What Would the Nile River Say? The GERD: Approaching the Basin (Part III)
By Amanuel T. Muhzun
GERD seeking fair international mediation
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has had a large international focus with reports about its advantages and disadvantages. In fact, the Project is quite big and is located in the highly sensitive watershed of the Nile Basin. This writer find it helpful to mention the many international efforts made in seeking mediation concerning the water dispute between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.
According to the Egyptian Al-Ahram online News and the Global Construction Review (GCR), the Arab League met in Cairo on October 12, 2019 and expressed its extreme concern in support of Egypt’s position over Ethiopia’s mega dam on the Blue Nile River. Soon after, the Arab League sent a letter to the Government of Ethiopia to announce its position in favour of Egypt. Furthermore, the Arab League had warned Ethiopia on 23 June 2020 not to start dam filling before agreement is reached with the downstream.
Nile issue influences the Middle East including Israel. It is not uncommon to say that some middle-east states glance over the Nile freshwaters because the Nile is the only potential river across Northeast Africa and the Middle-East. Although the Nile is causing consistent geopolitical pressure on Ethiopia, there is growing economic relations in trade and investments between Arab countries in the Middle East and Ethiopia. There are hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians and Eritreans who work for a living in the wealthy Arab states and Israel. At this juncture, the Arab League ought to play a sort of intermediary role in the GERD/Nile issue as not to let down Ethiopia by any possible means.
On October 23, 2019 in Russia, during the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin helped to refresh the relationship between President Abdel Fattah Al- Sisi of Egypt and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali of Ethiopia. Putin advised the two leaders to resolve their differences on issues surrounding the GERD Project in a round table.
Starting November 2019, several attempts were made in Washington DC to negotiate the dispute over the Ethiopian Mega Dam, which has been the subject of frequent arguments since the Project’s commencement in April 2011. High level representatives from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan were closely observed by the United States Treasury Department and the World Bank. USA President Donald Trump has met the Nile delegation a couple times in Washington. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had visited Ethiopia in February 2020, and the GERD was among the main topics of discussion.
Meanwhile, at the end of February 2020 there was a schedule for a final tripartite agreement in Washington to which Ethiopia did not send a delegation. Ethiopia had announced in advance that it needs more time to discuss and reflect on the issue with its own stake-owners in the country.
Nevertheless, in unexpected quick procedure, it was announced that Egypt and Sudan together with the USA Treasury Department have issued an agreement on how and when to fill the GERD. It was also said that the US warned Ethiopia not to start filling the dam before signing the document. In the beginning, when the extent of US President Donald Trump and his Treasury Department as well as the World Bank became the coordinating actors, many people were in biases.
Ethiopia has publically denounced the agreement by saying a provocative action, which was made without its consent and without its presence in Washington. The negotiation process was condemned by Ethiopian public for rushing their country to sign an official water treaty without a significant deal.
President Donald Trump had a telephone conversation on October 23, 2020 from the Oval Office in the White House with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdouk in regard to mending relations between Israel and Sudan. That inaugural communication was in the presence of high US officials and media personnel, soon after the US Government promised to remove Sudan from the lists of state sponsored terrorism and to lift sanctions. Eventually, Sudan was removed from the targeted lists in December 2020. President Donald Trump talked about the GERD during his emotional conversation with Abdulla Hamdouk by saying “Egypt can blow-up that Dam”. Although Trump’s confused statement sounds like the lack of hydrological understanding, it was reckless and a diplomatic failure in resolving the sensitive transboundary water conflict. Ethiopians across the globe together with the world community, including many foreign diplomats, have all condemned that wild statement of Donald Trump on the GERD.
Earlier to that shocking speech of Donald Trump, the US Foreign Policy report of August 28, 2020 and other media outlets had reported that the Trump Administration was hinting at cutting 130 million dollars from its foreign aid to Ethiopia as a penalty for filling the dam in unilateral decision, and of course to press this poor country into submission over the Nile water dispute with Egypt and Sudan.
Ethiopia has repeatedly expressed its sincere commitment to continue negotiate with Sudan and Egypt. Ethiopia had sought a fair involvement from the Trump Administration on the GERD dispute. The USA Government policy under President Joe Biden may continue supporting Egypt and Sudan for geopolitical reasons. However, the USA and other international mediators can help to alleviate the GERD dispute if approached with improved modality for negotiations.
Egypt has conveyed consistent diplomatic messages to other international powers besides the US, such as the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU) including special envoy to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Arab League, as well as many African Union (AU) member states in promoting its strong position on the Nile Basin that include the Ethiopian Mega Dam. According to the Middle East Monitor News of June 22, 2016, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi asked the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene and help solve the dispute with Ethiopia over the GERD.
Egypt, through its Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry wrote a letter of 17 pages dated May 01, 2020 to the United Nations Security Council that the country and Sudan oppose Ethiopia’s motive for filling the GERD. In response, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew sent a letter to the UN objecting to Egypt’s behaviour despite Ethiopia’s effort to satisfy Egypt.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the three Nile countries to resume trilateral discussion for an amicable agreement. The European Union has also delivered a similar message to the three Nile disputing partners at a later time. In response to the message of the UN Secretary General, there was a virtual meeting between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdouk and afterwards together with Egypt. It was said that the head of state of these three disputing partners had received the talking agendas from their water ministers for a trilateral decision.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during his visit in January 12, 2020 to South Africa had asked the country’s President Cyril Ramaphosa to intervene in the GERD’s issue with the downstream. Soon after, Ramaphosa became the chairperson of the African Union (AU) in February 2020. Basically, the AU has continental responsibility to condemn improper measures, and facilitate agreements.
Since the end of June 2020, President Ramaphosa and other international officials have had online virtual meeting with the leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to observe and mediate the trilateral discussions over the GERD on the Blue Nile Basin. The main difficult issue during the GERD negotiation process is that Egypt and Sudan want a legally binding agreement on dam filling procedures and annual operation rules, but Ethiopia wants to introduce nonbinding guidelines.
Pope Francis, the Head of the Roman Catholic Church, spoke about his concern during Holy Mass service from St. Peter Square in Vatican City, Rome. The Pope urged Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to continue peaceful talks over the GERD, according to the Associate Press report of 15 August 2020.
President Al Sisi of Egypt has expressed again his main concern about the GERD project when addressing the UN Security Council on September 22, 2020. On the other hand, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia told the United Nations clearly on his video statement of September 25, 2020 that his country has no intention of harming Egypt and Sudan. In reiteration, President Al Sisi spoke with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in mid of October 2020 and he reminded that Egypt is still ready for negotiations on the GERD.
On January 03, 2021, the three Nile countries of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan resumed the trilateral talks in attempting to reach a negotiated resolution on the GERD issues. Sudan has recently said that it wants a new dialogue modality to improve the negotiation process. The conference was by virtual communication in the presence of South African officials as well as other international observers.
According to the Arab News of February 2, 2021 from Cairo, the Arab League has issued a stiff warning to Ethiopia. The League said that Ethiopia must deal rationally to ensure the rights of Egypt and Sudan in the waters of the Nile.
Despite so many international efforts, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt are still at a standoff. They have failed to reach a conclusive agreement which was repeatedly mediated by the African Union, as well as observers from European Union and the United States. I think the AU is dealing with complicated behaviours and negotiation styles of the disputing parties lacking goodwill. Since February 06, 2021, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Felix Antoine Tshilombo has taken over the Chairmanship of the African Union for 2021. The new Chairperson of the AU may take over the mediation process of the GERD.
All those above stated important international efforts of intensive diplomacies and mutual frustrations of the disputing parties tell us that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) poses confrontational dimension that demand right approaches and alternative methods to exit the crisis. In my view, Egypt would not have to focus on the old water treaties or ‘preserve water rights’ approach as it may have the connotation of undermining the sovereign rights of other riparian states. On the other side, Ethiopia would not have to say equitable water shares as Egypt depends mainly on the Nile waters. Ethiopia will have to show more flexibility in dealing with the downstream, particularly in a long term water use. So, there is a reason to improve the negotiation modality. Technically, water experts with meteorological data could imagine how hydrological movements between the upstream and the downstream would look like as the result of the GERD.
When someone thinks about the consistent problems surrounding the Nile hydrology, Ethiopians feel historical resentment to Egypt’s meddling behaviours in their own affairs. Then, these three Nile countries are required to discover other alternatives and come up with new geopolitical ideas to accommodate their differences through international mediation. As such, this writer would like to suggest the international mediators to help Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea with new insights of a paradigm shift for a reliable peace and long term mutual economic interests in the Nile basin including the GERD; on the Red Sea region; and possible water endowment compensation to help Ethiopia. Those are the main approaches.
Help Ethiopia with water endowment compensation
We have seen the “Hydrological features of the Nile Basin” of which 84 percent is contributed from the Ethiopian soil. This poor country of a large population and prone to frequent drought calamities wishes to utilize its own waters within the Nile Basin for agricultural developments, hydropower generation and tourism.
We have also seen the “International water disputes compared to the Nile controversy”, which emphasises some important criteria such as: the rights of people to share or access freshwaters; the right to use ones-own natural resources; population density; a reasonable dependability on water resources; a no significant harm to others; equitable water share; the volume of water a riparian contributes, etc.
In regard to Egypt alone, agricultural economy with the help of the Nile Basin soil and water resource generates billions in US dollars annually. Millions of hectares of farm lands under Irrigation, freshwater for public consumption, industry, hydroelectric power and most of tourism rely on the Grand Nile. Egypt is said to have a large amount of oil reserve that shows the country to be more economically viable.
These Grand Nile would say to Egypt, ‘why don’t you give credit and support to Ethiopia which always feeds you with its fertile soils and freshwaters’. Then, Egypt would have to come with a continuous affordable financial means, rather than spending billions of US dollars for purchasing sophisticated armaments to subdue this poor country. The Nile Would Say the downstream ‘why continue the enduring conflicts and animosity, rather than sharing concerns with veracity and make some endowment payments to buy lasting peace and confidence?’ Thinking about give and take is blessing!
World populations are doubled, tripled, quadrupled, etc. As such, there is a propensity especially for international transboundary waters to treat resources as a low price commodity, or to be considered an affordable freshwater supply in the future. As difficult circumstances in using the Nile waters are growing, negotiated endowment compensation for Ethiopia from the downstream can be a supplementary option.
Therefore, Ethiopia would have to file a claim, appealing to Sudan and Egypt for water endowment financial compensation. In this regard, friendly discussion between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan will have to be initiated in the first place. The idea to establish an endowment system may have to be based on annual volume of water flow to the downstream. Very poor discharges in an annual hydrologic movement would have to be exempted from financial endowment rates. An assigned task group of international mediators/experts and economists may also approach the Nile downstream countries, appeal to some international financial organizations and countries in the Middle East to help organize funds for short and long term institutionalized water compensation packages to Ethiopia.
In addition to that new initiative, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan can ease water conflicts through trilateral coordination between some of their economies. It should be possible to make arrangements for economic cooperation, especially on pricing Nile agricultural products and other material swaps among each other. Such measures could help to overcome the prevalent problems of draught calamities, locust outbreak, poor harvest, and national instability.
It is important to recognize that Ethiopia has frequently sought thousands metric tonnes of wheat purchases and assistance from abroad to supplement its own people as the result of drought, and socio-political instability.
Sudan and Ethiopia are immediate neighbours which have to make arrangements between each other to administer their farm lands on their common borders and benefit both peoples. Ethiopia deserves credit and support for its potential waters flowing continuously into Sudan and Egypt.
Desalination and groundwater as well as hydropower alternative technologies
Renewable natural resources such as wind, solar, biomass and geothermal energy are in abundance in the countries of the Nile Basin. Various renewable technological developments have been made in many countries of the world to support hydroelectric plants, while reducing conflicts over freshwater utilization. Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia would have to place greater focus on other renewable technologies to support water based hydro dam energy needs.
Egypt is gracious for having its own territorial share on the Mediterranean and the Red Sea maritime regions, as well as huge amount of groundwater in vast aquifers. Egypt is trying to increase desalination plants and water recycling methods. Enough steps in groundwater use and seawater treatment technologies can mitigate freshwater shortages, or alleviate water problems altogether. In that manner, Egypt could relinquish a considerable amount of its lion share to reduce the burdens on upper-stream countries. Desalination processes for various daily water uses could also help Egyptian farmers to prevent agricultural lands from salinization of soil textures caused by salty water flooding due to the growing rise of sea levels. That is what the Nile River would say in recommending the large populated Egypt take substantial developmental steps for groundwater and seawater processing technologies to supply its growing needs.
It is obvious that such big innovative aquafer extraction and desalination technologies would require Egypt a huge amount of its own capital, or involve the international financial system in carrying investments. The capacity and commitment to establish desalination facilities is not an easy go task. Many places in India, Windhoek in Namibia and Cape-town in South Africa suffer from the lack of freshwaters and even use water recycling methods; although they all are located close to oceans. However, many countries in the world such as China, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Israel and Mexico have all established modern desalination facilities and making it drinkable to their populations. A groundwater resource is a freshwater and many countries in the world use it to supplement for various consumptions.
Population management and careful water consumption
construction of the GERD in particular and the Nile waters conflict in general should not be regarded as the main objects to blame a riparian nation or pointing fingers at somebody else. Obviously, the rapid increase of populations is contributing to ongoing scarcity in freshwater supply demanding substantial desalination technology and water purification systems. In addition to that, Ethiopia and Egypt in particular would have to deal with their own conservative cultures by establishing transparent laws for social and family planning to limit their population growth rates. Institutionalized ways of population control could be helpful not only for freshwater use purposes, but also to encourage adequate distribution of national economy, that include employment and social services.
Although Ethiopia is expected to be careful when using the Nile waters, Sudan and especially Egypt are the downstream countries which are fully responsible to control or take much more care of their waters in domestic distributions. They could advise and assist people about taking care of water consumption; reduce traditional agricultural practices and water-intensive crops, and use all water saving mechanism like sprinkler and drip irrigations; improve waste management systems that include clean garbage disposals plugging water ways; repair or replace old water utilization techniques such as canals, hydrants, siphons of hydraulic apparatus and other accessories to use freshwater efficiently.
Further reviews to Nile-CFA for common principles Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was formally attended in February 1999 by Water Ministers of all ten riparian states to discuss water share and related purposes. It was said that the World Bank had the motive to support the NBI in the manner of cooperation for economic developments. Many of the member states had finally reached the Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) in May 2010. Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and Burundi have signed the Document. However, the CFA was not even ratified by all those co-riparian signatories. The major consumers of the Nile River, Egypt and Sudan had several reservations in the process and both have rejected the style of the CFA, particularly Article 14 of the Document on water security. Egypt presents itself as having veto power on the Nile freshwaters, to which other riparian countries objected.
Further review to CFA for mutual principles and policies are important structural consensus to share hydrological concerns; avoid conflicts and promote integrated economic development; where bilateral, trilateral, and so forth cooperation could officially practice at a sub-basin level. Government authorities in the Nile Basin as well as technical experts would have to revise the Cooperative Framework Agreement and get it to full ratification by all member states. In fact, there has been strong competition between Egypt and Ethiopia, because each country sought to bring other co-riparian states under its influence, particularly, in the case of the Ethiopian Mega Dam/GERD.
The CFA would have to unanimously understand the obvious fears of Egypt for water security. It should be appropriate to allocate formally the biggest share of the Nile Basin waters to prioritize Egypt’s critical needs. However, the CFA may insist on equitable water use, and with the principle of “no significant harm”. The increasing populations and growing economies are demanding much more water in the Basin. Therefore, riparian states would have to consult their partners before starting water based projects.
Furthermore, insights to encourage desalination, groundwater and hydropower alternative technologies; as well as some endowment compensation especially to Ethiopia as the main water contributor with the biggest population in the Basin are essential steps to include in the Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement.
At mutually convenient time, it will be reasonable to revise or examine the following major points to arrange appropriate water allocation in the Nile Basin:
British Colonial Nile Treaty of 1902 with Ethiopia’s Emperor Menelik II when the country’s population was estimated between 10 and 15 million only. The 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty which allocated 48 billion cubic meters of Nile waters to Egypt and 4 billion to Sudan. The bilateral agreement of 1959 between Egypt and Sudan in allocate of 55 billion and 18 billion respectively. Of course, all Nile countries would have to agree to a legal water use framework, and facilitate those old water agreements from the point of view that Egypt and Sudan have much more critical water needs than any other riparian nations.
Article 44 of the Egyptian Constitution says that Egypt has historic rights to use and protect the Nile River. The fear is that, this national policy of Article 44 could push any Egyptian government in office towards using forceful pressure or improper measure against a riparian, especially during big water crises?
Therefore, it is important to make water use arrangements and correct any manipulative or possessive connotation to fully recognize the sovereignty of each Nile Basin country. There should be a legal avenue to denounce, or reform those old treaties and policies stated in the above through the International Court of Justice (ICJ), if the riparian states fail to reach a conclusive agreement.
Most importantly, Egypt and Sudan would have to get back to the ideals of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and join the cooperative framework process to make all-inclusive reviews for possible amendments and a conditional water use regulation. Formal negotiation is preferable to build full confidence between riparian on water use and it can bind nations from using armed conflict. These two Nile downstream countries are supposed to share the views of other Nile member states in a broader manner rather than ignoring this important matter.
Ethiopia’s water base economic development needs cannot be fulfilled without mutual understanding and cooperation from Egypt and Sudan. The downstream countries also have to recognize that there are considerable years of heavy rainfall in Ethiopia’s Nile basin causing deadly floods, particularly in Sudan. The abundant rainfall in the year of 2020 that caused a considerable destruction is quite evident.
If the GERD is not going to be completed soon, there is no doubt it will be associated with instability and high construction costs. Several destabilizing scenarios are possible, such as: inevitable public frustrations cursing the downstream countries; more pressure on the dam contractors and employees; high operation costs and low revenues; increasing engagement of Ethiopian government officials to have the Project survive.
Therefore, let Ethiopia fill the mega dam in four to five years without having to release water from its reservoir to the downstream in case of drought calamites. This country will have to have the rights to manage the GERD operations independently including the prospected benefits from the artificial lake reservoir. Mutual assent is very important to fill the dam reservoir successfully. Of course, hydrologists are aware of coordinating meteorological data and all major dam reservoirs on the Nile Basin to make crucial water arrangements, especially in severe droughts.
Having said those above key points, this upper-stream country (Ethiopia) will have to sign an official binding agreement of concession not to build new dams or weighable water related projects on the tributaries of the Nile for 40 to 50 (forty to fifty) years. Meanwhile, the downstream countries (Egypt and Sudan) will have to help Ethiopia with regulated water endowment compensation.
As Egypt fears Ethiopia may extend more interest in using Nile waters beyond the objectives of GERD Project, the latter must officially commit not to cause any significant harm over the downstream by delivering a signed agreement during a mediation protocol. Any Ethiopian government in office would have to respect the duration of the binding agreement. In such ambient environment, Egypt will recuperate water deficit with tranquility, and achieve great water security for several decades. Egypt and Sudan will have to get into unequivocal obligation or clear agreement to cease any hostility regarding hydrological fears against Ethiopia. Of course, all concerned parties together must hammer out the deals in a detailed and official manner respecting to international mediation.
Those clear approaches of binding elements should particularly help the GERD with peace of mind expecting no exposure to uncertain future. Increased productivity and the value of investment to this Hydro Plant, safety for power transmission lines and decrease security expenses expected to physically protect the dam, as well as other related benefits are very important.
Furthermore, international mediators such as the African Union, the Western World including the United States, the Arab League, China, etc. would have to help examine the water issues carefully and look at a long term game changer strategic perspective. Well focused mediators would have to help discover new avenues or improve the negotiation modality to alleviate the Nile/GERD controversy. Ethiopia needs help in economy to develop hydropower and irrigation schemes outside of its Nile basin, and to establish friendly water endowment compensation from the Nile downstream to support its poor economy.
This writer tried to analyze the contents in this long distinctive article with certainty and impartiality, including the need to achieve the GERD objectives as soon as possible. In line with the water issue, Ethiopia would have to avoid confrontation with Egypt to help its own national stability. Ethiopia and Eritrea must play the role to pave the way for strong cooperation between each other by facilitating the tough arguments over Nile waters utilization. Actually, Ethiopia has considerable water resources other than its Nile waters, versus Egypt in total dependence on the Nile River. And the conflict is basically about water, nothing else. Extensive seawater processing technologies and groundwater utilization may be possible in the future to make substantial supplement to these riparian nations of large populations. There is great importance to draw a peaceful and cooperative roadmap on the Nile waters and the Red Sea region to help generations.There should be mutual responsibility to settle in peace all the crises surrounding the GERD. In the right sense of cognitive or optimal thinking to share concerns, Sudan — Ethiopia — Egypt will have to conclude a reliable formal agreement through international mediation to help regional stability. If these three disputing riparian states are not going to reach a substantial deal through a moderated negotiation mode, none of the parties would have enough confidence in using the Nile waters efficiently. This confrontational water issue of polarized national interests in the African region may seek a strong international court proceeding. There are territorial sovereignty rights as well as international water laws and charters of security regulations that could bind nations for peace and common responsibilities.
Tributaries of the Nile River: Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedias; https://www.nilebasin.org
“Egypt and the Hydro-Politics of the Blue Nile River”, Article by Daniel Kendie, Henderson State University, (1999)
“Ethiopia & Eritrea Perspectives: Survival and Security in Geopolitics of the Red Sea”. Article by Amanuel T. Muhzun, Publication source https://www.hornaffairs.com, (July 2018)
Google: Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, https://www.ethiopian.gerd
“The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: The road to the declaration of principles and the Khartoum document”, Article by Salman M.A. Salman, (April 2016)
“Revisiting Hydro-Hegemony from a Benefit-Sharing Perspective: The Case of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”, Discussion Paper/Article by Rawia Tawfik, Bonn, German Development Institute, (July 2015)
“Understanding and managing new risks on the Nile with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”, Article by: Kevin G. Wheeler; Marc Jeuland; Jim W. Hall; Edith Zagona; Dale Whittington; Nature Research Journal, (October 2020). This 50 pages paper was written in October 2020 by five researchers. It analyses meteorological data patterns and hydrological capacity of the whole Nile Basin as to help develop water use platform. Common concerns on water management and technical matters were addressed in detail as how Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan would better coordinate each other to minimize impacts of drought or water stress on the Nile hydrology system. In this regard, a special focus was given to the Aswan High Dam of Egypt, the Rosaries and Merowe dams of Sudan, as well as the GERD.
Ethiopian Abbay Media Broadcasting, check on YouTube (Kings of the Nile)
Google: Wikipedia on international rivers
“International Water Conflict and Cooperation: Challenges and Opportunities”, Review Article by: Jacob D. Petersen-Perlman, Jannifer C. Veilleux & Aaron T. Wolf, (January 2017)
The role of large dams in transboundary water negotiations, By Geneva University Water Hub, (May 2019)
Desalination And Water Treatment Publications, (http://www.deswater.com)
We trust in the aspiration for reconciliation!
February 14, 2021
Amanuel Tesfaselassie Muhzun is an independent researcher trained in conflict resolution and negotiation. Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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