By DailyNewsUg Regional Correspondent,
The standoff between the Nile riparian countries Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the mega dam project by the latter has taken a new twist. The current US administration which has led over four months of negotiation over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has warned Ethiopia that “final testing and filling [of the dam] should not take place without an agreement” with Egypt and Sudan.
On February 27-28, President Donald Trump’s administration called for a fifth ministerial meeting of the three countries that commenced in November 2019. Requesting for more time for domestic consultations, Ethiopia failed to attend the meeting while Egypt and Sudan had bilateral meeting with the US Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. The US administration praised Egypt’s willingness to sign the agreement it prepared with the World Bank and recognised that Ethiopia was still consulting on the matter and need to sign as soon as possible.
Egypt has submitted a complaint letter to the UN Security Council in protest to Ethiopia’s plan to fill the controversial hydro-power dam project known as Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Ethiopia is set to begin filling GERD reservoir in June and July raising serious concerns from Egypt.
The water filling strategy for the dam has long been the most contentious issue and yet unresolved in the Nile talks between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.
According to local news agency, Ethiopian-Insider, Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs has submitted a 15-page complaint letter to the Security Council via Mohammed Endris, the Egyptian ambassador to the UN.
“Ethiopia’s unilateral filling of GERD before reaching a final agreement with downstream countries on the rules governing the filling and dam operation is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation between co-riparian countries that share an international watercourse and amounts to material breach of Ethiopia’s legal obligations” Egypt said in the complaint letter seen by DailyNews Ug.
Cairo warned that Ethiopia’s move potentially poses a serious threat to regional peace and security.
In a statement by US Treasury Secretary, the Trump administration has imposed three demands on Ethiopia: first, to ensure that “final testing and filling should not take place without an agreement”; second, to sign the agreement after finalizing the consultations; and finally, “the need to implement all necessary dam safety measures in accordance with international standards before filling begins.”
In response, Ethiopia has announced “as the owner of the GERD, [it] will commence filling the GERD in parallel with the construction of the dam, in accordance with the principles of equitable and reasonable utilization and the causing of no significant harm.” (2) This has attracted the attention of Egypt, which warned Ethiopia that it will “defend with all means available the interests of Egyptian people, their fate and future.” (3) The Egyptian media has depicted the dam as a proxy war by Qatar, Turkey and Iran in their regional rivalry since the rift in GCC. Israel has also been drawn in, with accusations that it is supporting Ethiopia by providing technology and military support in securing the dam.
Trump’s administration seems ready to use its diplomatic power including its departments and the World Bank to pressure Ethiopia to agree to some of Egypt’s demands. President Trump’s mediation initiative on GERD is unusual. Jacob Wirtschafter, a Washington Times journalist, has described the administration as “playing the unlikely role of peacemaker.”
The Sticking Points
Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have held tripartite negotiations over the Nile for the past seven years. The contention between the three countries has been over the use of the river and the GERD. Ethiopia asserts that the GERD will not harm Egypt. Egypt disagrees. Ethiopia avers that it is only claiming its right to utilize one of its resources for national development under international law of equitable use of transboundary water bodies. Egypt claims its rights under international agreements.
The sticking points include water security associated with the volume stored and stages of impounding the dam; dam safety; and water quality. The recent dispute over the definition of ‘drought’ and ‘severe drought’ is related to the filling and management of the dam and its implications for water security. Some of the claims are based on research evidence but others are nationalist ideology-based positions. Research has a place in the negotiations but little influence. However, strategic national interest takes more significance even for the US. Ultimately, these are enmeshed with policy sovereignty and international law.
Cognisant of the need to directly speak to his Ethiopian counterpart, President Abdelfatah El Sisi, in a live broadcast, asked Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to swear “before God and the people of Egypt” that he will not hurt their share of the Nile waters. Abiy responded, “We will take care of the Nile and we will preserve your share and we will work to increase this quota.” Yet despite these public assurances, negotiations have failed to produce an agreement. They have turned into zero-sum game with each country trading accusations against the other. Egypt fears the GERD portends water scarcity. But for Ethiopia and other riparian countries, the GERD is a symbol of assertiveness in reclaiming a share of the Nile water resource.
The Nile River Basin
The Nile is longest river in the world at 6,695km. It is shared by 11 riparian states, namely Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Egypt, Ethiopia, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Eritrea. The mean annual flow of the Aswan dam is 84 billion cubic meters of water. About 86 to 95 percent of the flow of water to the Aswan dam comes from Ethiopia. The largest freshwater lake, Victoria and the Sudd wetlands are located in this Basin. While the annual maximum precipitation is 2,098 mm per year in Ethiopia, there is almost no rainfall in Egypt that feeds into the Nile. The Ethiopian highlands are also a source of fertile soil sedimentation for irrigation and brick production in Egypt and Sudan. (5)
Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is Africa’s biggest hydroelectric project and the 10th largest in the world. It is a $5 billion project that was expected to increase the country’s hydroelectric power capacity fivefold by 2018. Commenced in April 2011, the construction of the dam was a source of controversy between Egypt and the other riparian countries.
With a reservoir area of 1,874 km2 the dam has a total storage volume of 74 billion cubic meters of water. Of these, 59.2 billion cubic metres will discharge water to the turbines. The dam wall is 145m high and 1,708m wide. According to earlier plan, its turbines can generate 6,000 MW of electricity and 15,692 Giga Watt hours of energy per year. (6) This is clean energy that will help mitigate the human impact on climate change globally and, according to an Independent Panel of Experts (IPoE), will benefit Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. (7)
Some observers argue that the GERD could lead to inter-state war between Ethiopia and Egypt. (8) Others downplay the potential for violent conflict over the GERD, contending that the dam could facilitate enhanced cooperation. (9) Very few consider that despite the possibility of conflict or cooperation, such changes in the exploitation of the Nile River resources are due to changing relations and the need to address long-standing unfair and hegemonic approaches to trans-boundary resource sharing. (10)
Rivalry over the Nile River has been one of the most stubborn impediments to peace and stability in the Horn of Africa, particularly for Ethiopia. For a long-time, Egypt has claimed its historical right to an annual quota of 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile waters. This claim has threatened Ethiopian water resources totalling to 86 percent of Nile waters.
In 1929, an agreement was signed between Egypt and the United Kingdom on usage of the Nile waters. Subsequently, in 1959, an agreement was signed between Egypt and Sudan that excluded all the other riparian countries. Based on the 1959 treaty, Egypt claims that it has an ‘historical’ and ‘acquired’ right to 55.5 billion cubic meters of water. Sudan was allocated 18.5 billion cubic meters. These two agreements excluded Ethiopia, the only independent country among the relevant riparian states. It is necessary to mention here that Ethiopia, which is the source of 85 percent of Nile waters courtesy of the Blue Nile and the Atbara, was allocated no water for its use under these treaties. If this fixed allocation of the total volume of waters is apportioned, Egypt would have monopoly over the Nile as, from time to time, the volume of water could fall to less than 80 billion cubic meters.
Since 1970, Ethiopia has wanted to develop the Nile waters. It first approached an American company to conduct an impact study of dam construction on the Nile. This so infuriated Egypt that the former president Anwar Sadat, threatened to attack Ethiopia. (11) As Sudanese scholar on water resources Salman Ahmed pointed out in a 2013 article, in the past five decades British colonial administrations and previous Egyptian governments followed a successful strategy of threatening and dissuading external financial assistance to Ethiopia and the other riparian states. They thereby weakened Ethiopia’s internal capacity to construct the dam. (12) As a result, Ethiopia was only able to finance the dam by mobilizing resources through domestic means.
Before the current progress could be achieved, Egypt used three strategies to impede Ethiopia’s plans to implement water development projects at the headwaters of the Nile: 1) threatening military action; 2) thwarting any external funding requests made by Ethiopia to develop its water resources using its diplomatic advantage and 3) destabilizing Ethiopia by encouraging neighbouring countries to do so and by supporting domestic rebel groups. (13)