Solutions to Ethiopian dam crisis difficult but possible
Negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) are deadlocked, but they will be “resumed,” according to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed after they met at the Russia-Africa summit in Sochi last week.
Despite these statements, the people of the two countries live in a real crisis, especially with their leaders’ contradictory visions regarding the dam. The Ethiopian side believes that the construction of the dam according to the specifications it initially set is an inherent right, while the Egyptian side believes that construction on those terms will harm its right to the Nile’s water, and thus would harm the state in general.
Last week’s meeting between El-Sisi and Ahmed could be a way out, provided it is followed by other meetings with an international presence — though such a move would be fraught with risks and downsides.
Egyptian-Ethiopian relations were at the height of their development during the 1960s, but they witnessed a period of inactivity during the 1970s. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak tried to restore relations to their previous heights, but they deteriorated again with the 1995 assassination attempt on Mubarak in Addis Ababa, after which the Egyptian-Ethiopian Business Council was suspended for 17 years.
Soon after the events of January 2011 in Egypt, the Ethiopian newspaper Addis Fortune surprised observers with the news of the establishment of the GERD project to generate electricity on the Blue Nile. The GERD consists of two dams, not one, as some believe. The first is a concrete dam located on the Blue Nile course, 154 meters high and 1.8 kilometers long, with a storage lake with a surface area of about 1,900 square kilometers. The second is a saddle dam at a height of 50 meters and a length of 4.8 kilometers. This is located a few kilometers away from the main dam and the storage period of that lake and its capacity is the main focus of the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia.
Some Egyptian experts, including former Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohammed Nasr El-Din Allam, assert that Ethiopian claims about the GERD’s electricity production targets are not feasible because it is a border dam located hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest Ethiopian city, making electricity transmission difficult. Local electricity is heavily subsidized by the government, making domestic electricity consumption uneconomical, and the state will not therefore be able to repay the loans used in its construction. There also other, smaller electricity-generating dams both currently available and under construction.
It is feared the GERD will negatively affect the economic, political, social and security conditions in Egypt
Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy
Some experts believe that the aim of the GERD is political, not developmental, and aims to control the Nile water and its large storage capacity, in addition to dwarfing or canceling the role of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam. It is feared the GERD will negatively affect the economic, political, social and security conditions in Egypt, and limit its overall capacity and regional role. One of the aims of establishing the dam may be to force Egypt and Sudan to join the Entebbe Agreement on the shared waters of the Nile Basin.
The lower Egyptian water quota set to be caused by the GERD would lead to the decimation of large areas of agricultural land, lower groundwater levels, increased seawater intrusion in the Nile Delta and the salinization of its lands, exposure of many drinking water plants and factories located on the Nile River and its tributaries, and increased pollution in the Nile waters, threatening fisheries and river navigation. A report by the Tripartite National Committee warned there is a lack of studies and structural designs for a dam of this size. It concluded that there is no policy for the operation of the dam. Moreover, environmental studies focused only on the Ethiopian side and not the Egyptian or Sudanese sides.
It is certainly necessary to resume negotiations, especially since Egypt and Ethiopia are two friendly countries, so that the solution can be peaceful and acceptable for both. The parties should not look for other ways to resolve the issue, as some have suggested on satellite television channels, causing Ahmed to come out with a statement that he is able to mobilize 1 million people to defend the dam if confronted militarily by Egypt.
As I mentioned at the outset, it is necessary to bring international parties that are trusted by Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan into the negotiating process, as this may help facilitate progress. It is also necessary to settle the situation with Sudan and establish a clear framework for action and negotiations on the GERD within the framework of the 1929 and 1959 agreements for the distribution of Nile waters. The legal process must also be taken to the UN with a view to halting the dam’s construction and allowing an assessment of its structural safety to avoid the risk of collapse, examine its repercussions on the two downstream states, and query Ethiopia’s apparent numerous breaches of the 1902 border agreements, the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention, and the 2015 Declaration of Principles on the GERD project.
I know that this will be difficult in practice because each party sticks to its opinions and refuses anything that may prejudice its rights, but it is theoretically possible — through a convergence of views — that no one is harmed by the outcome of the negotiations.
• Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy is a multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide. Twitter: @ALMenawy