Aklog Birara (Dr)
Part III of IV
On Thursday, May 21, 2020, Egypt showed a modicum of good will when its Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a brief press release indicating that “Egypt is willing to resume negotiations with Sudan and Ethiopia over the filling of a controversial mega-dam that has been a source of tension between all three Nile basin countries.” According to Al-Jazeera, “Egypt is always ready to enter into negotiations and participate in upcoming meetings … to reach a fair, balanced and comprehensive agreement.”
It is my considered opinion that Ethiopia, Egypt and the Sudan would gain enormously; and serve the wellbeing of their respective peoples if they collaborate among one another first; and then expand their outreach and involve other Nile Basin riparian nations. In my assessment, collaboration will address the core issues of the entire ecosystem in both upper and downstream riparian nations– climate change, revegetation and greening, desertification, soil degradation, evaporation and other triggers caused by climate change and poor management of waters etc. The Nile Basin Initiative that has been shelved can and should be reignited.
I should like to remind the reader of the timing and the circumstances that compelled Egypt to issue a conciliatory statement that I too welcome. At this time of a global pandemic that requires collaborative effort, a reasonable and rationale human being would think twice and champion for peace. Equally, Government leaders would refrain from warmongering and call for collaboration and the resolution of conflicts among nations through consultation. The last thing the world needs and the UN system should tolerate is for any nation to resort to war irrespective of the merit of its national cause.
I was dumbfounded by Egypt’s escalation of tensions on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (the GERD) when it lodged an accusatory complaint to the U.N. Security Council (UNSC). It did this after Ethiopia refused to accept a draft Agreement pushed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the President of the World Bank that favors Egypt and punishes Ethiopia. Had Ethiopia signed the Agreement, it would have confirmed the irrevocable legality of the Colonial Nile Agreement of 1929; and Ethiopia would have abandoned its sovereign and legal rights over its own waters.
Egypt, with the backing of the U.S. Treasury and the World Bank would have continued to exercise its hegemony over the Nile in accordance with water allocations it granted to itself and to the Sudan in line with the Nile River Treaty of 1959 at the exclusion of Ethiopia, the only independent Sub-Saharan African state.
Signing the U.S. and World Bank brokered, formulated and pushed and Egyptian engineered Agreement would literally bind Ethiopia to abandon for good its sovereign and legally recognized rights to invest in and construct irrigation and hydroelectric dams within its own territory. It is equivalent to an alien power such as Mexico telling the United States of America that it cannot build dams on the Colorado or the Rio Grande Rivers. Please remember this fact. Ethiopia supplies 86 percent of Nile waters. Egypt contributes none of the waters; but receives all of the benefits. This is patently unfair and unjust.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury and the World Bank went further than their roles as mediators and as facilitators. I am especially concerned that the World Bank would be involved in a highly political, sensitive and African matter taking sides; and without consultation with the Bank Group’s Executive Board of Directors. The Bank risks moral and ethical hazard.
Imagine for one minute what country on the planet would allow its own strangulation? Would Egypt allow any other nation to control its gas fields? Or its untapped aquifers? Or the Suez Canal? Would Saudi Arabia allow any nation to control its massive petroleum reserves? Would the United States allow Russia or China or Mexico to control any of its waterways or airspace?
I read Egypt’s unbelievable set of Aide-Memoires carefully and methodically. I was stunned to learn that Egyptian authorities would go that low and resort to lies, innuendos and fake narratives in defense of Egypt’s flawed position on the River Nile in general; and misrepresent Ethiopia’s in good-faith adherence to the 2015 Declaration of Principles (DOP) concerning the filling, management and operations of the GERD in particular. The tool they used included U.S. and World Bank backing.
I was equally impressed by the principled and fact-based rebuttal of the Government of Ethiopia, especially by the narrative on abysmal poverty. I was convinced that the global community would respond favorably in defense of direct and honest negotiations among the triparty riparian nations. This is why Egypt responded favorably to negotiate. The setting is important to note.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who earlier had spoken to Egyptian strongman General Al-Sisi urging him to negotiate directly with Ethiopia and other Sub-Saharan African riparian nations, reaffirmed Germany’s principled position on the GERD. In a similar vein, the President of the European Union Council, Mr. Charles Michel, supported Ethiopia’s sovereign and legal rights to harness its waters for the betterment of its people. He further noted indirectly but rightly that contentious and vitriolic approaches do not contribute to peace, stability and prosperity. I guarantee the reader that Egypt’s heavy investment in armaments and its saber-rattling measures will cost the country, the region and the world dearly.
On May 19, 2020, the Spokesman of the Secretary General of the U.N. provided a statement in response to both Ethiopia and Egypt. “The Secretary-General continues to follow closely developments related to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). He notes the good progress in the negotiations between the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Republic of Sudan thus far and encourages the three parties to persevere with efforts to peacefully resolve any remaining differences and to achieve a mutually beneficial agreement.” The Statement further notes that “The Secretary-General underscores the importance of the 2015 Declaration of Principles on the GERD, which emphasizes cooperation based on common understanding, mutual benefit, good faith, win-win, and the principles of international law. The Secretary-General encourages progress towards an amicable agreement in accordance with the spirit of these Principles.”
“Mutual benefit, good faith and win-win” do not mean accepting the status-quo that has guided Egyptian foreign policy of hegemony over the Nile River at incalculable costs for the Ethiopian people. Just think of a starving Ethiopian child; and a mother who has to fetch wood in order to cook or a family that lives in darkness for lack of access to electricity. More than 65 million Ethiopians lack access; while 100 percent of Egyptians enjoy electricity. Egypt uses Nile waters and produces foods for export. Ethiopia imports food. How fair is that?
I urge the world to stand-up for justice this time; and repeat ‘We are the world” concert by siding with Ethiopia; and with the rest of Sub-Saharan African riparian nations.
Hunger is a form of terrorism; it kills. In order to appreciate famine and starvation in Ethiopia and the need to eradicate its root causes, I remind the reader to go back to the African-American artists-led “USA for Africa” concert “We Are the World.” It was released on March 7th, 1985. The 46 vocalists who participated at this concert were deeply concerned by the thousands of people who fell to the scourge of drought -induced starvation and deaths. Their humanity moved me then; and it still motivates me to do what I can. Ethiopia initiated the GERD to alleviate poverty. The GERD is thus not a statue!!
In my view and for justice to prevail, Egypt must be compelled at one point to pay hundreds of billions of dollars in compensation and rent to the Ethiopian people for its free and liberal use of Nile waters, 86 percent of which comes from Ethiopia. As the primary source of Nile waters, Ethiopia has an obligation to its millions who suffer from periodic drought by irrigating lands and by providing food and nutrition; to the tens of millions who deserve access to electricity by enabling them to have access; to the millions of its youth who need jobs through the manufacturing and industrial sector by constructing hydroelectric dams that power them etc.
Following an event in Doha, Qatar sponsored by Al-Jazeera to which I was invited, I argued then and over the years that the River Nile is African and that Ethiopia is its hub. This natural fact will not change. What has changed is international law. What have also changed are the hopes and aspirations of millions of Ethiopians who want a better life in their own homeland. The GERD achieves this goal for Ethiopians in the same way that the Aswan Dam did for Egyptians.
This leads me to the vast array of documentation and best practices on transboundary rivers around the globe from which the three countries could benefit if they there is a political will.
- The 263 transboundary lake and river basins cover almost half the Earth’s surface. 145 States have territory in these basins, and 30 countries lie entirely within them. There are approximately 300 transboundary aquifers, helping to serve the 2 billion people who depend on groundwater.
- Cooperation is essential, especially in areas vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and where water is already scarce. Wetlands around lakes and floodplains that straddle national boundaries provide essential ecosystem services to the surrounding populations, such as food provision, barriers against flooding and the natural processing of pollution.
- Since 1948, there have been 37 incidents of acute conflict over water, while approximately 295 international water agreements were negotiated and signed in the same period. This includes the UNECE Water Convention, a legal framework for transboundary water cooperation worldwide, initially only open to countries in the pan-European region but globally available since 2003.
- Around two-thirds of the world’s transboundary rivers do not have a cooperative management framework. Sadly, the River Nile is among the major river basins in the world that is not governed by a meaningful, fair, equitable and mutually beneficial set of binding Agreements.
- The vital role of waters for humanity is underscored in the 2020 U.N. supported edition of the World Water Development Report (WWDR 2020) entitled ‘Water and Climate Change’. This report aims at helping the water community to tackle the challenges of climate change and informing the climate change community about the opportunities that improved water management offers in terms of adaptation and mitigation. Nile Basin riparian nations can benefit from this and related reports.
- The world community has in its possession a variety of tools and legal instruments. The notables include the United Nations Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (today known as the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention; and the 2008 International Law Commission (ILC) Draft Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers.
- The U.N. advises “These instruments are based on state practice and on agreements concerning individual river basins or regional watercourses. And while each asserts itself as a guiding instrument for treaties at the regional and basin levels, providing comprehensive codifications of general, universal norms, both at the same time claim to offer a frame of reference or basis for the development of more specific instruments that can address the specificities of the watercourses.” At the heart is the political will to facilitate discussions and negotiations; and to use universal norms for harmonization of practices and for sustainability and equity.
- In summary, there is really no Nile River Transboundary Agreement to speak of; and to which Ethiopia has consented. Although Ethiopia is a pioneer, this glaring void must be addressed by all riparian countries in the long-term.
- Egypt can no longer afford to diffuse this argument for a new Agreement that is fair and equitable. Black African riparian nations have a menu of best practices they can use to make their case to the global community, including the UN Security Council to which Egypt had appealed and against which Ethiopia had responded.
Below are successful transboundary and other water use examples that can guide the debate:
- In Africa itself, the Senegal River Basin involving 4 riparian nations: Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal come to mind. They each share landmasses that are susceptible to drought and desertification. The Sahel Drought of 1968-1973 that decimated their economies was among the factors that drove them to establish the Senegal River Basin Development Organization (OMVS). This body commissioned the multipurpose dam known as the Manantali dam that is located in Mali and co-owned and operated jointly by Mali, Mauritania and Senegal.
These countries overcame conflicting interests in terms of end use; and agreed that their long-term interests for sustainability were more critical than their short-term national objectives. Mutual benefits and the overriding objective of sustainability of the Senegal River won the day. Had they persisted in individual country rigid and doctrinaire policies, the Senegal River would continue to suffer from drought, desertification and misuse. This is a win-win formula.
- Next door to Egypt, Israel has done an exemplary job in transforming a drought-prone, desert and water scarce country into one of the most successful green economies in the world. Studies show that since 1948 Israel’s rainfall has decreased by half. Its population has, however, increased ten-fold.
Unlike Egypt, Israel has used science and technology to achieve water security and to mitigate drought. It has not gone to war to capture rivers and water sources. It uses desalination technologies and applies a world-renowned drip irrigation system transforming the desert into productive land. It recycles and conserves water. This is why Israel is a water surplus nation.
Egypt’s argument that it faces an existential threat if Ethiopia fills the GERD on schedule is unfair, unwarranted, unjust and not true. Among other things, it has shown very little willingness to use science and technology and initiate desalination as an option. Experts, including credible Egyptians with integrity opine forcefully that Egypt wastes and literally exports Nile waters by using vast quantities of waters to produce rice, wheat and other crops.
On May 17, 2020, I read a report quoting Egyptian Agriculture Minister El Sayed El Quseir who reported to the media that “Egypt’s agricultural exports exceeded three million tons.” Agricultural exports to the US, China, Russia, most of the European Union member states, the Netherlands, Australia, and the Gulf countries included citrus (top export) followed by potatoes, onions, garlic, and strawberries. Quality is reported to be high. This is why Egypt argues strongly that its farming economy will be harmed if its water quota decreases.
Contrast this export volume against Ethiopia’s lack of food self-sufficiency and security.
As a desert nation, Egypt uses huge quantities of water to farm and export food. It has also failed to recycle massive quantities of water. The World Bank and others have not pushed Egypt not to squander water. That is not all.
Egypt sits on a large and unused Aquifer. “The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System is the largest known fossil water aquifer in the world. Spanning more than 2 million square kilometers across Sudan, Chad, Libya, and Egypt, it contains more than 150,000 cubic kilometers of groundwater—more water than the Nile River discharges in 500 years. The water in the Nubian aquifer dates back to the Pleistocene epoch, when Earth weathered periodic deep freezes.” A famous hydrologist affiliated with the U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, California, Dr. Cliff Voss is quoted saying this. “During the Ice Age, what is now desert was a lot greener and wetter.” This is an untold story that the World Bank and other development agencies could use to persuade Egypt that it has options; rather than pushing Ethiopia to abandon its sovereign rights to harness its river and alleviate poverty.
Dr. Voss confirmed this. “In 2014, we mapped out the Nubian aquifer in the hopes that the four countries (Chad, Egypt, Libya and Sudan) wouldn’t have to compete over their share of the water. Fortunately, all four countries essentially have water forever, especially Egypt and Libya.”
Here I should like to commend Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. who I had met in South Africa at an event on racial equality. He wrote a persuasive and fact-based letter “Requesting the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to issue a resolution against Egypt’s letter to the U.N. about the Nile River.” Egypt had asked the Council to “stop Ethiopia filling the GERD” and thereby allow Egypt to continue its hegemony over the Nile.
Reverend Jackson pinpointed a fundamental flaw in the U.S. and World Bank formulated and brokered Agreement that Ethiopia declined to sign. He underscored harmful asymmetries:
- Egypt and Ethiopia shall be governed by two different standards of international law; one that requires Ethiopia to abandon its sovereign rights over its own waters by requiring it not to fill the GERD; and the other that had allowed Egypt to build the Aswan Dam, fill and operate it freely, independently and without any say by Ethiopia and other Sub-Saharan African riparian nations.
- The U.S. and the World Bank went further than their “observers and mediators” status siding with Egypt; and “formulating and preparing” legal and technical arguments embedded in the Agreement they shaped; and that Ethiopia rightly refused to sign.
I agree with Reverend Jackson Sr. that both showed lack of impartiality favoring Egypt and affirming its Colonial “natural and historical rights” narrative. They also failed to “stand on the side of justice.” I would add by adhering to the Colonial status quo, they also degraded the long and distinguished friendship between the peoples of the United States and Ethiopia.
Reverend Jackson Sr. called upon the CBC, one of the most powerful voices in America to “pass a resolution countering the Arab League’s support” of Egypt’s outdated argument of “water rights” over the River Nile. This right “stems from the 1929 Colonial Treaty” that Ethiopia had rejected. It is buffeted further by the 1959 Agreement with Sudan. The 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between the two Arab nations gives Egypt full control utilization of the Nile waters. … The agreement allowed the entire average annual flow of the Nile to be shared among the Sudan and Egypt at 18.5 and 55.5 billion cubic meters, respectively. None is allocated to Ethiopia or others. Is this fair or just or equitable? Is it supported by international law? It is not.
Those of us who live in Western democracies should use our voting rights to champion Ethiopia’s cause along the same lines as Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. wherever we live and work.
There is a plethora of modules, UN Conventions, Agreements and best practices on irrigation and hydroelectric dams for Ethiopia, Egypt and the Sudan to consider. Among these:
- The famous Itapúa dam co-built and co-owned by Brazil and Paraguay that serves both countries on an equitable and sustainable basis.
- India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers with large populations entered into the Indus River Treaty in order to avoid war over water rights.
- In North America, Mexico and the United States have avoided wars. For example, the United States built the Falcon Dam, an earthen embankment dam on the Rio Grande River, a Transboundary River with Mexico, for water conservation, irrigation, hydroelectric power generation, flood control, and recreational purposes initiated in 1950 and completed in 1954.
- The Mekong River that starts from Tibet and runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam is a source of livelihood for hundreds of millions of people; and contains numerous irrigation and hydroelectric dams. There is a shared commitment among governments and communities for sustainable use.
- Turkey, an upper riparian state, has built 22 dams on the Euphrates and the Tigris Rivers, among which is a multi-sector dam in Southeastern Anatolia, one of the largest dams in the world. Neighboring nations including Iraq and Syria did not go to war with Turkey.
Against these best practices in Transboundary River management, use and in many cases, Agreements, is the absence of an equitable, fair, just and modern Transboundary Agreement that should govern the Nile. This void is a result of Egyptian dominance in the diplomatic field; and the submission of multilateral agencies such as the World Bank to Egypt’s bidding.
None of these rivers is a “sacred cow” that is being milked for the exclusive and solitary use of one nation. Sadly, this is the case of the Nile. Ethiopians insist that the cow should no longer be captured by a single party. Egypt insists that it has the “natural and historical right” to continue owning the milk the Nile produces solely and exclusively for its use while Ethiopian children die from hunger and 65 million Ethiopians live in darkness. Egypt insists arrogantly and dismissively that unless Ethiopia submits to the will of Egypt, Egypt will go to war over a natural resource that does not even belong to it.
I suggest that All Ethiopians (I say All because Egypt exploits our division to the maximum) should stand united and firm; and the world community should support Ethiopia’s side. I also believe that the African Union should follow the U.N. and EU models and take a firm stand on the side of the rule of law, fairness and equitable use of the Nile.
The Egyptian narrative that Ethiopia took advantage of the internal volatility in Egyptian politics is untrue. Conceived under Emperor Haile Selassie, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (the GERD) was initiated in 2010. Successive Ethiopian governments have tried to build dams on the Abbay River/the Blue Nile. None has surrendered Ethiopia’s sovereign rights over its waters.
I want the world to know that that the GERD is near completion; and that it is financed in its entirety by Ethiopians. It is not because they are wealthy. It is because they do not wish to remain poor and dependent. Given this determination to eradicate poverty and dependency, the world community and multilateral donor and financing organizations, especially the World Bank that refused to finance numerous irrigation and hydroelectric dams in Ethiopia, should, at last, commend and support Ethiopia. They refused to finance because of Egyptian intransigence.
In summary, I applaud Germany, the European Parliament and the Secretary General of the U.N. and the Reverend Jesse Jackson for their principled positions and for their siding with ‘justice and the rule of international law.” I call on all Ethiopians and their friends to do the same.
I call on the African Union to voice its standing on this African matter.
I also call on the Arab League to refrain from asserting an abashed pro-Egypt position that emboldens Egypt’s’ warmongering.
This is the reason why. Future African and Arab relations will be better served if the League would come out and support the U.N. Secretary-General’s wise guidance that the three parties ought to respect the 2015 Declaration of Principles (DOP) on the GERD that emphasizes “cooperation based on common understanding, mutual benefit, good faith, win-win, and the principles of international law….and encourages progress towards an amicable agreement in accordance with the spirit of these Principles.”
May 23, 2020
Part IV (the last) of this commentary series will highlight the core reasons or driving factors why change in the paradigm of thinking on the Nile is imperative and inevitable.