Aklog Birara (Dr)
“While we are willing to share Abbay/ the Blue Nile waters that God has endowed Ethiopia and its people with our neighboring friends, our primary obligation is to use it for the security of our people; and to harness it for the welfare and development of our growing population and its growing economy.”
Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (Translated from Amharic)
In my previous commentary on Ethiopia’s legitimate and sovereign rights to harness its waters for the security and development of its increasing population and its growing economy, I provided human development indices comparing Egypt and Ethiopia. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is justified on both national security and developmental grounds.
It is sheer madness to contend as Egyptian do that the welfare of Ethiopia’s 120 million people are less important for peace, stability and security than that of Egypt’s 100 million people who have benefitted immensely from Nile Rivers for thousands of years. It is time for equitable and mutually beneficial utilization of Nile waters
Emperor Haile Selassie recognized rightly that Ethiopia is willing and ready to share its waters with friendly neighboring countries including Egypt and the Sudan. Against this willingness on the part of Ethiopia to share is Haile Selassie’s government avowed commitment that Ethiopia must first and foremost fulfil its obligations to its own people. The fundamental premise and framework for fulfilling this national commitment to harness the River Abbay/Blue Nile for development was thus established long before the current government took power.
It saddens me that Egypt and its technocrats refuse to accept fairness and equity. It is alarming that there is even a dramatic escalation of the conflict, including a “last call” to the global community to intervene. Ethiopians and the rest of Black African, especially, riparian nations need to ask what comes next?
On Tuesday, May 12, 2020, Mostafa Ahmady, a former Egyptian press and information attaché stationed in Ethiopia wrote the following alarm bell.
“It has been almost a decade since Ethiopia launched the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile, triggering tension with downstream Egypt and Sudan over their future quota of the Nile waters alongside the dam’s permanent adverse effects on the livelihood of their peoples. Persistently, Egypt has been eager to strike a win-win deal based on honoring “historical” water agreements and considering the growing “humanitarian” needs of its 100-million people who cannot afford, now or in the future, to lose a single cubic meter of their 55.5 billion cubic meters (BCM) of the Nile. Though Egyptians are already below the water poverty line, their government has been “flexible” enough during the lengthy marathon of talks with water-resourced Ethiopia to reach a fair compromise in which Ethiopia’s right to utilization of the Nile for generating power is respected while Egypt’s right to “life” is never jeopardized.”
This absolutism that Egypt “cannot afford, now or in the future, to lose a single cubic meter of 55.5 billion cubic meters of the Nile” is the core Egyptian agreement. By highlighting this over and over again, Egypt wants the world community to force Ethiopia; and by extension, other Sub-Saharan African riparian nations to accept its 1959 colonial hegemony over Nile waters on black Africans, including Ethiopia. Is this a “win-win” formula? Not all; it is continuation of Egyptian hegemony over the Blue Nile.
This absolutist Egyptian position is intended to ensure that Ethiopia will never ever build irrigation and other dams within in its own national boundaries. Just imagine the vast implications of this horrendous and dangerous Egyptian position.
If Ethiopia is forced to accede to Egypt’s “natural and historical rights” over the Abbay River/the Blue Nile, it will permanently abdicate its sovereignty, territorial integrity, security and hard-won independence as a nation. There is no doubt in my mind that such inconceivable abdication will derail Ethiopia’s socioeconomic transformation and undermine poverty alleviation.
I should like to remind the Egyptian government and the global community that Ethiopia’s national determination to harness the Abba River/the Blue Nile and other rivers was restrained by the following factors:
- Ethiopia’s lack of domestic financial resources;
- The refusal of multilateral such as the World Bank and bilateral donors to finance irrigation and hydroelectric dams; and
- Egypt’s continued aggressive and insidious machinations, proxy wars and diplomatic offensives.
Things have changed dramatically and irreversibly since then. Ethiopia is one of the most rapidly developing nations in the world. It is a hub and home of the African Union, numerous UN and regional agencies and a diverse group of embassies and consulates. Its capital city serves as a major Pan-African and global air transport artery. Ethiopia is the second most populous nation in Africa. Seventy-five (75) percent of Ethiopians are under the age of 33. Ethiopia’s human resources capital, and with this, the aspirations of its youthful population continue to expand at a considerable rate. Ethiopians are committed to the GERD.
Donors should appreciate the notion that most of Ethiopia’s young people do not want to rely on government jobs or on foreign aid. They aspire to establish their own private businesses. This is in the interest of the global community. It will have a ripple effect in the region.
Ethiopia’s domestic capital base and the income generating capacity of the population are increasing at a rapid rate. Although COVID-19 has restrained the inflow, large numbers of Ethiopians have begun returning to Ethiopia. Remittance flow from the Diaspora is considerable. It is certainly larger than Official Development Assistance (ODA) and export earnings combined.
This is the reason why Ethiopia is able to mobilize and finance the GERD. Ethiopians are also heavily involved in the modern services sectors, in construction and establishment of manufacturing and industrialization process. There is a huge untapped potential in poultry, livestock, vegetable and fruit farming, and other modern farming sectors and subsectors. A prosperous Ethiopia is in the interest of the global community.
All of these and more require massive investments and rapid modernization of physical and social infrastructure investments. Hydro power electric generation is quintessential in order to fuel manufacturing and industrialization; and to supply electricity to Ethiopia’s rapidly urbanizing population. Egypt knows the benefits of hydropower. So, why prevent Ethiopia from getting its fair share from its own waters?
Ethiopia’s huge investment in the GERD is consistent with its own poverty alleviation agenda and priorities. It is also in line with the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals in general and sustainability in particular were furthered strengthened under the auspices of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Governance, 2015. The U.N. and the Forum underscored the following principles that Ethiopia is trying to implement:
1. Poverty reduction and human well-being shall be pursued in the context of the protection of the Earth’s life-support system (planetary boundaries).
2. The SDGs should be based on the interwoven nature of the three dimensions of sustainable development through a nested or “triple helix” approach, implying that all dimensions are inseparably connected.
3. The SDGs should be construed in the context of planetary well-being, in their global, regional and national dimensions, as well as the concepts of sustainable consumption and production and natural resource management, thus considering values that represent safe limits for climate change; rate of terrestrial and marine biodiversity loss; interference with the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles; stratospheric ozone depletion; ocean acidification; scarcity of clean freshwater; destruction of land etc.
It is vital for Egyptians and for the world community to appreciate that the GERD is not an ornament. It is a project designed to alleviate poverty. One critical and essential social dimension of poverty reduction in any country is the provision of electricity to Ethiopia’s millions who remain underserved.
For example, poor Ethiopians who are forced to collect dung and to cut trees to fuel homes and to cook will be in a better position to revert to electricity; and to save their environment. The supply of electricity is socioeconomically transformative. This contributes to the global effort in mitigating climate change.
I find no socioeconomic, ethical or moral rationale that tells me that 100 percent of the Egyptian population should enjoy electricity generated by Nile waters while millions of Ethiopians who live and are dependent on the Abbay River/ the Blue Nile —the origin of the bulk of the waters of the Nile—should continue to live in darkness. This position is not tenable.
I was born and raised in the highlands of Ethiopia, roughly 40 kilometers from the Guna MOUNTIN that is essential for the ecosystem of the Abbay River/the Blue Nile. Centuries of over grazing around the mountain valleys, the clearing of woods and brushes and the cutting of indigenous trees for charcoal, fire wood and to build homes have degraded the environment. Restoration and systematic reclamation are therefore a priority not only for Ethiopia but also for the global community.
I say this for a reason. The degradation of the ecological system in the Ethiopian highlands where there is fragility affects all rivers and lakes, the Abbay/Blue Nile and Lake Tana among them. Sadly, the contentious debate on the GERD ignores the ecosystem entirely. Egypt should be weary that the Nile might perish.
At the same time, I should like to underscore a gaping hole in Ethiopian society in terms of teaching and awareness raising with regard to Ethiopia’s natural resources assets, its heritage sites and their socioeconomic values. Growing up, I knew about the Abbay River and Lake Tana; but nothing more. Most of my generation took it for granted that both will be there forever.
In contrast, Egyptian governments and society have done an outstanding job teaching children and adults alike, albeit wrongly, that Egypt owns the Nile. Successive regimes have also succeeded in mobilizing artfully and systematically and in persuading the global community to believe that the Nile belongs to Egypt and Egypt alone. This paradigm of thinking has shaped Egyptian policy at an enormous cost to the Ethiopian people. It is this same call that is dangerous for peace and stability in the entire Africa and the Middle East today.
Egypt and the rest of the world community must appreciate and accept Ethiopia’s efforts to build irrigation and hydroelectric dams within its own national boundaries with a singular view of alleviating poverty have not come to fruition thus far because of Egyptian arrogance, intransigence and aggressive behaviors and actions. Such a doctrine undermines peace.
Let me summarize this commentary. The cartoon by a Sudanese national of the cow (the Nile River) on the first page of the commentary in the first of this series depicts clearly and graphically that the Nile cow has been milked primarily by Egypt and secondarily by the Sudan. This depiction shows a historical anomaly, injustice and inequity that must be redressed by this and succeeding generations of Ethiopians and by other Black Africans of riparian nations at any cost.
It is clear from the cartoon that an impartial observer can and should discern that the translation of the “Gift of the Nile” has been wrongly interpreted by generations of Egyptian governments and society as bestowing Egypt a “natural right.” This misleading interpretation of the “gift” was later enshrined in the form of “historical rights” in 1929 and then beefed up and strengthened in 1959 three years after Sudan gained its independence from the British Empire.
These agreements between Egypt and the Sudan with facilitation from the British Empire were conducted by excluding the independent nation of Ethiopia and the other Black African riparian states that were still under colonial control. This is patently unfair and unjust. Today, it is this colonial Agreement that Egypt wishes the world to accept and to impose on Ethiopia.
I shall show in the next series that the Egyptian skewed definition of a ‘win-win’ formula is simply continuation of Egyptian absolute hegemony over Nile Waters in perpetuity. It is therefore is dangerous
I shall also provide a sample of best practices on Transboundary river use and sustainable management that Nile Basin countries ought to consider.
The author Aklog Birara was former Senior Advisor at the World Bank. He can be reached at email@example.com Mobile 301-814-0340
May 14, 2020