Cooperation on The Nile, Essential for Mutual Benefits

9 Jan 2018

For more than two decades, the Ethiopian government has been striving to achieve the socio-economic transformation of the country. The vision to ensure all-inclusive growth and to attain lower middle-income status by 2025 continues to be anchored on executing policies aimed at the overall eradication of poverty through comprehensive development. This vision can also be realized through the utilization of Ethiopia’s natural resources, which include the water resources of the Eastern Nile Basin.

The Nile represents the country’s most important river basin, with its water resources comprising 70% of its annual surface water discharge. The Nile Basin hosts over 40% of the country’s population, covering over a third of Ethiopia’s territory. The country experiences some of the highest levels of energy poverty in the world; 65 million people in Ethiopia do not have access to electricity. So the exploitation of this hydropower potential is not only a priority but an imperative. The construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in the Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State aims to address these levels of domestic energy poverty, whilst addressing increasing energy demands, which have been rising by 32% annually since 2015.

Though the need to eradicate poverty and backwardness has necessitated the construction of the GERD, its location along a transboundary river has meant the project also represents an integrative opportunity within the region. In its decision to launch the project, the Ethiopian government engaged with countries downstream from the dam, namely Sudan and Egypt, to assure them of the many benefits the GERD will register across the Basin. It is in this spirit that the Ethiopian Government, in the absence of any legal obligation or customary practice within the Basin, initiated the establishment of an International Panel of Experts (IPoE) to:

“review the design documents of the GERD, facilitate information sharing, support greater understanding of the benefits and costs accrued to the three countries and assess impacts, if any, of the GERD on downstream countries to build trust and confidence among all parties”.

The IPoE, which was comprised of 10 impartial experts (two from each of the three Eastern Nile riparian countries and four international experts) adopted its final report unanimously, submitting their findings to the Governments of Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt in 2013. The report concluded that the project is being constructed in line with internationally accepted design criteria and standards; noted the GERD’s benefits to all three countries; and recommended that additional hydrological modelling and transboundary environmental and social impact studies be made. The governments of Ethiopia and Sudan accepted the findings of the report and engaged the Egyptian government in discussions to follow up on the report’s recommendations to enhance confidence and build greater trust within the Basin. Subsequently, the three countries agreed to move forward with the two recommended studies by selecting two international consultancy companies – France’s BRL and Artelia – which have been mandated to undertake the work as lead- and sub-consultants respectively. The three countries signed a contract document with the consultant also known as the “Consultancy Services Agreement”, and agreed and signed between the three countries, BRL and Artelia in September 2016.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi (L), Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (C) and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn join hands during a meeting in the Sudanese capital Khartoum in 2015.

Since these agreements, numerous follow-up meetings involving the tripartite national committee (TNC) and at times the relevant ministers of the three countries, have participated in these meetings that have been held alternatively in Addis Ababa, Khartoum and Cairo. At the 16th  and 17th edition of these meetings held in Addis Ababa and Cairo respectively, the Water and Irrigation ministers of the three countries discussed the draft inception report submitted by the international consultants. Ethiopia and Sudan proposed amendments to the report which would harmonise it with the original contract document. This is a common practice in any project life-cycle, but unfortunately, the Egyptian government opposed these amendments and opted to refer the issue to higher officials, but the Ministers of Water still have the capacity to resolve their differences.

Ethiopia and Sudan have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to the Declaration of Principles (DOP) agreed between the three countries in Khartoum in 2015. The current Egyptian government’s opposition to the proposal “to instruct the Consultant to amend and adjust the draft inception report in line with the Contract Document signed between the TNC and the Consultant” represents a departure, on its part, from its previous commitments to the DOP, in particular, and from the cooperative process surrounding the GERD, in general. Thus, the Egyptian government’s position on the draft inception report contradicts the contract document the three countries signed with the Consultants and is contrary to the principle of cooperating in good faith.

Regrettably, following this impasse in the talks, the Egyptian government has publicly announced that the technical track has failed, misleading the international community. This unhelpful escalation of talks will not help in any way to expedite the process and risks spoiling the cooperative process. Moreover, the Ethiopian side has a firm belief that the differences prevailing among the three parties can still be solved through dialogue and negotiation between the concerned parties in line with the principles of the Declaration. The problem is not beyond the Ministers’ capacity to solve, and restarting the negotiation is and should be the only way out.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry [left] with his Ethiopian counterpart Dr Workneh Gebeyehu in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. December 2017.

To sum up, the Ethiopian government is constructing the GERD as a win-win project, in line with its longstanding principles of utilising Nile water resources in an equitable and reasonable manner. As a responsible, peace-loving nation, Ethiopia remains committed to not causing significant harm in its development of the Nile waters and has demonstrated throughout the construction of the GERD its adherence to generally-accepted principles of international water law and cooperation. Thus, a further call was made by the Ethiopian Foreign Minister, Dr Workneh Gebeyehu, that it is incumbent upon Egypt to return to the tripartite process to conclude negotiations for the benefit of the familial people of the Eastern Nile Basin.

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