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Dam Deadlock

Dam Deadlock

If the recent rhetoric from Egypt’s politicians and some government officials is something to go by, the spirit of negotiation among the three nations – Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia – regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is fast disappearing. In a matter of a few weeks, the president, ministers and parliamentarians of Egypt started taking a hostile path against Ethiopia and the GERD. What is odd is the speed with which the tripartite cooperation has shifted to tension, writes Asrat Seyoum.

Eternally bonded by the great River Nile, Ethiopia and Egypt have maintained a love-hate relationship for centuries and across generations. The only binding factor has been the Nile River. In spite of being known as the gift of Nile, Egypt had always felt that this river, having 85 percent of its water volume originating from the Ethiopian highlands, would one day be the source of their undoing. Ethiopia, on the other hand, apart from maintaining theoretical claim on its right on the Nile, has done little byway of utilizing it.

But it all changed seven years ago when Ethiopia announced a mammoth hydroelectric dam (the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)) on the Blue Nile (the largest tributary to the Nile) at the cost USD 4.8 billion, planned to be constructed fully using only domestic resources. This brought into reality something that the Egyptians have feared for many centuries. Hence, the Egyptian response was commensurate to the shock; ranging from flat out war rhetoric to forward looking gestures of cooperation.

If one has to recall a defining moment in the Ethio-Egyptian relation since the start of the construction of the GERD, the hardcore strategy session between the then president Mohammed Morsi and leaders of prominent political parties in Egypt in 2013 would sure rank among the top. Unaware of it being televised nationwide, leaders of political parties were caught spilling their guts to Morsi regarding the possible options to sabotage Ethiopia’s most valued project – the GERD.

The fateful meeting, which was convened to discuss the findings of the study conducted by the International Panel of Experts (IPoE) right after the course diversion of the Nile, showed to the world the extent that Egypt is willing to go to maintain its water monopoly on the Nile. The open discussion about sabotage plans prompted the Ethiopian government to summon the Egyptian ambassador in Addis for explanation.

While the construction of the dam never relented for a day, talks and cooperation between Egypt and Ethiopia took a bad turn after the incident and until the new president of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Ethiopia’s Hailemariam Dessalegn met in Malabu, Equatorial Guinea, on the sidelines of the 23rd General Assembly of the AU. The talks between the two leaders resulted in the resumption of negotiations between the three countries and led to the establishment of a Tripartite National Committee (TNC) to discuss the impact and management of the dam and signing of what they called “Declaration of Principles (DoP)”.

According to commentators, the two developments amounted to achieving a game-changer agreement to cooperate on the GERD and brought together the two nations and Sudan to the table with the aim of cooperating on impact assessment and future management of the dam.

The TNC then took an important step in hiring two French consultant firms to complete the recommendation points extracted from the 800-page report of the IPoE. Hence, BRL and Artelia, both French companies, were selected to revise the studies of hydro simulation model of the dam and the environmental impact assessment. A pool of experts from the three countries designed the Terms of Reference of the study and signed the contract with the main consultant BRL.

Accordingly, BRL submitted it “inception report” in few months ago and the TNC discussed the report in Addis Ababa and then in Khartoum and finally in Cairo, last month. The “inception report” basically detailed the “what” and “how” of the consultancy job to be undertaken. According to the Egyptian water minister, Mohamed Abdel Ati, the technical negotiation on the Nile might have encountered an impasse that might be very difficult to get passed after the Cairo meeting.

“It is important to disclose to the Egyptian public what has transpired behind closed doors in the TNC meetings and reveal Egypt’s failed attempts to protect its water interest by employing legal and technical arguments,” Ati told Egyptian media on November 12 after the last round of tripartite ministerial meeting in Cairo. In doing so, Ati announced his country has given up on the technical negotiation and is moving forward to other options. Hence, he underscored that Egypt would take “diplomatic, legal and technical actions” to garner support against the construction of the GERD.  

The articulation of the Egyptian position was not limited to Ati; in fact foreign minister Sameh Shoukry met with his Saudi counterpart to relate that the technical track of the negotiation on the GERD has failed and that Egypt is highly concerned with the future of its water interest. Apart from that, Egypt’s Cabinet also chimed in on the chorus and warned Ethiopia that “it will take all the necessary measures at all levels since water is a matter of national security for Egypt”.

What defined the whole impasse was the statement which was reiterated by President el-Sisi in recent weeks: “although I accept Ethiopia’s aspirations to development, I also would like to say that water security is matter of life and death to Egypt”. El-Sisi’s statement was reciprocated by Ethiopia’s spokesperson of the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Meles Alem, that the GERD is also a matter of “life and death” for Ethiopia since it represents a milestone in the nation’s struggle against poverty.

In addition, Ati also came forward with another revealing statement this week claiming that “Egypt could no longer stop the construction of the dam” as much as it could not mitigate the impact of the dam on its agriculture and power sector.

According to an expert who is close to TNC negotiation, what appear to be great impasses in the tripartite talks on GERD are really not that complicated. “What has happened was that the TNC countries received a draft document of an inception report from the consultant firm. In this case, Ethiopia and Sudan found some issues with this report and decided that it should be corrected, while Egypt insists on the approval of the report as it is,” he explained to The Reporter.

The draft inception report, however, was significantly deviating from the Terms of Reference (ToR) by which the consultant firm is expected to abide by, the expert continues to explain. Adding to this, he also argued: “Egypt was not also following the ToR when it opposes the right of members of the TNC to discuss the reports, raise their issue and finally come into agreements.”

Other sources as well corroborate this story. According to the same sources, both Sudan and Ethiopia have made a point about the inception report and how it alludes to the consultancy work going well over its scope defined in the ToR. According to other reports, such objection was made to the inclusion of impact assessment studies regarding the salinity of Egyptian agricultural lands in the Nile Delta, the impact on the flow rate to the Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser and the impact on the electricity generation capacity of the same dam.

Whereas the specific hydraulic simulation model is what is expected from the consultants, Ethiopian experts argue, impacts like salinity and electricity generative capacities are not exclusive to or in most instances are not connected at all to the GERD. Salinity levels are largely connected to the rising levels of oceans, a phenomenon affecting the Mediterranean Sea, not the volume of the flow of the water from Ethiopia, the argument continues. Meanwhile, the insistence of Egypt on the water share stipulated under the 1959 agreement to be used as basis to assess the impact of the GERD is also another matter that has contributed to reaching difficult impasse on the TNC negotiation.  

“Invoking the 1959 agreement is even against the DoP which talks about equitable and fair utilization of the Nile,” says the expert who is close to the TNC talks. He also says it is now apparent that the 1959 agreement which does not exist is not only a pretext for Egyptians; it is rather a goal. Egyptians want their current usage over the Nile to be recognized and they are doing everything in their power to do it.

Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt have signed a Declaration of Principles in which Egypt accepted Ethiopia’s right to develop and construct the GERD as far as it is done in accordance with international law, says Leulseged Girma, a geopolitical analyst, which is without causing significant damage. “The 1959 agreement is hereby annulled by default. The 1959 agreement does not accept Ethiopia’s right to development and construction of any water related project on the Blue Nile River,” he added.

One thing that has to be clear is that the issue over GERD and recent developments such as the inception report are all technical matters and as such they should be dealt with by technicians,” the expert continues to argue. It can be noticed that the Egyptians are now pushing this issue to the political space deliberately. Since it is the only way the 1959 agreement and its water share proportion is recognized by the riparian nations.  Meanwhile, both Ethiopia and Sudan in their stance, which they have made known to Egypt and the rest of the international community, refuse to accept the legitimacy and even the existence of the 1959 agreement or any other colonial agreement for that matter.

Although it is widely perceived to be an impasse by Egypt, as far as Leulseged is concerned there is no real deadlock with the GERD issue.  “Egypt continues to intimidate Ethiopia, which it began centuries ago; but that could not stop Ethiopia from realizing its power ambition. However, as long as both Ethiopia and Egypt continue to achieve their ambitions, that is building the dam and trying to obstruct the same, respectively, both countries are not in a deadlock situation,” Leulseged told The Reporter in an email response.

Rather, for Leulseged and other commenters, the steeping up of rhetoric by Egypt in recent times is a reflection of another political event which has stayed significant to the Nile politics over the years: internal political problem in Egypt. “Egypt is facing internal political problems including terrorism. Therefore, they have to use some political tactics as a weapon to divert the attention of the public. Instruments such as the 1959 colony-master bilateral agreements are political weapons against Ethiopia. It is an instrument to gain performance legitimacy,” Leulseged argues.

That is why Egypt is disrupting the TNC in violation of the Declaration of Principles at this time and trying to project an image of reaching an impasse in the technical negotiation, he explains further.

In fact, recent media reports from Egypt indicate that el-Sisi is actually facing serious opposition from radical politicians and members of the public alike. Apparently, Al-Sisi is being discredited for signing DoP which recognized the legitimate right of Ethiopia to build the GERD. Some radical elements are of the view that el-Sisi has ‘fastened the last nail in the coffin’ regarding the construction of the GERD.

As to the rhetoric, Leulseged dismisses any chances of military action on the GERD in the 21 century. For one, he argues, “the combat radius is completely unachievable.” He further says that although the two nations have been connected with one “umbilical cord” that is the Nile they do not share any boarder area. Hence, he says, the most feasible option seems to be “destabilizing insurgencies through our neighbors” which Egypt has tried time and again.

“But, Ethiopia is also a military might in its own right which has defeated Egypt’s aggression in so many instances. It is not only Ethiopia that protects itself and the dam but Sudan will also be part of this protection,” Leulseged says.

As far as the expert is concerned, the so called military option is unhelpful and unwise. He says: “Egypt is a country with many alternatives when it comes to source of water so the cost of war is much higher than the cost of utilizing those alternatives,” he argues.

“Egyptian politicians should come to their senses. What they have to do is sign the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) and negotiate on the amount and timing of the filling of the GERD reservoir,” Leulseged concludes.