The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Ethiopia continues to create political tensions between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. The GERD is a $4 billion hydroelectric project on the Blue Nile in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region of Ethiopia about 15 km east of the border from Sudan (1). The construction of the dam started in 2011. Ethiopia has started filling up the dam as the country prepares itself for its full utilisation. The country has had good rainfalls; they have helped to fill the dam, and more rainfalls than usual are expected this year as the rain season continues. June to September is an important rainy season for Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Uganda. A wetter than usual season is forecasted for western and central Sudan, southwestern Ethiopia, southeastern South Sudan, western Kenya, and eastern and central Uganda (2). Ethiopia was quick to issue that statement regarding how rainfalls this season will help in filling the dam. Most water for GERD will be sourced from the Blue Nile that has been the bone of contention and source of dispute between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia.
Historically, Ethiopia and other Nile riparian countries were excluded in agreements involving the sharing and utilisation of the Nile. It has been mainly Egypt and to a lesser extent Sudan who have had the lion share of the Nile and considered in agreements governing the future use of the river. It has therefore become difficult to convince the people and government of Egypt after all these years of the new reality, i.e. the Nile does not only belong to Egypt and Sudan but is shared with Ethiopia and seven other African nations. The majority of water of the Nile emanates from Ethiopia. The Nile flows from two tributaries; the White Nile is considered to be the headwater and the Blue Nile its main water source. The former rises in the Great Lakes of Africa between Rwanda and Burundi and the tributary of the Blue Nile is Lake Tana in Ethiopia, which contributes over 80 per cent of the Nile’s flow (3). Initially Sudan publicly embraced the dam; it signed deals with Ethiopia to benefit from its new hydro-electric capacity. Sudan has decided that its water security lies in friendly relations with Ethiopia. Egypt has taken a different tack, demanding instead that Ethiopia halt construction and, at times, threatened war. It has sought to delay and undermine the new dam at every turn, despite Ethiopia’s protests that water flow will not be significantly affected (4). However the change in political leadership, amongst other things, has seen Sudan aligning its position on the Nile with Egypt. Egypt and Sudan have “historic right” over the river guaranteed by treaties concluded in 1929 and 1959. Ethiopia uses a treaty – signed in 2010 by six riverside countries and boycotted by Egypt and Sudan – authorising irrigation projects and dams on the river (5).
Towards Understanding past Nile Agreements – Bone of Contention between Egypt and Other Nile Riparian States
Besides international treaties governing the utilisation of rivers around the world and dozens of initiatives aimed at the conflict-free utilisation of the Nile, it is colonial sponsored treaties, which favored Egypt and Sudan, that are to be blamed for the current stalemate in negotiations. These agreements have been used by Egypt and Sudan in reference to their rights and privileges over the Nile. There are ten riparian countries to the Nile: Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Egypt, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Although Ethiopia was never colonized, political instability, drought in the 1980’s, economic stagnation, and protracted civil wars have resulted in political disorganization; the country was subsequently and at times deliberately excluded in important discussions regarding the future utilisation of the Nile. Likewise, other riparian states to the Nile were also under colonisation and had foreign powers negotiating on their behalf, often not in the best interests of the colonised. The first African country to gain independence from colonisation in Africa was Ghana in March 1957. Egypt and Sudan certainly took advantage of the situation and subsequently entered into a number of treaties leaving little room for future negotiations with Nile riparian countries, notwithstanding that both White and Blue Niles sourced their waters outside Egypt and Sudan.
The sociopolitical and economic conditions have since changed. Ethiopia and other Nile riparian states are now demanding to fully utilise one of their natural resources. The economic growth in Ethiopia has been improving, making the country one of the fastest growing economies in East Africa. Moreover, the inflow of foreign investments from countries like China has increased energy needs (6). However past agreements continue to impede Ethiopia’s claims to the Nile; it is therefore pushing for redress and re-negotiations of these agreements. The first notable agreement was between the Italians and the British in 1891. The agreement with Italy, whom at the time yielded strong political power in the Horn of Africa, prevented Italy from building or constructing anything on the river Atbara that could impact the flow of the Nile.
Later in 1902, Great Britain signed another agreement with Ethiopia. This is perhaps the most contested agreement between Ethiopia and Egypt. The Article III of May 1902 stipulates that, “ His Majesty the Emperor Menilik II, King of Ethiopia agrees that Ethiopia will not construct or allow to be constructed any work across the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, or the Sobat, which would arrest the flow of their waters except in agreement with His Britannic Majesty’s Government and the Government of Sudan” (7). There were several other agreements that were signed, most facilitated by Britain, which restricted other riparian countries including the Congo basin from constructing anything that could disturb the flow of the Nile. Case in point is the May 1906 treaty signed between Britain and the Independent state of the Congo. The agreement was negotiated by Belgium on behalf of the government of Congo. Italy, France, and Britain signed another treaty in December 1906. In that treaty, they agreed to work together to defend the interests of Great Britain in the Nile. Article 4(a) of the agreement states “to act together… to safeguard; … the interests of Great Britain and Egypt in the Nile Basin, especially in regard to the regulation of the waters of that river and its tributaries (due consideration being paid to local interests) without prejudice to Italian interests.” (8) This treaty, in effect, denied Ethiopia its sovereign right over the use of its own water. Ethiopia rejected the treaty but was powerless to defy the colonial powers at the time; the country was too weak, militarily and economically, to do anything. It relied on the colonial powers for support.
Another provocative agreement on the Nile was the treaty reached between Egypt and Sudan in 1929. In that treaty, Egypt once again was favored in using the waters of the Nile leaving little to Sudan. The treaty also failed to take into consideration the needs of other riparian states. Egypt and Sudan which utilise 48 and 4 billion cubic meters of the Nile flow per year, respectively agreed that:
- The flow of the Nile during January 20 to July 15 (dry season) would be reserved for Egypt;
- Egypt reserves the right to monitor the Nile flow in the upstream countries;
- Egypt assumed the right to undertake Nile river related projects without the consent of upper riparian states;
- Egypt assumed the right to veto any construction projects that would affect her interests adversely (9).
The last and the most pertinent agreement to today’s dispute on the utilisation of the Nile between Ethiopia and Egypt was reached between Egypt and Sudan in 1959. The Nile Waters Agreement granted Egypt the right to construct the Aswan High Dam that can store the entire annual Nile River flow. It granted Sudan the right to construct the Rosaries Dam on the Blue Nile and to develop other irrigation and hydroelectric power generation until it fully utilises its Nile share (10). In defense of this agreement and previous agreements, Egypt argues that African countries benefit from favorable rainfalls and are therefore better positioned than Egypt. This argument suggests that African countries on the Nile should construct dams that could take full advantage of rainfalls instead of solely relying on the Nile. Africans countered, arguing that climate change has resulted into unusual weather patterns and unpredictability of rainfalls.
The Importance of the African Union in Solving Current and Future Disputes Regarding the Nile
The international law on water utilisation is premised on two theories. The first theory is that of Absolute Integrity; this theory does not allow river states to use river water in a way that harms the rights of other river states. Every country whose international river runs in its region has the full right to keep the flow of Nile water in its region without reducing the percentage of water that reaches it. The political borders do not separate the river from its source to its mouth. Therefore, when any country wants to build any structure on the river or its branches, it must first inform the countries that share the same river. The theory of Common Natural Resources is a theory founded on the principle of good neighbourliness and aims for the equitable utilisation of international river waters between the riparian countries (11). The international law would have been utilised fully and would have been able to resolve the current debacle involving Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. However, previous treaties on the use of the Nile unfortunately ignored the spirit, amongst others, of neighbourliness. Instead the treaties favored Egypt and Sudan largely and totally ignored other riparian states. This is what has led to countries like Ethiopia to dig in its heels and often take unilateral positions as it steams ahead with the construction of the GERD.
Egypt has been reluctant in accepting agreements initiated by Nile riparian states. It has instead insisted on past agreements and has refused to redress past agreements. Representatives of upstream countries have said they were “tired of first getting permission from Egypt before using river Nile water for any development project like irrigation,” as required by a treaty signed during the colonial era between Egypt and Britain in 1929 (12). The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), an initiative involving Egypt and Nile riparian states, is a partnership that “seeks to develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security”(13). At the beginning, the NBI promised a shared vision which would have seen all riparian states benefiting from the river. The water ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo launched the NBI in February 1999. Eritrea, although not a riparian state of the Nile, was included as an observer. NBI is an important platform that could save the Nile and prevent future conflicts. It is inclusive and provides an important speaking platform for all riparian states.
NBI produced a framework agreement which aims at governing future use of the Nile including an overall share of the Nile. The text of the CFA outlines principles, rights, and obligations for cooperative management and development in the Nile Basin water resources (14). Five African countries— Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania— were the first to ratify the framework in 2010 followed by Burundi in February 2011. Egypt and Sudan have not ratified the framework. Egypt froze its membership in the Nile Basin Initiative in 2010 after some upstream countries signed the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). Egypt has argued that the deal reallocated water shares without its approval (15). Egypt’s attitude regarding the CFA has led to hardened attitudes with Ethiopia and at some point Ethiopia decided to go it alone regarding its plans on the utilisation of the Nile. The NBI provides a perfect platform for constructive dialogue and possible solutions. Moreover, the African Union (AU), an important body in African politics today, supports and has endorsed NBI and CFA. Recent calls by members of the AU that “African problems require African solutions” must not be taken lightly by Egypt and Sudan. After all, Sudan and Egypt are viewed as “unwilling Africans who are geographically trapped against their will” by many in Sub Saharan Africa. Their attitude towards these agreements could also be seen as defying the AU. Therefore, tabling this dispute at the United Nations (UN) for discussion, as Egypt has done recently, could derail and jeopardise possible solutions to the current impasse. Understandably, Egypt feels that a wider platform like the UN could provide a solution and support from its allies within the UN, including Britain and other former colonial powers, who facilitated some of the agreements on the Nile. However approaching the UN has also undermined the AU’s capability of dealing with the challenges of the Nile.
Egypt relies on the Nile for most of its economy. 80% of the Nile goes towards agriculture, Egypt’s economic mainstay. Egypt also loses large amounts of water from the Nile due to lack of proper planning. Today, the river can barely supply the country’s water needs. Egypt’s population is expected to double by 2050, and with that growth comes increased demand for farms and food. Moreover, with this comes greater pollution of the river and canals which farmers rely heavily on to irrigate their fields (16). Better management of the Nile could save large quantities of water and perhaps even prevent potential conflict due to fear of reduced inflow of water into Egypt. Egypt should begin to look at other options of optimizing the flow of water including better management of the Nile and improvement of its irrigation and sewage systems.
GERD is complete; Ethiopia is determined to steam ahead utilising it to its full potential. It has brought a sense of extreme national pride in Ethiopia. The dam “for Ethiopians by Ethiopians” has become a popular mantra in the street of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia knows that his popularity and re-election depends on a fully operational and successful GERD. Egypt’s emotive responses to GERD have not been helpful. They have led to hardened responses from Ethiopian nationalists, most suggesting retaliation to any Egyptian reaction in preventing the operations of GERD. Heightened nationalism around the dam in Ethiopia is both a test and an opportunity for the young government of Abiy Ahmed. If he stands firm against Egypt including signaling willingness to retaliate militarily if anything happens to GERD, he might win support in Ethiopia. Having said that, a military response could dent his image internationally. His ability to negotiate a peaceful resolution between Ethiopia and Eritrea earned him a certain status in the world. Abiy and President Isaias Efwerki of Eritrea signed a peace treaty in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 9, 2018.
The meetings regarding the filling of the dam have stalled a number of times as ministers from Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt fail to reach consensus. Much of the negotiations now are about the timeframe for filling the dam, the speed at which it will be filled, and how to mitigate drought. Ethiopia initially proposed filling the dam in three years, while Egypt wanted it done over the course of 10 to 15 years (17). Ethiopia has confirmed that it will take at least five years to fill the dam. They have also confirmed that the dam has currently met its first year capacity attributing that to the favorable rains. By filling the reservoir with 4.9 billion cubic metres (173 billion cubic feet) of water, Ethiopia is now in a position to test its first two turbines – an important step on the way towards actually producing energy (18). The filling of the dam has added a new spanner in the works as Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan continue to disagree regarding what path to follow as Ethiopia continues with its plans to fill the dam. The ministers from the three countries are expected to meet towards the end of August 2020 to present a draft on the proposed guidelines on filling the dam.
An amicable agreement to this impasse will be for the good of all countries in the Nile basin, particularly Egypt. All parties concerned, including Egypt, have to empower the AU by allowing it to try and achieve a solution. AU needs credibility; achieving peaceful resolutions in this regard might assist future prospects. Second, an AU sponsored resolution could also prove to be beneficial for Egypt in its future negotiations with other riparian states. The AU has considerable influence in most Nile riparian states including having its permanent headquarters in Ethiopia. Therefore, AU recommendations are likely to be respected and adhered by all its members. Egypt must be seen supporting AU’s efforts, not going against them. It must ratify the CFA, which is important because it will demonstrate confidence in the AU’s processes. Failure to act swiftly in this regard could haunt Egypt in the future as other African states continue to communicate ambitions to establish their own dams along the Nile. Documents show that Kampala, the Ugandan capital, received an application for a license to construct a $1.4 billion hydroelectric power plant on the Nile, (19).
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- Simon Allison, “Do Egyptian and Sudan have anything in common anymore?” Institute for Security Studies, last modified 21 August 2020, https://issafrica.org/amp/iss-today/do-egypt-and-sudan-have-anything-in-common-anymore
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- Harold Marcus, “A Preliminary History of the Tripartite Treaty of December 13, 1906,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies, 2, no. 2 (1964): 21-40, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41965711?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents,
- Mwangi S. Kimenyi and John Mukum Mbeku, “The Limits of the New Nile Agreement,” Brookings, accessed 28 July 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2015/04/28/the-limits-of-the-new-nile-agreement/
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