By Minga Negash, Seid Hassan and Mammo Muchie,
The 1929 Nile water allocation agreement that was signed by Egypt and the United Kingdom (which excluded Ethiopia and nearly all other upper basin countries) allocated 48 billion (65%) cubic meters of water per year to Egypt and 4 billion to the Sudan. The 1959 agreement between Egypt and the Sudan raised the share to 55.5 (75%) billion and 18.5 billion cubic meters to Egypt and the Sudan, respectively. This agreement also excluded all the other upper Nile riparian nations. Egypt wants to keep the colonial-era agreements and the 1959 accord. This unfair allocation of the Nile water enabled Egypt to construct the Aswan Dam and the two countries never cared to consult the upper riparian nations. As argued by Badr Abdelatty, a spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, Egypt wants to keep the status quo because it needs all the “assigned 55 billion cubic meters a year for vital use such as drinking, washing and sanitation needs” by 2020. This clearly indicates Egypt’s desire to secure its own Nile water-related benefits intact while at the same time denying other (Sub-Saharan) Nile riparian countries from using their own waters for alleviating poverty and enhancing sustainable development. Contrary to the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) that was formalized in 1999 that Egypt was a party to, it is now saying that any change to the colonial era agreement would be tantamount to affecting its strategic interests and repeatedly threatens to use all means available if Ethiopia continues to build the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Egypt continues to escalate the confrontation despite Ethiopia’s claim that the dam would have no appreciable negative impact on Egypt. Ethiopia, along with the other upper Nile riparian countries object the privileges that Egypt gave itself and consider Egyptian monopoly over the Nile waters as a violation of their sovereignty. In accordance to the 2010 Entebbe Agreement by the upstream countries, which included Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania, and now effectively Sudan and South Sudan), Ethiopia, therefore, insists on adhering to its plan and is forging ahead on constructing the dam.
In what follows, we use an amalgam of economics, history, law, security and environment factors to examine the Egyptian opposition to the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). We try to triangulate these factors hoping to contribute to the debate and gain insight into the current tension between Egypt and Ethiopia. We attempt to make a dispassionate analysis of the water sharing problem between upstream and downstream countries. Consistent with theory and real life cases, we surmise that water has been and continues to be the cause for conflict in a number of regions in the world and, unfortunately, water wars tend to be irrational, unsustainable and economically and socially destructive. Trans-boundary water sharing and pollution (environmental-ecological) problems are never resolved through hegemonies, militarism and ultra-nationalism.
Dissenting voices against mega projects such as GERD are not new – the criticisms ranging from cost and scheduling overruns (as a recent study by Ansar, Flyvbjerg, Budzier and Lunn of Oxford University shows ), to their impacts on population dislocation, corruption, transparency in awarding of contracts, the manner in which such projects are financed, social and environmental impacts in upstream and downstream countries and water security concerns. Hence, Ethiopians may legitimately ask questions and raise concerns about the manner in which the Government of Ethiopia is handling the project. In this article, however, we focus on trans-boundary environmental problems, the fair use of the Nile water and address Egyptian concerns. This is important because the construction of GERD has reignited the long standing explosive issue of the equitable use of Nile waters. We also believe the recent (counterproductive) Egyptian threats of war and various forms of diplomatic offensives require the attentions of scholars of substance and policy makers.
Egyptian worries and aspirations over the Nile River system however is historical and goes back to the days before the formation of the Egyptian nation/state even though the issue began to dominate the country’s political landscape with the generation of militarism and ultra-nationalism (from Gamal Abel Nasser to the late President Sadat’s 1979 threat of war and to the current leaders of Egypt vowing not to lose a “drop of water).” The recent political instability in Egypt must have made the trans-boundary water sharing problem a point of political opportunism. Reports indicate that Egypt may indeed be laying the ground work to “destroy the dam before Ethiopia starts filling it with water or risk flooding Sudan’s flat eastern territories upon its destruction.” A WikiLeaks report is also known to have revealed that Egypt, in collaboration with Sudan, had plans “to build an airstrip for bombing a dam in the Blue Nile River Gorge in Ethiopia.” In its June 2013 analysis of Egypt’s military options, Straighter, a global intelligence organization indicated that the country does have military options against Ethiopia’s dam, but noted that distance will heavily constrain Egypt’s ability to demolish the work. The options, however, may include air attack from bases in the Sudan, Djibouti and Eritrea and/or sponsoring present day local “militants” to frustrate the construction of the dam. Obviously, Ethiopia is aware of the Egyptian options and its age-old aspiration to control the sources of the Nile River system. For example, on April 17, 2014, amid reports that Egypt was trying to woo South Sudan towards its dispute over Nile waters , the Voice of America reported that the President of South Sudan assured the Ethiopian authorities that the recently signed military and economic cooperation between Egypt and South Sudan would not allow Egypt to attack Ethiopia or allow subversive activities.
Egypt’s policy towards upstream countries is primarily driven by its interest on the water which aims at thriving at the misery of downstream countries, apparently without any form of substantive reciprocity. In contrast to the present day relationship between Egypt and Ethiopia, their ancestors, despite their limited knowledge of geography and hydrology, had a better understanding of the economics of water sharing. As the renowned historian Richard Pankhurst documented, the Turkish Sultan who ruled Egypt before the British, had “paid the ruler of Ethiopia an annual tax of 50,000 gold coins” lest the latter diverts the Nile. Nowadays, and not surprisingly, even the Egyptian Minister of Antiquities is against the GERD. In fact, institutional memories and abundant documents of the last sixty years indicate not only just the inconsistency, but also an immense level of damage that Egyptian foreign policy has done to Ethiopia and the Sudan. Egyptian interference in the two countries’ internal affairs has been largely driven by the Ethiopian and the Sudanese use of the Nile waters. For instance, Egypt objected the independence movement in South Sudan but promoted the separation of Eritrea and the creation of one of the most densely populated landlocked countries in the world. The international community is not unaware of these facts but Egypt’s strategic location and its pivotal role in the politics of the Middle East did not allow the powers to be to call a spade a spade. As of late, intergovernmental organizations like the African Union which were once mute about the behaviors of successive military rulers of Egypt, who often controlled political and economic power under the cover of phony elections and revolutions, have started to recognize the problems of the Nile River system. Ethiopia’s and the other upstream riparian countries’ rights to equitably share the waters of Nile is now an African agenda though key members of the Arab League continue to support the position taken by Egypt.
Ethiopia’s right to use the water that originates within itself would have included (and, in our view, should include), in addition to power-generating purposes, irrigation, water recreation and navigational services, flood control as well as water storage and supply. It is obvious, therefore, that dams provide valuable economic benefits. Just like any mega project, dams also involve several side-effects, which could be summarized as environmental and ecological, social (forced relocation of locals), economic and even political. Other concerns may include evaluating and managing the risks associated with dam construction as well as asking questions whether the product (GERD in our case) would provide the desired and needed benefits to stakeholders such as access to electricity. A reasonable framework of concern about dam construction, therefore, would include a thorough benefit-cost analysis, not just one-sided focus on the costs. This is our major concern in regards to environmentalists and some of their Ethiopian supporters who campaign against the 6000 MW dam.
The environmentalists refer to the GERD as a “white elephant,” despite the fact that the project’s leaked document, alleged to be prepared by International Panel of Experts (IPE) showing favorable financial and social benefits to Ethiopia and the Sudan. Environmentalists such as the International Rivers Network (IRN) need to, therefore, quantify the magnitude of the side effects of the project and should not rely on “covert” and “secondary” data. More importantly, rather than being the butterflies of potential conflict in the Eastern Nile region, they need to: (i) acknowledge Ethiopia’s sovereign rights to use its own resources in accordance to international law and without hurting downstream countries; (ii) identify mitigation strategies so that genuine concerns are addressed before the construction is finalized; and (iii) propose how the mitigation strategies are going to be financed. In April 2014, the California based environmental pressure group which is against any form of large dam that is proposed to be built in Africa and Asia leaked the 48 pages long confidential document that was prepared by International Panel of Experts (IPE) on Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam. Now that the confidential report is in the public domain, it allows everyone to put to test the concerns of both the friends and foes of the GERD.