that states should reasonably and equitably use transboundary waters. But there is nothing reasonable or equitable about the 1959 arrangement. For a country touting it demands “reasonable and equitable use” of a shared watercourse, clinging to such an “agreement” is quite absurd.

Thirdly, no one really denied Egypt’s right and fair share to the Nile water, certainly not Ethiopia. The emphasis should, however, be on the phrases “fair share” which can only come out of a reasonable and equitable utilization which is inclusive of all the eleven countries and not an exclusive bilateral colonial treaty between the two downstream countries.

Filling of the GERD: Missing the Point!

My second point is on the claim that Ethiopia is acting unilaterally in deciding to fill the GERD as per schedule starting July 2020 without the three countries reaching an agreement. This sentiment was also echoed, to put it mildly, by the US treasury which was “handling” the talks between the three countries. I only have one thing to say to this: The Declaration of Principles on the GERD (D0P) Principle V. The DoP provides the general principle regarding the first filling and annual operation of the GERD. It states that:

The Three Countries, in the spirit of cooperation, will utilize the final outcomes of the joint studies, to be conducted as per the recommendations of the [International Panel of Experts] IPoE Report and agreed upon by the [Tripartite National Committee] TNC, to: 

  1. Agree on guidelines and rules on the first filling of GERD which shall cover all different scenarios, in parallel with the construction of GERD.
  2.  Agree on guidelines and rules for the annual operation of GERD, which the
    owner of the dam may adjust from time to time.”

Regardless of this stipulation, however, Egypt seeks to have an agreement on the long-term operation of the dam which has implications on water allocation discussions instead of focusing the discussion on the first filling and annual operation of the dam. The DoP clearly states these negotiations on the first filling and annual operation should go in parallel with the construction phase. The negotiation and the studies mentioned in the DoP have been lagging behind the construction for reasons I cannot get into in this article which mainly related to Egypt’s insistence to impose its colonial wish on Ethiopia.

However, the time has now come in the stage of the construction phase where filling needs to happen. Therefore, when Ethiopia goes ahead and starts first filling in July, it should be noted that its actions are in line with the DoP, which Egypt and Sudan both signed. If anything, this principle of the DoP should have been an incentive for Egypt to want to reach an agreement before the filling starts but it seems like it has been following the exact opposite strategy of dragging its legs in the negotiation. One can site the meeting in Addis Ababa in September 2019; when the three countries almost reached an agreement on the technical details of the filling and Egypt backed out of this near success, making the issue political and taking it international by bringing the matter to the U.S. There is no legal, moral or logical reason for Ethiopia to pay for the political ill will and lack of good faith in negotiation on Egypt’s side. Ethiopia is not unilaterally deciding to proceed with the first filling of the GERD for it is backed by the DoP the three countries signed.

Who aspires to be a hegemon on the Nile?

My third point is in the characterization of Ethiopia as plotting to be the sole controller of the Nile water and a hegemon in the region. Unlike other upstream nations in other basins, Ethiopia has not clung to its natural advantage of being an upstream country. Being a source of 86 percent of the Nile water, it has not claimed absolute territorial sovereignty over the water in its boundaries. This would have meant that Ethiopia could do whatever it pleased with the water in its boundaries. Although some nationalists might resort to this extreme attitude out of desperation of historic injustice, it is, however, not Ethiopia’s official stand. Ethiopia strongly believes and has shown not just in words but deeds its commitment to the principles of equitable and reasonable use.

Under customary international water law Ethiopia would only be required to notify and share relevant data with downstream countries on the filling and operation of the GERD. This is a courtesy that Egypt did not extend to Ethiopia nor the other upper riparian states when it was developing its numerous water infrastructures on the Nile and diverting the river out of its natural course.

In sharp contrast to this, Ethiopia went beyond what is expected and took the initiative in making sure the fears and worries of downstream countries concerning the GERD were fully addressed in the form of making documents available, establishing the International Panel of Experts (IPoE), as well as initiating the establishment of the Tripartite national committee (TNC) and even going as far as changing the design of the saddle dam of the project. In addition, Ethiopia has accepted and accommodated almost all recommendations of the IPoE.

On the larger scheme of things, Ethiopia’s sign of goodwill and dedication to the fair and equitable utilization principle can also be seen in the deferment of the ratification of the Cooperative Framework Agreement on the Nile (CFA) at a time when Egypt was being rocked by internal political struggle. It can be seen in the willingness to negotiate in the filling of the dam, extending the filling time up to 7 years when Ethiopia could fill it in 3 years notwithstanding the ridiculous claims of filling the dam in 12-20 years from the Egyptian side. If it was the case that Ethiopia had the design of being the sole controller of the Nile water or a hegemon in the region, all the concessions that Ethiopia had been making in good faith would not have been necessary. However, it is the intrinsic fear and mistrust ever-present in the narrative of Egypt that results in such statements that are actually a reflection of their own ambitions. It is therefore unfortunate that the international media has turned a blind eye to the objective truth and rather echoes Egypt’s narrative as usual.

The Solution

The stand of Egypt regarding the Nile waters has always been the same. History so far has shown and is showing that Egypt will only engage in an agreement as long as it keeps the status quo, the status quo being the 1959 “Agreement”. Yet, this claim to this “agreement” does not have any legal, political or moral basis to be imposed on non-signatory states who have been objecting to the “deal” in its entirety.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969 (i.e. the Vienna convention) clearly states that “an obligation arises for a third state from a provision of a treaty if the parties to the treaty intend the provision to be the means of establishing the obligation and the third State expressly accepts that obligation in writing.” There is nothing ambiguous about this article. As parties not privy to the 1959 “Agreement”, Ethiopia and the other upstream countries categorically denounce any obligation to it. Thus, clinging to the 1959 Treaty is going against the law and common sense.

If there was a genuine goodwill to come to an equitable water use instead of maintaining the status quo , Egypt would have acceded to the CFA. If there was sincere political will on Egypt’s side to come to an agreement with its brother riparian states, the three countries could have resolved the GERD dispute by themselves. There was no need for Egypt to take the GERD talks outside outside the three countries, outside Africa, beyond the African Union, to Washington, DC where Egypt feels it has leverage.

If there was a genuine willingness to come to a fair and equitable arrangement, Egypt would not have shifted the negotiation on the filling of the GERD into a water allocation issue and changing goalposts again and again. Even the fact that Egypt considers war and conflict as a “possible” option while negotiation and diplomacy is being placed as the first and last solution by Ethiopia speaks volumes on the values held by these countries. What is needed is  fair and serious talks as aptly put by Ethiopia`s minister of foreign affairs, Gedu Andargachew.

Water allocation, utilization, and management of a transboundary river basin is an issue that should be decided with all the basin countries in the equation, not between a subset of the countries and most definitely not hinging on a single project regardless of the significance of the project. If indeed Egypt is not guilty of ambitions of being a hegemon in the region or  in control of the whole of the Nile water and  if it has  genuine interest in the  fair and equitable use of the Nile , then the avenue is still open. Come back to the table and agree to the CFA. That is the only proper medium where we can collectively talk about water allocation. Until that happens, enough with the mischaracterization and playing the victim, when in fact a tremendous of goodwill and courtesy has been and is being extended towards Egypt for the sake of peace and brotherhood. We have lived together for thousands of years, tied by this lifeline of a river that is the Nile and we will live so for thousands more. The only way forward is together. AS 

Editor’s Note: Mekdelawit Messay Deribe is an independent scholar researching on the Nile. She can be reached at

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