Skip to main content
Visualizing cooperation over the Nile

Visualizing cooperation over the Nile

The fifth Nile Basin Development Forum (NBDF), which took place at the Kigali Convention Centre from 23-25 October 2017, has attracted more than 500 participants from ten Nile Basin countries and the international community. One, notable absence was Egyptian government delegation. To the contrary, Ethiopian government delegation was rather strong, including Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, Sileshi Bekele (PhD), and State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hirut Zemene. As expected, the state of the GERD was one of the hot topics of the Forum, and Ethiopia’s representatives have tried to sell the project as a benefit-sharing arrangement for the region, writes Solomon Goshu.

Mutaz Musa Abdalla Salim                                                                                                                         Sileshi Bekele (PhD)

The relationship between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan got complicated when Ethiopia officially inaugurated the construction of the GERD on April 2, 2011. Initially, both Egypt and Sudan opposed the project, and even call for its construction to be halted. Perhaps most unsettling issue to Egypt is the fact that the Sudanese government has later shifted side and started to cooperate with Ethiopia as it came to realize the multi-faceted benefits of the dam to its national interest.

Prior to the recently held 16th Tripartite National Committee (TNC) meeting between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt in Addis Ababa, the water ministers of the three countries paid a day’s visit to the construction site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, Mohamed Abdel Ati (PhD), expressed concerns over the delay of the impact assessment during visit.

However, one of the most widely discussed issues in the latest rounds of the Nile Basin Development Forum (NBDF), which took place at the Kigali Convention Centre from 23-25 October 2017, involved the GERD. The GERD has reached at 60 percent construction level, according to official data.

According to Gedion Asfaw, Chair of the Tripartite National Committee of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, the  GERD  will produce  15,128  GWh annually, generating more than 750 million Euro per year in revenue, and it has been estimated that  it  will  cost  approximately 0.63  Million Euros/MW  to  construct. Its total installed capacity is generation of 6490MW. Originally it was 5250 and later it was 6000MW.

Gedion was also a lead member of the International Panel of Experts. His direct involvement in the process of the tripartite negotiations of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in the last six years makes him a man with firsthand information on the matter. “Such a huge project under construction on a transboundary river (the Nile) necessarily requires close cooperation among the three countries,” he says.

To be fair, it was the Ethiopian government that expressed its desire to cooperate with Egypt and Sudan on the GERDP by inviting the two countries to join it in establishing an International Panel of Experts (IPoE) to examine the impacts of the project on downstream countries.

A tripartite ministerial meeting of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, which was held in Addis Ababa in November 2011, approved the terms of reference and rules of procedure of the IPoE.

The mandate of the IPoE was “to review the design documents of the GERD, provide transparent information sharing and to solicit understanding of the benefits and costs accrued to the three countries and impacts, if any, of the GERD on the two downstream countries so as to build trust and confidence among all parties.”

On May 31st 2013, the IPoE submitted its final report to the governments of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. “The report enjoyed a mixed reception from the three countries, international community, regional organizations and civil society. This particularly emanated from pre-conceived ideas and expectations held by various stakeholders regarding the outcomes of the IPoE,” Gedion says.

Following the submission of the final report, excerpts from the report were used by different actors in ways that suited their respective political perspectives and orientation. Extreme views such as proposing to halt the construction of the GERD were observed in the international media, including a threat of war by some elements in the previous government of Egypt, Gedion further states.

Over three years after the submission of the final IPoE report, dialogue among the three countries has continued, centered on the recommendations. A TNC composed of four experts from each of the three countries is now making the necessary follow up on the conduct of the two IPoE recommended studies.

He asserts that this process culminated in the signing of the Declaration of Principles (DoP) by the Heads of States of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in March 2015.This was misinterpreted as if Ethiopia has abandoned the CFA process, overlooking the fact that this is a project based sub regional cooperation envisaged in the CFA [Article 34 of the CFA],” Gedion contends.

Gedion reveals that in the course of the tripartite consultations related to the conduct of the downstream impact studies, thorny issues such as current water use and what baseline to utilize for impact assessment studies have transpired and still remain sources of disagreement. “Countries even argue for consideration of their future demand in the impact study,” he adds.

Ethiopia’s Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, Sileshi Bekele (PhD), reacted against the point of emphasis by some participants that his country has water in abundance as opposed to other water-scarce countries on the Basin.

As he puts it, “We have to underscore that it is not really about physical water scarcity. It is the economic water scarcity which makes the Basin people specially the upstream riparians suffer. What is there as a real challenge is investment and economic water scarcity. Therefore, our theme of discussion should really also take into account equal consideration of water access, capital investment, and capacity building of institutions to operate.”

Indeed, the key and common concerns of the three countries are the filling and long term operation of the GERD. For Gedion, the three countries cooperation on the GERDP requires continued collaboration and negotiation based on scientific knowledge and compromise.

In this context, the Nile Basin Initiative Secretariat Executive Director, Innocent Ntabana (Eng.) said, “The NBI generates and accumulates its knowledge. But we also count on other sources. The Forum provides an opportunity to other people who have worked on the Nile to come and share knowledge so that it can guide the decision on how better we can cooperate.” 

For Ethiopia, the GERDP is a typical benefit-sharing project. In part, this is reflected in the fact that there is a growing scholarly consensus which concludes that the project would benefit the riparian countries in regulating the flow of the river, reducing sedimentation, producing cheap hydropower and reducing water losses. According to Gedion, the most obvious advantages of GERD are the provision of stored water during drought and cheap renewable energy for the region.

There is a lot of discussion going around GERD. But very little is talked about the positive impacts of GERD, according to Sileshi. “Imagine, if there is no Aswan High Dam or Merowe Dam. What would be the best place for hydroelectric Dam?” he asks.

In my view, he argues, the GERD site is the right one now because it stores water, protects flood in the downstream, it is an opportunity to enhance power production in all systems despite some arguments which indicates that there might be some reduction during filling stage in energy generation in Aswan High Dam. “There are ample opportunities in sediment management in downstream, and providing regulated flow to downstream, and enhancing energy development in the region,” Sileshi contests.

However, Rawia Tawfik (PhD) from the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Cairo University, currently based at German Development Institute (DIE), Germany, disputes this conclusion. She notes that there is no clarity on how the countries coordinate to assess benefits and costs of the GERD. For her, potential challenges in moving towards a benefit-sharing agreement on GERD include defining ‘significant harm’, clearly understanding the current uses and potential uses of the water, and the mechanisms to measure the adequate compensation for ‘significant harm’.

Rawia observes that when GERD is seen from a benefit-sharing perspective, there are uneven benefits, and differentiated incentives to the three countries.

“This complicates benefit-sharing arrangements and necessitates broadening the range of benefits to reach compromises. This could include: coordination to mobilize international funding for other joint projects on and beyond the river, sharing the costs of the annual operation and maintenance of the dam to facilitate compromises over first filling and operation, and increasing Egypt’s virtual water imports from, and agricultural investments in, Ethiopia and Sudan, to generate benefits beyond the river,” she explains.

Despite NBI’s success in providing platform for dialogue, the reasons as to why at least those countries who have signed it not ratified the CFA are not clear. This is one of the questions posed to Sileshi by the moderator Daniel Kalinaki, Ugandan journalist and media consultant. “Yes, this kind of agreement could have certain problems or drawbacks. The ability of the CFA is that it has a mechanism to address whatever differences may exist within the existing articles,” the Minister said.

The energy to be generated by the GERD is considered by Ethiopia as a means of transboundary cooperation to be accessible to the countries of the region. In fact, Egypt and Sudan are given a priority in purchasing hydropower generated from GERD.

“Ethiopia has very little access in terms of energy. Energy access is at infant stage, just 25%. Unless we develop this, how do we provide energy to the industrialization in the country?” Sileshi argues.

The GERD is inherently an energy project which will add an additional over 50 billion meter cubic of live storage. That stored water will pass the turbines and generate significant energy.

“Currently, Ethiopia provides 100 megawatt to Djibouti, and 300 megawatt to Sudan. And we are discussing on transmission line that could reach up to 3000 megawatt and even connecting to Egypt. Ethiopia is building major energy highway between Ethiopia and Kenya that will transmit up to 2,000 megawatt. Though Kenya it would connect to Tanzania. We would also connect to South Sudan,” Sileshi illustrates.   

In this context, Teshome Atnafie, Director of Boundary and Transboundary Rivers Affairs with the ministry, asserts that Ethiopia would not wait a Basin-wide agreement to develop her resources. “It is very important to coordinate works on transboundary resources on the Basin. Basin-wide cooperation principles and agreements are taking long time to conclude. We will not wait a basin-wide agreement to develop our resource. We can operate unilaterally, bi-laterally and multi-laterally between sectors and institutions,” he highlights.

Teshome illustrates this by mentioning that the Ethiopian Ministry of Water Sector is working with Sudanese and Kenyan Ministries of Water Sectors to coordinate their efforts.

Similarly, Sudanese Minister of Water Resources and Electricity, Mutaz Musa Abdalla Salim, affirms the urgent need for cooperation. “We are indeed in a need of an all-inclusive sort of arrangement that will guide us to collaborate our efforts into a tangible sort of agreement that we can share in constructive and positive way,” he maintains.

However, he points out that even if the word ‘cooperation’ is a very sympathetic one and everyone across the globe feel positive about it, the Minister admits that it is really taken as sort of a challenge in the Nile Basin. “I am afraid we are talking different languages. We all talk cooperation. But what does it really mean?” he questions.

While expressing that he is very much optimistic that the Basin countries would agree on some sort of cooperation mechanisms, he says, “This river will never be a source of genuine conflict unless we created by our own hands. Cooperation is a must. We can think regionally and act nationally. We have national challenges to meet. I am very optimistic and quite sure there would be no fundamental problem.”

The Sudanese Minister is also of the view that the perception on water scarcity on the region is an impediment on cooperation.

I always feel a little bit confused when I see most of the presentations warning us that people are increasing, while water resources remain the same. This scary language is the secret reason behind all these sort of problems we are now facing in coming together. We are creating a perception of scarcity and everybody is convinced. I am not convinced that we are short of water. We need very plausible and conclusive research telling us that how water scarcity will happen in the future, and why have it not happened so far,” he remarks.

By 2050, the population of the Nile Basin countries is projected to be more than double from around 400 million to one billion. This, along with changes in the climate and the desired socio-economic transformation, will put even greater pressure on Nile Basin water resources.

At the end of the 5th Nile Basin Development Forum, there was broad consensus that while the challenges being faced in the basin are multifaceted, they can be solved through cooperation and shared solutions. Participants noted that the Nile Basin is a water scarce region and that it is facing and will continue to face unprecedented pressures. The risk of over-utilization needs to be considered to ensure current and future generations can deal with any adverse consequences and be well equipped to restore degraded ecosystems, habitats and biodiversity in the basin.