Dejen Yemane Messele
Addis Abeba, February 26/2020 – In an unexpected turn of events, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Water, Irrigation & Electricity said today that Ethiopia will not take part in the upcoming trilateral GERD talks with Egypt and Sudan, which was scheduled to take place in Washington D.C. on February 27-28. The Ministry said it was skipping the next talks because it did not finalize the ongoing discussions with Ethiopia’s country team of experts.
Ethiopia has traveled extra-miles to accommodate the downstream concerns towards the construction of its giant hydro-power dam. Its historical approach to the use of the Nile waters is consistent and bases its principles on the equitable use of the water.
Egypt’s appeal to the world power: Deliberate Escalation
Writing and agreeing on the terms and conditions of guidelines in the first filling and annual operation of the GERD could never take such a deadlocked phase of negotiation had Egypt been a good faith negotiating party. But it intentionally escalated the dispute by appealing to the world and regional powers. The appeal can fairly be taken as intentional escalation because the subject of the ‘dispute’ has no such a weight when we closely scrutinize it. Above all, there was no serious dispute on the filling and operation of the dam that could not have been resolved through the existing trilateral technical talks. It was open for crafting a technical guideline to regulate the first filling and annual operation of the dam, which could have been done by the simple proposal of the dam owner and with a joint discussion of the three states in good faith. But Egypt has twisted the issue and transcended it into becoming the Blue Nile dispute and appealed for external intervention by the US government and the World Bank. This was erroneous move since the Nile dispute is not only a dispute of the three states, but one that concerns all the basin states which have already adopted the cooperative framework agreement.
Away from this normal process, Egypt wanted to achieve its interests through external pressure, which complicated the negotiation process. Egypt’s appeal to the United Nations General Assembly and to the United States by misrepresenting the facts has directly and indirectly contributed to the deadlock.
Diplomatically, it was difficult for Ethiopia to decline the invitation by the US government and has therefor joined the negotiation. But that too was not sustainable due to Egypt’s ever changing proposal for increased concessions. It was obvious that, despite widespread fear by Ethiopians that their government would be forced to sign an unfavorable deal, Egypt’s extreme position and Ethiopia’s determined stance not to concede more than what it did would lead to a no deal ending.
But, beyond skipping the latest negotiations much effort is still needed from the Ethiopia’s side to complete its side of the deal without caving into a third party intervention. Filling and operations of the dam are naturally the mandates of the dam owner and the dam owner is expected to fill and operate the dam in a way not to cause a significant harm against other riparian states. The reason why the GERD issue traveled this far is due mainly to the hydro-hegemony struggle from Egypt’s side.
An attempt to write a comprehensive agreement
Since the negotiations are initiated on the bases of the 2015 Declaration of Principles (DoP) the objectives of the ongoing negotiation must be an adoption of “guidelines and rules for the annual operation of GERD.” To adopt this guideline the negotiating states should strictly follow the procedures provided in the DoP. The procedures must be led by the principle of good faith to which the three countries have agreed on the DoP. They should cooperate to implement the recommendations of the international panel of experts (IPoE); respect the final outcomes of the Tripartite National Committee (TNC) Final Report on the joint studies recommended in the IPOE Final Report throughout the different phases of the project; utilize the final outcomes of the joint studies, to be conducted as per the recommendations of the IPoE Report, and agreed upon by the TNC, to agree on guidelines and rules on the first filling of GERD.
But, although Dr. Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy, assured Ethiopians that the ongoing negotiations with the presence of the US and WB were being undertaken within the framework of the DoP, Ethiopia’s negotiating team has been put under immense pressure by the US and officials of WB, contrary to the letters and spirits of the DoP.
The attempt to write a comprehensive agreement which includes filling, refiling, long-term operation, and mitigation strategies are the source of the deadlock. These subjects of negotiations do have a direct and indirect implications on the water allocation of the Nile River. The three countries have no mandate to agree on the water allocation of the Nile river unilaterally. Any water allocation, as has been done in the 1959, made in the exclusion of one or more riparian countries will never remain valid under the customary international law of transboundary watercourses. The three countries mandate to negotiate on is limited only to the first filling and annual operation of the GERD, no more no less. Without this, looking for a balanced agreement is a jeering.
Convince the “observers”to quit the process
Ethiopia should attempt to distance itself from the observers-turned-negotiators in order to reach at an agreement on the first filling and annual operation of the dam. Ethiopia should make it clear that any volumetric indication in the filing and operation of the GERD would cause instability among the 11 riparian countries which could escalate into a threat to regional peace and security. Negotiations between the three countries should instead focus on reaching an agreement only on the first filling and annual operation of the dam. This task can smoothly be done by the three countries if Egypt drops its implicit intention of signing a mandatory water allocation treaty.
All stakeholders should share this burden of convincing the observers. The Ethiopian government, intellectuals, the African Union Commission and other riparian countries can play a role in this . The African Union Commission should pay attention to this fast-rack negotiation and possible cause of conflicts in the North Eastern Africa.
The eight other riparian countries too should express their concern on the ongoing negotiation with an implication of a mandatory water allocation which betrays the efforts that had been invested to adopt the cooperative framework agreement on the sustainable water utilization among all riparian countries. They can address their concern to the three negotiating states, to the African Union Commission and the United States. Ethiopian fellows should also know that irrespective of our reservations in the internal politics this is the decisive time to stand together to defend our sovereignty in a civilized and diplomatic way. We have to avow our voices in all mediums.
But beyond that Ethiopia’s rightful decision to skip the latest round of talk in Washington D.C. should not be a one time off decision and must be supported by the other two countries: Egypt and Sudan. After terminating the Washington process the three countries should proceed to return to the technical talks under the framework of the DoP and discuss on how to adopt the guideline on the first filling and annual operations of the dam and should let the water allocation issue for the cooperative agreement framework. If they build trust, Ethiopia may unilaterally prepare the guideline and submit it to the downstream countries for approval. In the preparation of the document all countries should avoid controversial terms of “drought, prolonged drought and prolonged dry years” which have implications on the water allocation and long-term operation of the dam, and which, in the likely event of not being met, could ignite conflicts.
The very objective of the guideline should be limited to the amount of the water to be released during the first filling and annual operations of the dam. To ease the preparation of the guideline making reference to acceptable professional recommendations might of help.