The Grand Renaissance Dam, Ethiopia,Egypt and the United States

Grand Renaissance Dam _ Ethiopia _ Egypt
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Photo credit : EBC

Ephrem Madebo
March 16, 2020

Egypt is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and it has been the center of massive trade networks for millennia. The wealth, history, civilization and geographic location of Egypt has attracted outsiders, and no wonder that Egypt was occupied by almost every empire that ruled the world. As the center of attraction as Egypt was throughout history, a quarter of what Egypt is now and almost more than half of what Egypt has been through the millennia wouldn’t have been possible without the Nile River.

To many people around the globe, the Nile River is considered as the lifeline of Egypt. In fact, sometimes the name Nile is synonymous with the name Egypt. All the great powers that ruled Egypt, Egypt itself and the modern world share similar views towards the Nile River. They all believe that the Nile is not just lifeline to Egypt, but they also believe that the Nile belongs to Egypt, forgetting Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Ethiopia who actually own the two sources of the Nile River and their tributaries. Today, when some of these composed owners of the Nile start using their share of the Nile, the ever vociferous Egypt and some world powers start acting and making decisions based on this half-truth that the Nile belongs to Egypt.

Yes, there is no doubt that the Nile has played a decisive role in Egypt’s history, and the Nile has effectively created Egypt as a country. But, the Nile River is the source of pride, beauty, wealth and natural resources to another African country that has a long and rich history just like Egypt, and has been in the annals of human history as long as Egypt was. I don’t have to mention the name of this country because Egypt knows the name of this country just like it knows its own name. Besides, the Nile is an international river shared by eleven countries in Africa whose drainage basin covers Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Burundi, Uganda, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Eritrea.

The Nile has two major tributaries, the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The White Nile whose primary source is Lake Victoria in Uganda is one of the tributaries of the Nile River. But, make no mistake that Ethiopia is the source of most of the water and silt of the Nile (84% of the water and 96% of the silt carried by the Nile originates in Ethiopia). There are four other major rivers (Akobo, Tekeze,Atbarah and Baro) that originate in Ethiopia and eventually end up into the Nile somewhere in Sudan.

Disagreements over the Nile River have been the source of conflict between upper and downstream countries because life in both sides of the Nile highly depends on the waters of the Nile River. Historically, there have been many treaties over the Nile River that were negotiated between different stakeholders in different places in 1902, 1906, 1925, 1929 and in 1959. During the colonial era, Great Britain, France and Italy [specially Great Britain] either negotiated in the behalf of their colonies, or they controlled the Nile through their military presence in Africa.  

One of the most contested Treaty over the use of Nile waters that included Ethiopia is the 1902 Treaty between the British government and Emperor Minlik. Article three of the treaty states: “His Majesty the Emperor Menilik II, King of Kings of Ethiopia, engages himself towards the Government of His Britannic Majesty not to construct or allow to be constructed any work across the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, or the Sobat, which would arrest the flow of their waters except in agreement with His Britannic Majesty’s Government and the Government of Sudan”. The English version of Article three of this treaty was different from the Amharic version. Hence, Emperor Minlik refused to sign the 1902 treaty. Another treaty that Ethiopia opposed is the 1925 treaty between Britain and Italy regarding Lake Tana of Ethiopia. Here is an excerpt from the treaty- “Italy recognizes the prior hydraulic rights of Egypt and the Sudan not to construct on the head waters of the Blue Nile and the White Nile (the Sobat) and their tributaries and effluents any work which might sensibly modify their flow into the main river”. Ethiopia unequivocally opposed this agreement and notified both parties of its objections.  

Two of the most important Nile River agreements that ignored Ethiopia and vividly violated its sovereignty over the use of its own natural resources are the 1929 Agreement between Egypt and Great Britain (Britain representing its colonies) and the 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan. Here are some of the most unjust, arrogant and prejudiced parts of these two agreements that totally alienated Ethiopia, the natural owner of the most important part of the Nile River.  

The 1929 Treaty between Great Britain and Egypt

  1. Egypt reserves the right to monitor the Nile flow in the upstream countries;
  2. Egypt assumed the right to undertake Nile River related projects without the consent of upper riparian states.
  3. Egypt assumed the right to veto any construction projects that would affect her interests adverse

The 1959 Treaty between Egypt and Sudan

  1. The agreement allowed the entire average annual flow of the Nile to be shared among the Sudan and Egypt at 18.5 and 55.5 billion cubic meters, respectively.
  2. If the claim prevails and the Nile water has to be shared with another riparian state, that allocated amount would be deducted from the Sudan’s and Egypt’s and allocations/shares in equal parts of Nile volume measured at Aswan.
  3. The agreement granted Egypt the right to construct the Aswan High Dam that can store the entire annual Nile River flow of a year.
  4. It granted the Sudan to construct the Rosaries Dam on the Blue Nile and, to develop other irrigation and hydroelectric power generation until it fully utilizes its Nile share.

The 1929 Treaty gave Egypt unjustified veto power over the construction of agricultural and hydropower projects, not only on the Nile River, but on its tributaries too. Imagine, according to this treaty, Ethiopia cannot build dam on over 15 of its rivers without getting permission from Egypt. Both the 1906 and 1925 treaties denied Ethiopia its sovereign right over the use of its own water resources. Ethiopia through the years  has rejected all  Nile River related treaties that violated its sovereignty and denied its natural right over the Nile. However, during the colonial era when the British, the French and the Italians controlled most of Africa, Ethiopia neither had the diplomatic muscle nor the military might to protect its interest or to regain its use of the Nile water.

In the 19th century the Pashas of Egypt sought to expand their reign southwards towards Sudan and Ethiopia to have total control on the sources of the Nile River. In 1875 they controlled Darfur and turned their attention to Ethiopia. Through the years the Egyptians have used different strategies to hinder Ethiopia’s attempt to develop its water resources on the Blue Nile and its tributaries. Military expeditions to control the source of the Blues Nile, destabilizing Ethiopia by supporting disgruntled internal forces, blocking loan or financial aid for the construction of dams on the Blue Nile or threatening the use of military force are the major strategies Egypt used to deter any development project on the Blue Nile River and its tributaries.

The most recent heated disagreement and acrimonious word of war between Egypt and Ethiopia started when Ethiopia announced its ambitious plan to build its very first hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile River. Back in 2011 when the then Prime Minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi announced the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Egypt did not just voice its disagreement over the planned construction of the dam, it diametrically opposed the construction of the dam citing a colonial era treaty that gave her veto power over the construction of dam on the Nile River and its tributaries. This time, Ethiopia said “In Your Face” to Egypt; and it made it very clear to Egypt and to the international community that, it’s always ready and willing to negotiate on the socio-economic impact of the dam, but it doesn’t need external approval to build dam on its own river. The Egyptians flexed their diplomatic muscle and convinced the IMF, the World Bank and many other donor nations and organizations to not finance the GERD hoping poor Ethiopia would back off from building the dam. But, that same factor, poverty, that Egypt thought would deter the construction of the dam, united Ethiopians around the world and Ethiopia started building the dam with its own resources. Today, the largest dam in Africa, and the largest project in the history of Ethiopia has created a sense of “Yes we can” mentality among Ethiopians all over the country and has been the source of pride and national unity since its inception. If there is anything in Ethiopia today that would earn a unanimous “Yes” or “No” reply, it’s any question on the GERD.

Nine years later today, the same financial institutions, the IMF and the World Bank that sided with Egypt and perversely denied Ethiopia’s request for a badly needed loan in 2011, have once more shamelessly sided with Egypt to deny Ethiopia’s use of its God given natural resources. All in all, the Trump administration, Egypt and the tripartite of “The Washington Consensus” are trying to impose another “1929” on Ethiopia, and Ethiopians who are proud of what their forefathers did in Gura and Gundet are saying  . . .  Over Our Dead Body!

What do regional or bilateral treaties say on border crossing rivers? What do the UN and other international treaties say on the use of international rivers? The only universally applicable treaty that governs internationally shared freshwater resources is, the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. The convention provides framework of principles and rules that may be applied and adjusted to suit the characteristics of particular international watercourses. The convention has 7 parts and 37 articles. Here we will see just three of the articles that I thought are closely related to this article.

Article 5, generally believed to be the cornerstone of the Convention requires that a State sharing an international watercourse with other States utilize the watercourse, in its territory, in a manner that is equitable and reasonable vis-à-vis the other States sharing it. Article 7, the other important provision of the Convection requires that States take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm to other States sharing an international watercourse.

Part III of the Convention requires that, if a project or other measures are planned in a State and those measures may have a significant adverse effect upon another State or States sharing an international watercourse, the State in which the measures are planned must provide timely notification to the other States of the plans. If the notified States believe the planned measures would be inconsistent with the requirements of articles 5 or 7, a process of consultations and, if necessary, negotiations follows which is intended to lead to an equitable resolution of the situation.

Construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam started in 2011, it is 2020 now and more than 70% of the GERD is completed. Why did Ethiopia and Egypt fail to reach an agreement on the GERD all these years? Based on the provisions of the international convention we saw above, what is that Egypt is asking for and what is it that Ethiopia is not offering? Do the Egyptians ever think that they will march their army all the way to Ethiopia and enforce their superiority over the Nile? They have repeatedly tired this in the past, but was there any time in history that the Egyptians marched to Ethiopia and made it back home? What makes it different now? Do these two ancient countries that account for about 17.5% of Africa’s population have any other means to solve their differences over the use of the Nile other than negotiation? The answer is very simple, it’s NO!

Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have been negotiating over the use of the Nile River and the GERD for the past nine years. The GERD has many contentious issues, but currently, how quickly Ethiopia fills the 74billion cubic meters capacity reservoir is a key point of contention. Ethiopia proposed it will fill the reservoir over four to seven years, but Egypt disagrees with this proposal and insists a much slower timetable of 12 to 21 years; citing the possibility of protracted droughts or water shortages. Five years ago this week, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan reached a milestone and signed an agreement on the Declaration of Principles regarding the GERD in Khartoum, Sudan. Here are the four of the most important parts of the Declaration. These four provisions of the declaration are very similar, in fact, some of them are carbon copies of the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses.

  1. The Three Countries shall take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm in utilizing the Blue/Main Nile.
  2. Where significant harm nevertheless is caused to one of the countries, the state whose use causes such harm shall, in the absence of agreement to such use, take all appropriate measures in consultations with the affected state to eliminate or mitigate such harm and, where appropriate, to discuss the question of compensation.
  3. The Tree Countries shall utilize their shared water resources in their respective territories in an equitable and reasonable manner.
  4. Agree on guidelines and rules on the first filling of GERD which shall cover all different scenarios, in parallel with the construction of GERD.

The 2015 declaration requires the three countries to use the Nile River equitably and reasonably in a manner that any project on the Nile will not cause significant harm to downstream countries. Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have gone through years of negotiations before and after 2015, but the trio couldn’t make much progress in solving the two highly contentious issues of the GERD, which are timetable of filing the massive GERD reservoir and the “Equitable and Reasonable” use of the Nile River.

In all of the negotiations Egypt wanted a settlement that secures a regulated amount of water flow, a timetable for filing the dam in its own terms, a process that monitors Ethiopia’s compliance and institutional mechanism that binds Ethiopia to the agreements. Ethiopia on the other hand neither wanted an agreements that forces it to commit to Egypt’s insatiable demand for water, nor accept Egypt’s inflexible rather imposed timetable of filling the GERD reservoir. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt quickly noticed this unwavering stand of Ethiopia, and started looking for a mediator that has the diplomatic, political and economic muscle to either convince or pressure Ethiopia to submit to Egypt’s demand. The look for this kind of mediator took President el-Sisi to the other side of the Atlantic, and the current rounds of negotiations started in November 2019.

The self-seeking Trump took el-Sisi’s invitation as an opportunity to make himself the third sitting US president to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and accepted his invitation to mediate the GERD negotiation without hesitation. Once the negotiations started, it didn’t take much time for President Trump to display America’s diplomatic and economic muscle to pressure Ethiopia to agree to one of the most important demand of Egypt. The Ethiopian government quickly saw America’s one-sidedness and decided to not participate in a negotiation that imposes undue submission on its sovereignty. The Egyptians who saw Ethiopia’s resolve and determination to continue with its plan of filling the dam, responded by throwing yet another belligerent rant. Here is what they said:   “If the water means electricity for Ethiopia, it is a life-or-death matter for Egypt”. . . . . . Well, deal with it, to us to Ethiopians, the Blue Nile is both!!!

Last week Egypt’s speaker of the parliament, Ali Abdel-Aal said – “In this respect, let me declare that Egypt will never waive its rights to the Nile water because this is a matter of life and death and it is an existential matter for all Egyptians”. Following his boss’ empty bravado, Egypt’s Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, Mohamed Abdel-Ati said – “We need every drop of the Nile water and that we can never give up our rights in this respect”.  

I’m not quite sure to whom Ali Abdel-Aal’s declaration is addressed to, and I’m not also sure what is meant by “We need every drop of water”, but I for sure know that this kind of recklessness, belligerence and bullying, and any ill-advised attempt to materialize the bullying will give Egypt “a bath full of blood”, not a drop of water. The only message I have to these two impulsive Egyptian warmongers is that, please read your own history that, every time the Egyptians sailed south with egoistic objective of controlling the source of the Blue Nile, your ships went back empty with no one to tell the “What Happened” story. Both the Egyptians and the Ethiopians, especially, the Egyptians must know that war on the Nile will never produce a winner, and none of them benefits from the war. The Egyptian government should realize that war should never be the option to solve differences on the GERD because exchanging blood for water will eventually force Egypt to settle for less water.

There is no doubt that the US has the diplomatic muscle to mediate between conflicting countries, but this is true only if the US chooses to be a fair and impartial mediator. Unfortunately, history tells us otherwise that the US hasn’t really been a neutral mediator. The US started mediating the Jews and the Palestinians since the 1970s. Today, five decades and 9 presidents later, the US ended up accepting Jerusalem as the capital city of the Jewish State and moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a city at the very center of the conflict. From 2011 to 2019, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have gone through unending back and forth negotiations in Addis, Cairo and Khartoum. However, they made little or no progress towards reaching an agreement on the technicalities of filling and operating the dam. In October 2019, the impatient and the “all to me” el-Sisi dragged the US government into the GERD negotiation believing the Trump Administration would favor Egypt. Well, as expected, the US didn’t disappoint el-Sisi. After four months of US led negotiations, the US treasury Department imposed on Ethiopia the shorter version of the 1929 Nile agreement. 

Currently, Egypt wants to go wherever Washington takes it because Washington seems to be ready to give everything Egypt wants. The Ethiopians have sensed correctly that if Washington is willing to give everything that Egypt wants, there is nothing left on the table for them. Besides, Washington or Egypt, when it comes to imposition, the only imposition Ethiopians allow is self-imposition. So why would Ethiopia go to Washington again unless Washington becomes a mediator, not a Pharaoh maker! An impartial facilitator, not a one sided imposer!

For generations, especially, after colonialism, the Egyptians and the western world have totally forgotten that Ethiopia is the source of the Nile, and Egypt its destination. For the past 120 years all treaties on the use of the Nile were made based on this false conception of the Nile River, and almost all of the Nile treaties were made in the absence of Ethiopia, its true owner.  Ever since the news of the GERD became public around 2011, Egypt wanted to dictate the fate of the GERD referring everything to the 1929 Treaty.  I think it’s about time for the Egyptians to admit that the 1929 Nile River Treaty is a useless piece of paper whose only place is the trash can. Egypt must come back to the 21st century and acknowledge that Ethiopia is the source of the Blue Nile and it major tributaries. Hence, Egypt has no business of restricting the use of the Nile to the level of “a drop of water”.

We Ethiopians know the Nile is lifeline to the Egyptians, but this doesn’t mean everything that happens on the Blue Nile and its tributaries is decided in Cairo. The only time Egypt can talk about “a drop of water” on the Nile is only when the Nile River crosses its border and becomes the Egyptian part of the Nile River. For everything else, Egypt must respect international treaties and the national sovereignty of the Nile riparian countries. Ethiopians must know which I strongly believe they do that, a development project on the Blue Nile must not cause significant damage on the people of Egypt. The Egyptians should also know the difference between “significant damage” and building a dam on the Blue Nile River. It is this deference that Egypt and Ethiopia should negotiate and come to a common understudying. I strongly believe all differences on the use of the Nile can be negotiated, and any option other than negotiation would damage Egypt more than Ethiopia!

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