Egypt’s Negative Stance on the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam


Author: Viktor Mikhin

If you read Cairo newspapers, one of the main topics of great concern to residents of Egypt’s capital, and indeed to all Egyptians, is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The headlines say a lot: “Ethiopia wants to monopolize all water sources,” “Ethiopia is trying to deceive the Nile Basin countries,” “Ethiopia is constantly trying to drive a wedge between the Nile Basin countries.” And this is no coincidence as, according to the famous saying “Egypt is a gift of the Nile,” the waters of this river are invaluable for the country, its economy and all its inhabitants. And this problem became a major source of concern for the Egyptians, both from the very beginning of construction and especially after the third filling of the GERD. The main purpose of the dam is to generate electricity to address Ethiopia’s acute energy shortage and to export electricity to neighboring countries. With a planned installed capacity of 5.15 gigawatts, the dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, and one of the 20 largest in the world.

From the very beginning of construction, very sharp contradictions emerged between those countries with an interest in the equitable distribution of the Nile’s waters. Following Addis Ababa’s call for an Entebbe agreement on the redistribution of Nile waters in 2010, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Sudan, Egypt and Eritrea refused to sign it, considering themselves “left out.” The result was a major rift between countries sharing the waters of the same great river, given that some 71 billion cubic meters of water in the Nile flows from the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia. The six states of the White Nile basin share only 13 billion cubic meters of water from this tributary of the common Nile.

The reader may know from geography classes that there is no physical connection and no conventional channels between the source of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia and the source of the White Nile in the Equatorial Great Lakes. This means, as the Egyptian Al-Ahram complains bitterly, that the Ethiopian leadership is well aware of the lack of capacity and means to bring water from the Ethiopian source to the Upper White Nile region. Moreover, how will the policy of equitable redistribution work if Ethiopian water does not reach South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt? It is quite obvious, the newspaper says, that Ethiopia aims to “monopolize all the water sources emanating from its territory.” Cairo has never asked the Upper Nile countries to give up the optimum benefit from the river’s water, from which Egypt gets only a surplus after they have used it. But it opposes changing the course of the Nile or blocking its flow because it is against the natural flow of the river.

In line with its strategy, Ethiopia organized a meeting on September 5 to which only four of the 11 Nile Basin countries were invited: Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan. Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and of course Egypt were not on the guest list. The Democratic Republic of Congo was slighted because it refused to sign the Entebbe Agreement against Egypt and Sudan after it realized the Ethiopian strategy of using riparian states as a screen in its strategy to monopolize control of the Ethiopian Nile headwaters. Recent exchange of visits between Rwanda, Burundi and Egypt and other signs of improved relations between Egypt and these countries have also displeased Addis Ababa, which seeks to deter Cairo from moving closer to the riparian countries because it fears Egypt’s growing influence. Besides being aware of Ethiopia’s monopoly plans for the Nile, the Egyptian leadership also knows, Al-Masry Al-Youm notes, that Addis Ababa has created problems, tensions and conflicts with all its neighbors, be it Somalia and Eritrea in the east, or Kenya and Sudan in the south and west.

Ethiopia gave its deliberately divisive conference the title “The Reasonable Use of Nile Waters.” It is immediately striking how disconnected this wording is from its original context in the UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. The correct formula, as stated in the law, is “reasonable and equitable” use of international river routes. But Addis Ababa is not interested in justice, so it did not mention it. In fact, in its quest to divide and conquer the Nile basin, it also cares little for the “reasonable,” the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper stresses. It is known that international law uses the term “equitable” as opposed to “equal,” which Ethiopia wants to place above international law. This is why, for example, international law has linked the concept of “equity” to the copious amounts of water resources on Ethiopian territory, such as rivers, artesian wells, lakes and precipitation, which should also be available to other neighboring countries.

In this context, one can refer to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which states that of the 122 billion cubic meters of water that flow through the Ethiopian river basin each year, only 71 billion flows into the Nile. There is also Lake Tana with a 40 billion cubic meters reservoir designed exclusively for use by Ethiopians. Ethiopia also receives 936 billion cubic meters of rainfall annually, which feeds its vast rangelands for 100 million cattle. As noted in the aforementioned report, the country has the largest number of animals on the continent and accounts for 24% of the agricultural sector’s income. In addition, there are 10 billion groundwater resources plus another 10 billion in the Tekeze Dam reservoir near the border with Sudan, which Ethiopia uses to generate electricity for agricultural and industrial purposes. Another 75 billion cubic meters of water are being stored in the reservoir of the giant GERD, which will also be used exclusively by Ethiopia.

Ethiopia has been called the largest source of water in Africa. Perhaps its pursuit of monopolizing control over all these water sources is motivated by a desire to sell it to other countries, including its neighbors in the Nile basin, who have the same rights to this water. The UN naturally disapproves, and has warned of potential water wars that could arise between countries sharing the same transboundary watercourse. The Ethiopian leadership uses a similar ploy by appealing to the international community, claiming that Ethiopia is a poor state and poor Ethiopians lack electricity, which can be obtained cheaply from Ethiopian rivers. At the same time, Addis Ababa suggests that Sudan, South Sudan and Egypt sell electricity before supplying their populations.

Ethiopia is a large agricultural country with 35 million cultivated hectares and exports a variety of organic and non-organic foods, livestock and coffee. This in itself is concrete proof of the abundance of water. In contrast, water-stressed Egypt cultivates only 3.5 million hectares of land and imports 65% of its food because of water shortages. The country has only eight million cattle compared to Ethiopia’s 100 million. Egypt has virtually no rainfalls and no conventional or freshwater lakes like Ethiopia. It has no river other than the Nile, not even its tributaries, and 95% of Egypt’s population lives on the banks of this river, because most of the rest of the country (94% of its area) is arid desert.

Obviously, it is futile to expect Ethiopia, with its abundant water resources, to freely pass the necessary amount of Nile water to irrigate the Egyptian lands. Moreover, it is unacceptable for it to try to throw dust in the eyes of the international community or the Upper Nile states under the pretext of “equal” as opposed to “equitable” use of its rivers’ waters, Al-Masry Al-Youm writes sarcastically. The country recently wrote an anthem in honor of the third filling of the GERD. The text refers to Blue Nile as a “traitor” who once gave away Ethiopian waters to other countries and peoples, but has now repented and returned to its homeland. This anthem, according to many Egyptians, is a blatant admission of the Ethiopians’ attitude towards their neighbors and their own self-serving ambitions.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS

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