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Postmortem of a Nile Debacle in the making

“…Proceeding with the negotiations will forfeit Ethiopia’s future rights to use the Nile; and give away the interests of future generations to our arch enemy.” Alemnew Atalay

Nile _ Ethiopia

Alemnew Atalay
December 17, 2019

As a student of history and international relations– and more important, as a historically conscious Ethiopian — I keenly follow how my country is relating to the Nile and thru the Nile to Egypt, its arch rival that is tirelessly working to cement its hegemony in the Basin. 

As far as I am concerned, recent developments in the Nile Basin are, to say the least, alarming.I am not certain how many of my fellow countrymen are reading the writing on the wall that is clearly discernible for everyone whose eyes are not clouded by self-conceit, deceit, stupidity/ignorance or greed! 

First things first

Before I proceed any further, I need to ask two parallel, very plain, but fundamental questions.These questions are extremely important in that all subsequent analyses hinge on how we answer these questions. 

Question #1: What are the Strategic interests,for which Egypt would move heaven and earth, as far as the Nile waters are concerned?

Question # 2: What, in the world, are Ethiopia’s long-term interests in the Nile,without whose robust defense,it would condemn future generations to perpetual blackmail and/or indirect neo-colonial (hydrocolonial) rule?

I am framing the above questions in what may sound as hyperbole.But the truth is that these questions are matters of life-and-death for Ethiopia, notwithstanding the myth Egypt has perpetuated (and the international media is echoing uncritically) that it is for Egypt instead that the Nile is a matter-of-life and death.Well,here I go. Let the contestation begin at the very beginning!

For nearly two centuries now, Egypt’s strategic interest has hinged on the consistent pursuit and implementation of a Nile water policy toward: (a) ensuring that all upstream countries irrefutably accept–once and for fall –  Egypt’s current (volumetric) water use  as immutable, sacrosanct; and that these upstream countries should adjust their national water policies, plans, programs and projects accordingly; (b) ensuring that no upstream country (particularly in the Eastern Nile where nearly 90% of the flow is generated)  strong enough in economic, political, military and diplomatic terms– emerges to contest Egypt’s hegemony. That Egypt pursued these twin objectives relentlessly is underscored by factual evidences–not only from the past, but also from current practices, as I will amply show when I dissect Egypt’s posture in the ongoing Negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Egypt’s stance toward the GERD

Thanks to the irony of history, the very forces that, with Egypt’s blessing, physically dismantled Ethiopia’s first attempt to meaningfully develop its Nile water resources,turned out to be the very ones who, realizing the dire shortage that the country they are governing is facing once they won state power, decided to rally the nation behind them and embark on the GERD. Egypt, true to form, took every weapon from its arsenal to stop the GERD from being materialized.It first made bellicose statements hyping the water-war discourse and making overt threats such as the one the late President Mursi made in front of the world via a live national TV broadcast. It then fabricated all sorts of disinformation,inserted them in Egyptian, Middle Eastern and even international mainstream media; in social media outlets to discredit the structure:“the GERD design is unsound and unsafe”; GERD is being constructed on a “seismic site”. Egypt even attempted to internationalize the dispute: “the GERD is an Israeli scheme to choke an Arab country of its lifeline”, etc. All the same,Ethiopian governments and people ignored these threats and disinformation campaigns and stubbornly persisted on constructing the dam.Now the GERD has become a 155-meter-high; over 1800 square kilometer – massive reality.  Egypt is compelled to deal with this reality. 

Egypt comes to “negotiate’ over the GERD

Egypt’s recognition of the physical reality of GERD should not in any sense be construed as if Egypt has abandoned its strategic interests;neither does it signify Egypt has accepted Ethiopia’s legitimate rights over the Nile waters.The fact is that Egypt has changed only its tactics.

Ethiopia’s interest in pursuing the negotiation over the GERD  is motivated by two facts, namely:(a) conclude the negotiation verifiably assuring Egypt that the dam will not entail any significant downstream impact; fill the dam within a reasonable and agreed time table and start generating electricity as early as possible to meet a crippling energy  deficit that is having a choke-hold on its development; (b)ensure that Ethiopia’s long-term interests are not compromised during the negotiation and that Ethiopia does not foreclose  its right to any future water use.Equally important has been Ethiopia’s pursuit of the negotiation in good faith.Ethiopia has embarked on the negotiation with the assumption that its effort would like wise be reciprocated and that both Egypt and Sudan would pursue the negotiation in good faith as well, and would be partners in concluding the negotiation without recourse to any third party intervention.This latter aspect needs emphasis. Partners that grapple with contentious issues but have trust and faith in each other also have the confidence to arrive at mutually satisfactory, win-win outcomes on their own, without the need for third party intervention.Third parties could, even in the best of circumstances, potentially be liable to one or another undue influence, misinformation, self-interest or any number of factors that might compel them to make unwarranted pressure on one or the other party–thus making things worse for the parties. 

What can be discerned from how she has been pursuing its negotiation over the GERD this far, Egypt is striving to: (a) frustrate the negotiation from reaching any conclusion and then blaming the failure to reach conclusion on Ethiopia; (b) pursue a war of attrition during the negotiation, wear out and exhaust Ethiopia, hold it hostage and make it yield to its demand i.e. conclude that the negotiation cannot be concluded in the absence of third party intervention and agree to its call for the intermediation of third parties.This has been the core intent of Egypt from the very beginning. It is to be recalled that Egypt has been hinting at this long before the negotiations began as evidenced by its statements to the effect that Egypt would like to take the “dispute”over the GERD to the UN, or to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).For Egypt the GERD negotiation is mere window-dressing. Once the negotiations started in earnest, Egypt has been throwing one roadblock after another.That is, Egypt has been putting forth impossible demands that it well knows Ethiopia would never, ever contemplate to even consider.Think over only the following facts:

  1. Guarantee me to maintain my dam at 165masl: Egypt has been demanding that Ethiopia commit to ensure that the GERD releases adequate water to maintain its major dam, the HAD (High Aswan Dam), at a minimum of 165masl (meters above sea level) at all times. That is, Ethiopia should guarantee Egypt that the HAD level will never go below this level. What does this mean? In other words, what is the implication for Ethiopia? For one, Ethiopia does not control how much water Egypt will be withdrawing from the HAD. That is, Ethiopia has no control over Egyptian water use. Ethiopia has no control whether Egypt will use the waters to irrigate golf courses or rice farms; divert it to Sinai or Toshka or do any number of frivolous stuffs with the water. Neither does Ethiopia know how much water Egypt is keeping behind the HAD. Also remember that between Egypt and Ethiopia there is Sudan. Sudan too needs the Nile waters, not to speak of Ethiopia’s own needs. Here too Ethiopia cannot control nor does Ethiopia know how much water Sudan is using. According to Egypt, all what Ethiopia needs to do is keep its GERD in perpetual stand-by mode, ever ready to release and fill the HAD any time Egypt requests! Ethiopia’s power generation needs, and scheduling thereof, are not things to be considered. Nothing can be a more ridiculous and unworkable. What Egypt is demanding from Ethiopia is a “blank check” on which she can write any amount – payable by Ethiopia.  Any hydrologist worth his salt knows that Egypt’s demand is an impossibility. Such is Egyptian negotiation in “good faith!”
  2. “Guarantee me also 40BMC”: In addition to committing to maintain the HAD at 165masl Egypt demands that Ethiopia should also guarantee a minimum annual release of 40 BCM (billion cubic meter) from the GERD.  Ethiopia is expected to release this volume of water irrespective of any hydrologic conditions, even during extreme drought years.There have been years such as during 1984 when the annual flow of Blue Nile at GERD site was only 29 BCM. Where can Ethiopia bring the water under such situations? Is Ethiopia to be perpetually “water indebted” to Egypt?!This is tantamount to demanding that Ethiopia guarantee that the coming years will be only wet years, free from any drought sequences.Apparently, the Egyptians have not heard of Climate Change! The fact of the matter is that the Blue Nile is notorious for its variability where series of drought and wet years can alternate.Remember the bible story in which seven consecutive drought years were followed by seven flood years. What Egypt is striving to do is turn the GERD into a white Elephant, at best into an ornament of Ethiopia without any meaningful power generation and economic returns. So much for Egypt’s good will! 
  3. “You need my pre-approval”:Egypt also demands that the filling of the GERD should take place in successive stages. Moving from one stage to the next will need Egypt’s pre-approval.This demand is intentionally vague.For example, the Proposal does not define the outputs of the assessment nor limit how long the assessment should last (indefinitely i.e. takes forever?); etc.Egypt unabashedly puts this demand–a demand which is a non-starter both on technical, economic and national sovereignty grounds.
  4. Guarantee me the “average natural flow of the Blue Nile” and you should account for it: Egypt demands that during the operation of the GERD Ethiopia should guarantee the release of the“average natural flow” of the Blue Nile.Egypt defined the “average natural flow” of the Blue Nile as the average of annual flows for the years 1911-2018.  This apparently harmless demand, however, is a clear evidence of the inequity of Egypt toward cooperation on the Nile.First, this demand is inappropriate on technical grounds.For starters, it is meaningless to speak of the Blue Nile in “its natural flow state”.Why?  The reason is that the “natural flow” of Abbay has already been altered since upstream Ethiopian water resources development is a fact (e.g. Finchaa, Tana-Beles, and GERD).  This demand on maintaining the “natural flow” of the Blue Nile is a tacit decision, on the part of Egypt, not only to delegitimize current Ethiopian water resources water infrastructure projects. It is also an effort to deny recognition of Ethiopia’s right to current and future development. Egypt also demands to do the “water accounting” every three years. This is designed to hold Ethiopia hostage i.e. “water indebted” in the event Ethiopia fails to release “the average natural flow” during successive 3-year severe drought years, forcing Ethiopia to release from its reserve storage during such times, if there is any.What more evidence can one demand to see the blatant inequity, one-sided, unbalanced demand of a fellow riparian country that always patronizes its neighbors by appearing reasonable and just to the international community.

Thankfully,Egypt has not gotten its way. Ethiopia has not yielded. At least, not this far!But this does not mean Egypt has accepted the polite Ethiopian rebuttal quietly.It now has brought to the fore once again its new weapons from what seems its inexhaustible arsenal.

President Al Sisi goes to Washington(via Sochi and New York)and scores!

Realizing that Egypt is not to get its way, its President decided to change his approach, namely escalate the issue! Following the Sochi Summit convened by the Russian President Putin in October 2019, attended both by the Ethiopian PM and the Egyptian President, the Ethiopian PM entertained the idea of third-party mediation.This provided a long sought after opening for the Egyptians. President Sisi quickly seized the opportunity – and the moment!! During the UN Summit that took place in the heels of the Sochi Summit, President Sisi, addressing the UN General Assembly in New York, made an official call for third-party intervention in the Negotiation over the GERD.In my opinion the Ethiopian PM made inexcusable error of judgment in that he opened the door for Egyptian demand for involvement of third parties. No sooner was this followed by the invitation of the US government to Egypt and Ethiopia to come to Washington DC to hammer out a deal over the GERD.The US offered the good offices of its Secretary of the Treasury and the World Bank to take part in the deliberations as “observers”. Both Ethiopia and Egypt accepted the invitation.That Ethiopia accepted the invitations was understandable, not least for reasons of diplomatic protocol and the desire to show respect for its long-standing friendship with the US.  What is not acceptable, at least according to my appraisal, is what Ethiopia accepted subsequently,namely its consent to the conditions of the deliberations.Ethiopia practically agreed to abandon a work-in-progress, namely an ongoing trilateral (among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan) expert technical negotiations over GERD that has been conducted thru the National Independent Research Group established in May 2018 to deliberate on the filling and operation of the GERD. Not only that,  Ethiopia accepted what is tantamount to the initial steps of third party mediation by agreeing to hold four successive negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan (with the US and the WB as observers)and failing amicable conclusion of these negotiations to invoke Article 10 of the DoP. Ethiopia has succumbed. The writing is on the wall.The rapid sequence of events of the last two months; the speed with which the negotiations in Washington have been convened and consents made; all of these raise more questions in my mind than they answer.It is difficult for me to accept the notion that these developments are mere chance, coincidental freak events. 

I have no reason to believe Egypt has abandoned its strategic interests.I have no reason to believe Egypt will behave any differently and constructively.Having smelled success, Egypt will dig in and double down on what it has been doing this far, namely stonewall. It has no incentive to do otherwise.It will go thru the motions and frustrate any attempt to conclude the negotiations in good faith.It will stonewall and sabotage,and eventually declare that the negotiations are not going anywhere and presto – invoke article 10 of the DoP and call for mediation, even arbitration!! Ethiopia will be locked in–with little or no wiggle room left to maneuver out. One should take not of the fact that the situation in the country makes the government amenable to unwarranted pressures.

There could be “incentives” thrown here and there to sweeten the deal and make the defeat palatable for Ethiopia (come to think of the 6 billion IMF loan pledged to Ethiopia? Is this mere coincidence?).The December 9 joint Statement made in Washington DC aggravates my doubts. Reference is innocuously made to “average natural flows”in this statement,something to which I have alluded to earlier.  

There is no other way for Ethiopia than walking out!! 

In the preceding sections I have amply assembled facts that support my contention that Egypt is not taking part in the negotiations over the GERD in good faith.Good faith is what Egypt has in the shortest supply.Egypt’s bellicose, winner-take-all stance seems to pay off. Ethiopia has only one way out of the trap that is set for it: declare that Egypt is not living up to, in fact it is violating, the initial promise it made.It is not taking part in the negotiations in good faith. Ethiopia must declare this to friend and foe alike, and walk out of the negotiations, come what may!!Ethiopia’s right to access and develop its Nile waters is sacrosanct.It is non-negotiable. We have reached the red line beyond which will be the zone of betrayal and treason.Full stop.

The alternative is difficult to imagine.As it stands now, proceeding on with the negotiation is tantamount to leave the GERD as mere back up and extension of HAD, leaving billions of dollars collected from a half-starving population as sunk cost!Not only that. Proceeding with the negotiations will forfeit Ethiopia’s future rights to use the Nile; and give away the interests of future generations to our arch enemy.We are leaving our children and grandchildren as hostages.It is betrayal pure and simple.History will not absolve us. 

Alemnew Atalay – A keen observer of International Relations in the Middle East and North Africa and the Horn of Africa. Can be reached at

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