By A.T. Abera
July 19, 2021
The completion of the second-year filling of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) instigates polarized views between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. Mainly Egypt sees it as proof of Ethiopia’s unilateralism and thus is a deal-breaker in the trilateral talks; for Ethiopia, this process is technically inescapable, legally accurate and proof of a veracity that calls for total change on the current regime on the Nile.
Both countries have to struggle to cope with the new reality facing the negotiations on the GERD. As much as Egypt and Sudan sees this process as a violation of international law and thus appear to lose interest in a negotiated settlement; they would also see that the possibility of securing the type of agreement that could even remotely recognize existing water use aka historical rights may have been lost. Ethiopia may also have increasingly little or no incentives left to ink a binding agreement on a project that nears completion.
The trilateral negotiation had gone through several hiccups since it started a little less than a decade ago. Many issues are settled in the process but some critical ones have continued to linger jeopardizing the completion of the process. To surmount these concerns, several proposals and adjustments were made. The numerous efforts did not, however, result in a negotiated settlement to the dispute. What is presently tabled by the African Union as a phased approach will likely fail as it will run into the same set of issues that have always been threatening the talks to crumble.
In what appears to be an oblivion to the magnitude of the changes on the ground; Egypt and Sudan have continued insisting on a change in format that includes an enhanced role for observers, a UN Security Council resolution that urges a six-month timeframe, and the interruption of the now complete second-year filling of the dam. Several threats have also been made to pressure the Ethiopian government into signing a deal that it openly says doesn’t protect Ethiopia’s interests. None seems to have worked.
It is not very hard to predict that a repeat of already tried remedies will not result in a negotiated agreement that takes into consideration the interests of the three parties. With the second-year filling of the dam complete, the trilateral negotiation is facing an unprecedented challenge that could only be addressed through a paradigm shift. Accordingly, seven points are presented and discussed in this article for consideration.
Redefine and reorient than revitalize the current negotiations
The current negotiations as they stand or a phased approach as proposed by the current chair of the African Union, the Democratic Republic of Congo, that only attempt to revitalize the negotiations are stillborn. This is because, first, the main issue of the negotiations, filling, and operation of the GERD is not a major concern for Egypt and Sudan. Almost all of the issues related to the GERD filling and operation during filling are settled. However, for Egypt, any deal on the GERD phased or otherwise, which does not secure historical rights is a nonstarter. Second, the completion of the second-year filling of the GERD will have changed the reality on the ground that dwelling on the issue of filling and operation becomes outdated. Third, a phased approach would naturally lead to the thorny point of water sharing that Egypt is not willing to allow. Contrarily, water sharing is a sheer necessity that in its absence, a binding agreement that confuses GERD operation with water sharing will out-rightly be rejected by Ethiopia.
Therefore, if the AU-led process should bear fruit, the trilateral negotiations have to be redefined in terms of scope, objective, and content. Such an approach shall begin with the recognition that any agreement on the GERD is not a conclusive deal that can resolve the Nile quagmire. Any deal on the Nile necessitates frequent adjustments and follow-up that requires a friendly atmosphere for cooperation among the parties. For such a relationship to be established and thrive the three parties must, even if slowly, engage in trust-building, i.e. the main objective of the negotiations should be finding sustainable ways to build the necessary trust that helps to continuously engage in negotiations and exchanges to tackle obstacles. To achieve this, the scope of the current negotiations has to be boosted to include a broad spectrum of issues of mutual interest some of which are discussed in this article but several more can be identified with a concerted effort of the three parties.
Recognize, accept, and shelf the Nile dilemma – survival versus survival
Throughout the years-long process, the main obstacle to reaching an agreement has proven to be the issue of the conflict over historical rights versus tributary rights. This will continue to be a major impediment to reaching any agreement.
While addressing the Security Council on July 8, 2021, that convened to discuss the GERD upon the request from Sudan and Egypt, the Minister of water resources of Ethiopia asked a very powerful question. “Is Ethiopia allowed to drink from the Nile”? For Egypt, the answer to this question is an astounding “no”. Egypt has always maintained that Ethiopia can produce power, but it has to give a written guarantee that it will not consume even a drop from the Nile.
The contribution of Ethiopia from three of its major rivers accounts for more than 85% of the Nile River. This doesn’t only make Ethiopia a decisively important contributor but also increasingly dependent on the Nile. The Nile and its tributaries cover some 70% of the total area of Ethiopia and account for much of the country’s freshwater reserve. Besides this economic significance, the Nile is also interwoven in the psyche of Ethiopians. The Ethiopian elite is convinced that the Nile and Egypt’s attachment with this resource are at the backdrop of Ethiopia’s instability and poverty. Harnessing this menace of a river is a solution to Ethiopia’s long-standing predicament.
GERD carries a great promise in raising millions of Ethiopians out of poverty and bestow them access to affordable electrical power. Excluding the much greater economic spillover, the dam is estimated to generate over a billion dollars of annual revenue, which is a considerable GDP boost. The GERD by design and necessity is the people’s project, built by the dimes and nickels collected from the pockets of Ethiopians. These and other historical factors have also made the GERD the most uniting factor and project in a country that is once again redefining itself. However, despite its importance, GERD is only the first of many hydropower and other consumptive projects on the Nile and its tributaries. Therefore, restriction of sovereignty over the Nile as defined by Egypt is not acceptable for Ethiopia.
The Nile also has a significance of biblical proportions for Egypt. The multifaceted historical, symbolic, economic, political, and psychological claims and the nationalism attached to them outweigh any historic event or achievement of Egypt. According to some Egyptian modules, the economic impact of GERD alone will be too much to bear. The country is said to be dependent on the Nile for nearly 95% of its freshwater needs, i.e. all other sectors of the economy are in one way or another linked to this river. The sociopolitical and psychological factors are as great if not greater in importance. Egyptians have always been uneasy with the possibility that the Nile could be controlled by another riparian state and especially by one as decisive as Ethiopia. For many, the new reality that is in the making declares the decline of Egypt.
The GERD, therefore, is portrayed by one as a tool for reacquisition of natural rights, existential human development, national unity, and guard against external intervention and aggression while it is seen as a weapon of deprivation and displacement by the other. Assessing the trajectory, neither country will compromise on their strongly held positions. Therefore, candidly recognizing the difficulties attached to resolving this real and present dilemma and the political, economic, and psychological consequences attached to it coupled with a series of steps that weaken this strongly held position should be the first steps in addressing the survival vs. survival dilemma.
Accepting that GERD is not a reason for water shortage
The first and second year filling of the GERD will have attested that the project has so far paused no harm to Sudan or Egypt. This may assert that water quantity is not a concern during filling and is not a concern resulting from the new dam for the following reasons. First, the GERD is not a water-consuming project; it in fact hordes and preserves water during the rainy season, where water is in excess and releases regulated flow during the dry seasons. Second, considering power generation is impossible unless the water hits turbines and flows downstream, it is only a self-defeating paranoia that Ethiopia will use the dam to stop the flow. Hoarding excess water, and abet power production, even during drought, is a net loss for Ethiopia. Third, there is an excess amount of water in the system and particularly in Lake Nasser to satisfy Egyptian needs even if drought occurs during the filling process of the GERD.
This, however, is not meant to conclude that water shortage will not occur due to other natural and manmade factors in the three countries. Therefore, the negotiating parties should recognize that idolizing a shared problem of water shortage in the distant future will only debilitate the current capacity to cooperatively work and share responsibilities. GERD is the wrong tool to resolve issues that should be tackled in a more elaborate, continuous, and institutionalized approach.
Create abundance than scramble over scarcity
Conserving the Nile should be a shared responsibility of all riparian states. The focus on the output and ignoring what it takes to make it sustainable requires a paradigm shift.
Alarming studies and reports warn that most of Ethiopia’s water resources are in danger due to climate change, erosion, and population growth. The Haramaya Lake, which was located in the Eastern part of the country was around 9 meters deep and covered no less than 16 square kilometers before it completely dried out just a few years ago. Lake Ziway, located in the Rift valley, is also quickly depleting. Studies show that Lake Abijata, another of the rift valley lakes, that covered 194 square kilometers some 50 years ago, now stands at an alarming 90 square kilometers. Researchers in the field warn that if this trend continues the two lakes may be the forerunners of many more lakes that will dry up in just a few decades.
Lake Tana, often referred to as the source of the Blue Nile, is also facing several challenges including a foreign weed that is incessantly colonizing it. Persistent deforestation of surrounding mountain ranges is increasing the amount of soil that is washed off and deposited into the Lake. Sudan is fast approaching inhabitable status as a result of the extreme impacts of climate change.
Increased use from the growing population in all the Nile Riparian countries coupled with other natural and manmade factors is increasingly depleting Lake Tana and other water banks that unless urgent conservation measures are taken will jeopardize the Nile as a river. Averting this challenge requires a concerted domestic and regional effort.
The Green Legacy is Ethiopia’s response to mitigate the climate change and environmental degradation challenges. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister has publicly invited Sudan and Egypt to join in the effort to safeguard the waters of the Nile at least on two separate occasions including on June 8, 2020, and recently in July when he addressed the House of People’s Representatives.
The invitation could have dual utilitarian and symbolic importance. Apart from sustaining water flow, this invitation could, if accepted, symbolize good neighborliness, solidarity, and shared destiny that could offer a chance to change the dynamics. The planting of trees in many different civilizations symbolizes values of life, growth, fertility, power, regeneration, protection, wisdom, overcoming hunger, tranquility, and so on. Many different communities across the globe are known to come together to plant trees as much as planting trees brought people of different political and cultural inclinations together. Trees are a symbol of a promise of a better future and an expression of communities’ commitment to care for current and future generations.
It may be high time for Egypt to officially and positively respond to Prime Minister Abiy’s invitation. The Prime Minister did say, if we have neighbors of goodwill, they must join us in our environmental protection bid by planting trees. Conserving and protecting the Nile could be mutually beneficial to Ethiopia and Egypt by transforming their relations to sharing of abundance than scrambling over scarcity.
Abating mutual hostility
Despite the officially shared view that differences on the GERD can only be resolved through dialogue; several government officials, local media outlets and think tanks, etc. are focused on selling stubborn political views, doomsday scenarios, and hardliner stances on the negotiations on the GERD.
The verbal and material threat that Egypt tries to sell to the East Africa Region and the international community; the unabated diplomatic pressure through the Arab League and using the geostrategic importance of Egypt to buy heightened tension have pushed Ethiopia into unchecked suspicion. Ethiopian response to aggressive diplomatic and at times military approaches is met by a strong defensive stance. Instead of lowering the tone, both sides have continued with the high-pitched hostility.
Such hostility has so far benefited none of the negotiating parties in achieving their goals on the Nile. It will only likely continue to drive both sides down the path of little to no cooperation. There has to be a genuine recognition of the untoward impacts of hostile approaches and a commitment to abating mutual hostility. This should give the people of the three countries a chance to adjust to current realities and focus on a shared destiny of peace and cooperation.
Ethiopia should take up its responsibility as the new Nile power
While Ethiopia has always been the source and major contributor to the Nile waters, its prominence as a Nile power is only in the making. Notwithstanding that Ethiopia has a long way to go in taking up the heavy responsibility that came with its incoming status, the responsible and mature manner in which the implementation of the GERD project and the negotiations around it has been conducted is amenable. Having a decisive and game-changer role on probably the most politicized and monopolized river in the world will require Ethiopia to make major political, educational, conservational, institutional, and diplomatic adjustments to shoulder leadership responsibilities in the sector.
The Nile states will need the leadership of Ethiopia more than ever. The era of diplomatic protests over issues related to the Nile by Ethiopia can no longer be enough. Ethiopia should abet proposing ideas and push forward with proposing projects that will be implemented in collaboration with riparian states. Ethiopia should take up the lead in making the final push for the Cooperative Framework Agreement to be in effect. Further investment has to be made to share the fruit of the GERD across the region and beyond. Ethiopia must commission another mega hydro project and invite investment by riparian states. This project could also be a conservation project that should be openly and publicly presented to Sudan and Egypt. Ethiopia should take up its responsibility in masterminding implementation of cooperative regional and basin-wide projects.
Investing in other aspects of the relations
The relationship between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt is rich. With an astounding well-recorded history of mutual recognition for more than 1,500 years, between Ethiopia and Egypt is one of the longest, critically strategic, and colorful of relations. However, these historical, cultural, religious, geostrategic, and business bonds are often sacrificed at the altar of the Nile.
As of late, not much can be said to have been registered in terms of fostering amity. What would have been a useful input in mellowing down the differences in the trilateral negotiations, has been abandoned thereby aggravating legal and technical differences into the realm of political, business, people-to-people, and even military friction. This is the result of a heightened and accumulated sense of suspicions that lead the countries to the conclusion that working on other aspects of the relationship will either bear no fruit or gives the wrong signal of complacency.
As hostile as the current state of affairs may appear, these countries have long-standing and well-established mechanisms to strengthen bilateral cooperation. Several bilateral agreements in many different sectors were signed. These include agreements outlining cooperation on trade, investment promotion, exclusion of tariffs, agriculture, livestock, health; education, etc. The countries also have a regularly convening Joint Ministerial Commission. The business-to-business and the people-to-people aspect of the relations that are increasingly becoming stagnant could have attenuated hostility. The Twining of cities and institutions could also help revive the scanty trust. Resuscitating these mechanisms and reinvigorating other aspects of the relationship will help in making the negotiations on the Nile more palatable. The three countries should seriously consider nurturing their relationship both at bilateral and trilateral levels.
To conclude, the most amicable formula that has so far been seen as most applicable to resolving the GERD concern has been a phased approach that begins with an agreement on the GERD filling and operation rules to be followed by a water-sharing agreement. In this article, we attempted to show that the second-year filling of the GERD without an agreement has made the incumbent approach obsolete. The African Union-led trilateral negotiations have to leave behind revitalization efforts and go through a paradigm shift that abandons the deal-breaker issue of water sharing and focuses on more comprehensive cooperation on areas of mutual interest.
The starting point for redefined trilateral negotiations should be to recognize that the unbreakable bond among the three countries requires a long-term institutionalized approach that crosscuts multifaceted issues of common concern. The focus should be on a shared destiny and not on a waning agreement on a single project.