As President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi pointed out, Egypt is almost exclusively dependent on the Nile for its water needs and an acceptable agreement is essential to avert potentially disastrous consequences for Egypt and its people. Not only did he sound the alarm for all the world to hear from the podium of the UN General Assembly, he put paid to the falsehoods Ethiopian officials have spread when they claim Egypt is seeking to block Addis Ababa’s development plans.
“We are not against [Ethiopian] development or the construction of dams, but this must not come at Egypt’s expense,” Al-Sisi said.
“We all want to live and grow. In 2015, we signed a framework agreement with the Ethiopians over the filling of the Renaissance Dam’s reservoir. Unfortunately, the technical committees have so far been unable to reach consensus on the issue.”
The president stressed the need to maintain Egypt’s current water quota and said Cairo preferred a policy of dialogue to ensure this. However, he added, “we are responsible for the safety of our people.
“No country exposes itself to the dangers of water deficiency unless it is weak,” he said, offering as illustration the example of Iraq which, until 1990, received around 100 billion m3 of water a year from transboundary rivers (primarily from Turkey) and now only receives 30 billion m3.
In meetings in the US on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last month, President Al-Sisi stressed that the failure of negotiations with Ethiopia will have detrimental consequences for development and stability across the region.
He appealed to the international community to help persuade Ethiopia to demonstrate the flexibility needed to reach an agreement satisfactory to all parties. Egypt had already demonstrated such flexibility, and while Cairo sympathises with Addis Ababa’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project its potential detrimental impacts on downstream nations have not been given sufficient study.
Egypt has proposed a draft for an agreement on a set of principles to govern the filling of the reservoir and operation of the dam but negotiations over the document have failed to produce results.
The Egyptian proposal calls for a seven- to 10-year timetable for filling the reservoir and for measures that would allow 40 billion m3 to flow through the dam annually and maintain a water level of 165 metres behind the Aswan High Dam. The proposal also calls for a reduction in the quantity of water diverted to fill the GERD reservoir in low flooding seasons and for a mechanism that coordinates GERD’s hydraulic system with the operation of dams in Sudan and Egypt so as to guarantee the latter’s production of electricity.
Ethiopian intransigence frustrated attempts to secure an agreement over this proposal in the meeting of the irrigation ministers from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia held in mid-September, and in the meetings of the independent tripartite technical committee and irrigation ministers in Khartoum held between 30 September and 5 October.
The Egyptian proposal offered equitable ground rules for filling and operating GERD. It respected Ethiopia’s electricity generating goals while safeguarding Egypt’s water interests.
The proposal was based on earlier Egyptian-Ethiopian discussions, most notably the commitments made in the Declaration of Principles, signed in Khartoum on 23 March 2015, which obliges the three parties to come to an agreement over rules for filling and operating the dam. Addis Ababa also rejected Egypt’s request to introduce a mediating party despite the option being included in the Declaration of Principles.
Ethiopia has persisted in its obstinacy despite the fact that Al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali agreed, in June 2108, to adopt a “joint vision” for the dam that would permit both countries to pursue their development goals without infringing on the rights of the other.
Earlier, in May 2018, Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa had agreed to create a 15-member scientific research group, with five members from each country, to study ways to strengthen understanding and cooperation between the three countries.
The group was tasked with drawing up different scenarios for filling and operating GERD, observing the principle of the just and prudent use of common water resources and the need to take all necessary precautions to avert any harm being caused to others. Sadly the experts were unable to reach an agreement.
No one disputes Ethiopia’s sovereign rights, or its right to bring electricity and potable water to every home. But GERD is being built on the Blue Nile, which provides 65 per cent of the water that reaches Egypt.
The Nile is a transboundary river, the Blue Nile one of its main tributaries, meaning no upriver country has the right to build a dam or undertake actions that will diminish or delay the flow of Nile water to Egypt and Sudan without their approval.
This principle is enshrined in international laws and conventions regulating transboundary watercourses, and in specific treaties signed by Ethiopia. The Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902, signed by Addis Ababa at a time when Egypt and Sudan were under British occupation, prohibited the construction of dams on the Blue Nile, Lake Tana (its source) and the Subat River (its southern tributary) without Egypt’s approval.
An earlier agreement — the 1891 treaty between Britain and Italy, the colonial power in Ethiopia at the time — prohibited any facility on the Atbara River (the northern tributary) that could impede the flow of the Nile. In 1929 Egypt and Britain, on behalf of its colonies in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Sudan, signed an agreement giving Cairo the right to veto any project that might diminish or delay Egypt’s quota of Nile water.
Addis Ababa claims it was forced to sign these treaties in the colonial era and they no longer apply. Under international law, though, they are agreements that must still be honoured. In 1992, Ethiopia and Egypt signed another agreement regulating cooperative use of Nile water in accordance with international law and in a manner that causes no harm to either side. It is an agreement Addis Ababa cannot claim it was “forced” to sign given Ethiopia had long been an independent sovereign state.
In signing the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles in 2015, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan committed themselves to agreeing on guidelines and rules for the filling of GERD and the annual operation of the dam that would ensure no reductions in water flow and water levels that could harm downstream nations.
They also agreed to establish a coordination mechanism to ensure the annual operation of GERD was coordinated with downstream reservoirs.
In signing the Declaration Ethiopia gave Egypt a written pledge that it would not cause tangible harm to Egypt’s historic rights to Nile waters. In exchange, Addis Ababa obtained Cairo’s and Khartoum’s approval of the construction of the dam pending the outcomes of the required feasibility and environmental impact studies as detailed in the final report of the tripartite technical committee and the recommendations of the International Panel of Experts concerning the measures needed to offset any possible detrimental environmental impacts or harmful reductions in the flow of Nile water.
The text commits the three countries to cooperate on the basis of international law, respect of the water needs of both upstream and downstream nations, and to take all measures necessary to prevent any significant harm from occurring to any of the parties. Should any harm occur, the signatories are obliged to take all measures necessary to eliminate or mitigate it and, where necessary, to discuss compensation.
Although all three countries signed it, the agreement fell short of both Egypt’s and Ethiopia’s aspirations. It contained wording they did not like and overlooked formulas that would have enabled the two sides to meet halfway.
It calls for the “equitable and appropriate” use of Nile waters, wording Ethiopia had insisted on and which is similar to the Entebbe Agreement that Egypt rejected because it advocated a redistribution of Nile waters among Nile Basin countries that overrode earlier Nile water agreements. It states that the parties should “respect” the recommendations of the international panel of experts rather than “commit to the implementation” of the recommendations.
Ethiopia had argued that the latter would impinge on its national sovereignty. The agreement does not explicitly mention Egypt’s quota but then nor does it state that this quota should be abolished. The agreement did not refer to cooperation over projects that could take advantage of the billions of cubic metres of rainwater that falls on Ethiopia only to be lost, nor address ways to compensate for any reductions in the flow of water during the initial filling of the reservoir.
As for disputes that might arise in the course of implementing agreements, the Declaration of Principles states that the three signatories will settle them through consultation, negotiation or mediation. No mention was made of possible recourse to and commitment to implement the rulings of international arbitration or the International Court of Justice.
Instead, it emphasises “good faith” and “understanding of the water needs” of the other parties, wording that renders implementation contingent on the interpretational whims of the parties and the nature of their relations with the other parties.
Egypt signed the Declaration of Principles despite its drawbacks. It wanted to demonstrate good faith and show that it trusted Ethiopia to meet its commitments. Some people criticised Egypt for being too trusting when it agreed to wording or provisions that facilitated possible Ethiopian attempts to evade its obligations and pointed to Ethiopia’s refusal to furnish any concrete guarantees that the dam would not cause harm to Egypt or Sudan as grounds for their scepticism.
Addis Ababa has said repeatedly that GERD will not affect Egypt’s Nile quota. Three years ago, the Ethiopian minister of irrigation stated that if two additional studies proved that GERD would harm Egypt and Sudan, Addis Ababa would come to an agreement on ways to mitigate the harm.
Yet Addis Ababa obstructed the studies by refusing to approve a plan submitted by the contracted French consultative firm. Cairo, for its part, submitted studies confirming that the dam, if completed in accordance with current specifications, would cause considerable harm.
The logical solution was to bring in international experts to resolve the differences and for all sides to commit to implementing their recommendations but Ethiopia refused to wait for expert opinions before beginning construction and since then it has refused to halt building work so the dispute could be resolved.
It is important to recall that, in 2010, Addis Ababa presented Cairo with a project for a dam that would be 90 metres high with a reservoir capacity of 14.5 billion m3. Before Cairo could even respond, Ethiopia began to implement a totally different design, raising the height to 145 metres and the reservoir capacity to 74 billion m3.
It also appears the development projects Ethiopia has linked to the dam will extend beyond electricity production. According to a number of reports, it plans to place four million acres of land (more than half of Egypt’s agricultural land) under cultivation using water it plans to deduct from Egypt and Sudan’s share.
Unless the water level remains at a minimum of 165 metres behind the High Dam during the period in which the GERD reservoir is being filled Egypt risks losing $1.8 billion of its GDP, more than a million jobs a year, and $300 million worth of electricity.
While the per capita share of water in Egypt is less than 625 m3 a year, the per capita share in Ethiopia is 38,000 m3. Whereas Egypt has only the Nile, Ethiopia has 12 rivers. Egypt gets less than 1.3 billion m3 of rainfall a year.
Ethiopia gets more than 800 billion m3, or 50 per cent of the total rainfall received by the 10 Nile Basin countries. When Egypt signed the Nile Waters Agreement with Sudan in 1959, Egyptians’ per capita share of the water was 2,500 m3. Today, Egypt’s population has reached 104 million. Its water quota has remained fixed, meaning per capital figures are 20 per cent of what they were 60 years ago.
Egypt was generous when it did not insist Ethiopia halt construction of GERD until studies confirmed the dam would not jeopardise Egypt’s historical water rights. In so doing Egypt made it possible for Ethiopia to receive foreign funding, which would have been prohibited given World Bank rules governing projects that are under dispute.
Egypt now expects Ethiopia to return the favour by eliminating the obstacles hampering the work of the tripartite committee and the committee of technical experts. Cairo has said many times it has no problem with development projects in upper riparian countries as long as they do not affect its share of Nile water. It approved the Waw Dam in South Sudan and even prepared the feasibility study for Juba. It approved the Owen Dam in Uganda.
But how can it approve a dam, currently under construction, which threatens to deprive it of two million acres of agricultural land and to cut electricity production at the High Dam by 25 per cent at a time? And this at a time when Egypt already suffers a water deficit, and Ethiopia can produce its electricity needs from smaller dams.
It is crucial Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia reach agreement over GERD. If they do not, the consequences for regional stability and development could be disastrous, as President Al-Sisi rightfully said. You cannot expose a people whose lives depend on the Nile to the danger of cutting off their water supply without this having an impact on stability, and you cannot speak of development in a region that is unstable.
In March an International Crisis Group report warned of the humanitarian consequences — threatening millions of Egyptian farmers and food supplies in Egypt — should Egypt and Ethiopia fail to reach an agreement to share water resources.
The report recommended a more comprehensive agreement between all Nile Basin countries in order to avert future conflicts that could wreak economic and environmental havoc. Egyptian experts have warned on numerous occasions that GERD, as currently designed, will reduce Egypt’s share of water by 20 billion m3 a year and cause Lake Nasser to run dry within three years.
They are also concerned that should Egypt approve the dam with its current specifications it will signal Egypt has effectively relinquished its water quota and encourage other countries in the Nile Basin to build dams.
Ethiopia insists on filling the GERD reservoir in three years and refuses to take into account low flooding seasons or to consider a mechanism to coordinate GERD’s operations with the operations of dams in Egypt and Sudan.
Addis Ababa is offering to allow just 35 billion m3 to flow through the dam to Egypt annually, a paltry figure given Egypt’s rapidly growing population and the inadequacy of its current quota of 55.5 billion m3.
It seems fairly obvious, given the above, just who is obstructing an agreement that will realise the interests of the people of all three countries.
This article was published first in: The Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, The Gran Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Crisis: dimensions, Repercussions and Future Courses, Especial Edition, October 2019.