GERD crisis shows need for a joint regional approach
Water vs. electricity might be the title of the current and most dangerous issue facing East Africa and the Middle East. Indeed, as the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has started, the stability of the entire region is threatened. This is probably the first real climate change dossier that could lead to direct conflict.
According to official data, the dam will provide Ethiopia with a capacity of 5 to 6 gigawatts and an annual output of 15,759 gigawatt hours — enough to provide electricity to most of Ethiopia’s population and foster the country’s industrial development, while also providing a surplus to sell to its neighbors. On the other hand, the flow of fresh water to Sudan and Egypt could be reduced by 25 percent, putting entire populations and crops at risk, as well as reducing the electricity production of Egypt’s Aswan Dam. More importantly, it would be the first time that a country’s most basic natural resource is controlled by another nation.
And so, the real question should not be as it is today: How many years should it take to fill the dam’s reservoir to avoid a negative impact on Egypt and Sudan? It should be: Has Ethiopia the right to claim sovereignty over the water flowing into the Nile, which feeds hundreds of millions in Sudan and Egypt? Can it act without the consent of fellow African countries that stand to be deprived of this basic need?
Although a crucial point, there is more to be agreed on than the number of years it should take to fill the GERD reservoir — whether six like the Ethiopians are planning or more than 12 like Egypt is requesting. There also needs to be an agreement on data exchange and cooperation regarding the management of dams on the Nile and the flow of water. Indeed, even on an electricity level, the GERD could negatively impact Sudan as well as the Aswan Dam in Egypt.
On this issue, water should come before electricity. And so, it is quite surprising to see most Western reports and studies laud Ethiopia’s need for prosperity and industrial growth while brushing off the basic water needs of Egypt’s population and agriculture. As the global leadership is pushing a climate change agenda, I am also surprised by the lack of focus on this potential conflict, especially as the sea is now eroding the Nile Delta.
In short, there should be common management and preservation of water resources. This should not be the exclusive responsibility of Ethiopia, but of a joint regional organization. Any other approach will lead to permanent tensions and crises — this is the message that needs to be put forward to the international community.
Undoubtedly, Egypt can and will manage its water resources better, but if we follow the philosophy behind the climate change agenda, this means that one country should not be entitled to control and claim sovereignty over a bare necessity such as water. In this case, it seems there is a will to ignore this and instead push toward creating long-lasting and constant geopolitical tensions between two of the largest countries in East Africa.
This, in turn, threatens the entire Red Sea and Middle East region. Therefore, leading Arab countries should play a strong and positive role in this vital security issue for Egypt. Water supply should be a national security issue for the entire Middle East and a unified strategy should be agreed. Regardless of the outcome, standing united would bring greater cohesion. This is not a nationalistic call or a call for confrontation. Indeed, it could come through a plan that helps build the region’s infrastructure through investments in all East Africa and which incentivizes Ethiopia to join a regional management framework for water flows.
East Africa boasts a large and young population and has great economic potential. It is already a prime investment zone. There should, therefore, be a regional infrastructure plan to support the development and transition toward more resilient economies and a climate-resilient future; a sort of Marshall Plan for water and energy. On this matter, I cannot help but wonder where all the climate change pundits are — the ones who criticize dams and even request their demolition due to their effect on climate change. Why are they silent on this issue? It is simply because geopolitics beats climate change, especially when it impacts a leading Arab country.
There is also the need to transform the public belief that any interference or co-management of the dam is an attack on Ethiopia’s sovereignty. This is simply not true. This is exactly why we need to move toward the mindset of a common regional infrastructure rather than a nationalistic one, on this issue and many others. Ethiopia’s domestic issues, which have nothing to do with this, are forcing it to use the dam as a nationalistic rallying call for the country’s unity. This is a wrong and dangerous approach. It can be a proud nation without looking to deprive other populations of their basic needs.
One country should not be entitled to control and claim sovereignty over a bare necessity such as water.
Khaled Abou Zahr
With goodwill, there are many ways to look at this crisis. For example, Ethiopia is a landlocked country and, hence, there could be ways to support its access to ports. Egypt could play an important role in providing this advantage by jointly developing access to the Mediterranean for Ethiopia’s growing industry. This is only blue-sky thinking. However, once we start looking at the needs and opportunities as a region and as neighbors, we start a new phase for Africa and the Middle East.
It is an absolute necessity to achieve a resolution on this vital issue. Many — Ethiopia included — believe that the fait accompli method will work. In other words, to start filling the reservoir and ignore the rest. This strategy will backfire not only for Ethiopia, but the entire region too. It is also a test for the leading Arab countries. This strongly makes the case for starting a common strategic plan to face all the national security issues that affect our region. This is the most urgent step.
- Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.