Even though relations between Egypt and Ethiopia have generally improved in the past four years, progress in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) issue has been moving in the opposite direction. The warmer relationship between the two countries is not reflecting on efforts to reach an agreement on the filling of the reservoir in its first few years and the permanent operation of the dam without harming the interests and rights of the two downstream countries.
Such an agreement requires transparency, cooperation and the continual exchange of information about the rates of water flow and rainfall. To Egyptians, the Nile water is a matter of life.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi sounded the alarm bells during his participation in the 74th round of the United Nations General Assembly, held in September. He pointed out to the lack of agreement on the GERD issue and its negative repercussions on Nile Basin countries, foremost among which on the lives of Egyptians.
President Al-Sisi said Egypt didn’t accept imposed realities. His remarks were a direct expression of worry concerning Ethiopia’s refusal of the Egyptian proposals on the rules to fill and operate the dam in a flexible way dependent on floods and the amount of rainfall each year at a time, as well as Ethiopia’s rejection to discuss the matter scientifically, at least.
Egypt has put the GERD crisis within not a political, but a scientific framework that focuses on the possible scenarios for the filling of the dam. Egypt demands being involved in the management of the dam in a manner that allows Ethiopia to benefit from the generation of electricity and agricultural expansion resulting from building the dam, and at the same time preserves Egypt and Sudan’s water rights.
This is the formula President Al-Sisi has been stressing since he was sworn in in 2014. The formula is based on accepting the dam as a regional development project and preserving Egypt and Sudan’s rights to Nile water. Practically, Egypt would shoulder some damage, provided that it be under control.
In application of this policy, Egypt suggested the participation of experts from the World Bank in the negotiations to present solutions accepted by the three parties. Ethiopia refused. Egypt recently demanded the mediation of the international community via the United Nations or US mediation. Again, Ethiopia refused.
On the other hand, Ethiopia’s stance is based on the concept of sovereignty, believing that since the Blue Nile passes through it, it has the right to benefit from it according to its interests and priorities, before looking to the interests of the downstream countries. In other words, it believes the Blue Nile is an Ethiopian river first and foremost, and whatever remains of its water is not up to downstream countries to decide or regulate.
Based on this Ethiopian stance, it refused to share information about the rates of water flow, the technical details of the GERD, and its plan to manage it according to the rainfall rate.
In the same context, and based on the history of Ethiopian politics regarding the River Nile, Ethiopia refuses to sign agreements on dealing with the river water on a regional level. It rejects the agreements of 1929 and 1959 that determine Egypt and Sudan’s right to Nile water, believing that they are not its concern, basing its argument on the rhetoric that it was not part of the deals.
Ethiopia believes the Declaration of Principles signed with Egypt and Sudan in Khartoum in March 2015 and the 1993 agreement signed by former Egypt president Hosni Mubarak and former prime minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi are both a set of general principles that express good will, but that the application of these principles primarily depends on Ethiopia’s vision.
The Egyptian and Ethiopian visions lie at the opposite ends of the spectrum, each of them rejecting the other. The question here is whether the general improvements in bilateral relations can solve the crisis and what Egypt can do to preserve its interests and historic rights to Nile water.
It is obvious the relative improvement in the economic file and contacts between high-level officials from the two countries are so far irrelative to the GERD issue. It may even seem that Cairo’s interest to develop its relations with Addis Ababa and other Nile Basin countries is misunderstood as weakness on the part of Egypt. President Al-Sisi alluded to this at the youth conference held in September, saying that the fall of a state, just like what happened in Egypt after 2011, allows other countries to disregard its water rights. He referred to Iraq, which used to annually receive 100 billion cubic meters of water and now receives 30 billion cubic meters.
It also appears that the binding Declaration of Principles of 2015, comprising 10 principles derived from international law, concerning the effect of the GERD on downstream countries, is ringing hollow in Ethiopia’s ears. Ethiopia is interpreting the principles, some of which sentences are loosely termed, in a different way.
The more difficult question is, what will Egypt do to preserve its rights and shoulder the least possible damages?
Noteworthy to mention is that any military action on the part of Egypt is out of the question due to practical and humanitarian reasons. Putting the military option on the table will reap negative repercussions not only to Ethiopia but all the countries of the Nile Basin, which is not what Egypt wants.
This is why negotiations remain within an active political and diplomatic circle. The negotiations shall reap benefits on three conditions: Africa’s understanding of Egypt’s fears, which will put pressure on Ethiopia to adopt more lenient positions; more coordination with Sudan, that doesn’t look like it has recovered from the policies of the overthrown Omar Al-Bashir regime; and that the GERD file and Ethiopia’s intransigence become a fixture in Egypt’s relations with other countries.
The understanding and support of powerful Arab countries to Egypt’s water rights will undoubtedly reflect positively on the lives of Egyptians.
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.