Since my childhood, as any Ethiopian, I have followed the successes of a whole series of golden athletic winners, winning race after race around the world. One of my own favorites among a string of great runners Miruts Yifter, commonly referred to as “Yifter the Shifter” because of his unique tactic of shifting the pace of the race and confounding his competitors. In the middle of the race, he changed his game, changed the pace and split his opponents. It was an approach which won him gold medal after gold medal.
It was highly successful tactic, and I would argue that there is a close analogy with the government’s approach to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is proving to be a game changer in Nile hydro politics, an issue that has been around for most of the last millennium. Ethiopia has made a whole series of changes in its approach as Egypt and Sudan have seen, and, indeed, articulated a role for GERD, shifting the traditionally-oriented Nile hydro-politics into modern principles which can realize equitable and fair utilization of the Nile water. Egypt has also been shifting its own approach as Sudan has already done.
Ethiopian Narratives of GERD
It is quite clear, historically, that the Nile River, which is of critical importance to all the 300 million living in the riparian countries, has not been utilized equitably and reasonably. Ethiopia, contributing around 86% of the Nile water, has failed to make any use of its own resource. Now, in a major shift of emphasis and action, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is promoting justice for Ethiopia, and for all other users of the river.
For Ethiopians, the water is a shared resource that can be sufficient for all riparian countries if utilized fairly. Ethiopia failed to use any of the water in the past though it certainly objected to the unfair treaties of 1929 and 1959 signed by Egypt and Sudan. Those treaties ignored all the upper riparian countries and even Ethiopia from where most of the water originated. It notified its position to Egypt and Sudan and also the rest of the world. It took no other steps until, in cooperation with all the riparian countries, it strongly encouraged and worked for the establishment of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in 1999 for the whole of the river basin.
This was followed, after long negotiations, by the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) of April 2010. This has been signed by 6 riparian states (Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi ). Three have also ratified the agreement, Ethiopia on June 13, 2013; Rwanda on August 28, 2013 and Tanzania on March 26, 2013. Others have yet to do so. Sudan and Egypt unfortunately have both rejected the agreement so far, despite they were part of the negotiation till the last minute of the signing.
The text of the Cooperative Framework Agreement outlines the principles, rights and obligations for cooperative management and development of the Nile Basin on the basis of the customary principles of international water law; the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization; the obligation not to cause significant harm for any users of the water; and the principle of protection and conservation of the river’s ecosystem resources. On the basis of these principles, Ethiopia has the absolute right to use the Nile water without significantly harming any other riparian states, specifically the lower riparian states of Sudan and Egypt. The Agreement underlines “The principle of equitable and reasonable utilization of the waters of the Nile River System” (Part I (4)), and adds “The principle that each Nile Basin State has the right to use, within its territory, the waters of the Nile River System in a manner that is consistent with the other basic principles referred to herein” (Part I (6)).
GERD is, of course, not just a dam to generate electricity. For Ethiopians it is rather a project that will once again bring back the country’s glorious history. That is why the project has the support, financially, diplomatically and morally of the entire Ethiopian people. Indeed, I am confident that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam project is something that has unified the whole Ethiopian people in the way they have not been unified since the great victory of Adwa. Certainly, the unfinished Dam is already a showcase of the country’s unity and a striking milestone on Ethiopia’s renaissance journey.
Ethiopia is very aware that GERD will provide numerous benefits to Nile riparian states, especially Sudan and Egypt. It will maintain a regular flow of water in the rainy season, prevent flooding and, equally, allow for increased flow during the dry seasons. It will, in a word, regulate the River. The amount of evaporation of the water from the GERD reservoir will be minimal compared with the Aswan High Dam and other dams in Sudan and Egypt. it will also help minimize the negative impact of climate change. On completion, it will allow the export of considerable quantities of low-cost clean energy to other riparian states and contribute significantly to regional economic integration.
Changes of Approach Towards GERD
Meles Zenawi, late Prime Minister of Ethiopia, was the master mind of the project, which he launched on April 31, 2010. Much has been written and heard about it since then. The Egyptian media was quick to describe it as the most “shocking news that Egypt has ever heard in its entire history”. Repeatedly returning to the idea that the Nile belonged to Egypt, the media changed the expression of Herodotus (“Egypt is the gift of the Nile”) to read, “The Nile is the gift of Egypt”. For the Egyptian media and many others scholars, GERD was a project designed to prevent Egyptians getting the Nile water. They launched a campaign to try to influence their political leaders to take “any necessary measures” to force Ethiopia halt GERD’s construction.
The other narrative, providing for a more nuanced view of GERD’s construction arose from the visit of an Egyptian Public Diplomacy delegation to Addis Ababa in 2012. The delegation held with the late Prime Minister Meles who helped persuade them of Ethiopia’s genuine position on reasonable and equitable utilization of the Nile water. Prime Minister Meles promised the delegation that Ethiopia would delay the ratification of the CFA until a new government was formed in Egypt. This was the beginning of new friendly approach underlining the friendly relations between the peoples of Ethiopia and Egypt, and it has persisted.
Sudan was also primarily skeptical of the impact of the Dam at the beginning, but it, too, gradually began to understand the importance of the dam for its own overall agricultural development. After carefully calculating the pros and cons of the Dam, it officially announced its support to GERD.
To help build trust and confidence in the project, Prime Minister Meles suggested an International Panel of Experts (IPoE) to review the project. The IPoE’s final report in early 2013 concluded that the dam was up to international standards, and that it would have no significant harm on the downstream countries. The Panel also recommended that there should be three further studies on ‘Dam safety and engineering’; ‘Water resources and hydrology;’ and the ‘ Environmental and socio- economic impact of the dam.
Despite this during the presidency of Mohammed Mursi, the Interim government continued to agitate against the Dam. During a live televised discussion of a meeting of President Mursi and various political party leaders some raised the option of taking military measures; and President Mursi himself said: “If Ethiopia is not going to halt the construction of the dam; all options are on the table”; adding, “A drop of Nile water will be equivalent to Egyptians drop of blood”. It was hardly a diplomatic approach.
Things changed with the election of President Abdul Fattah Al Sisi who supported the approach of cooperation and of finding a win-win solution for the dispute over the GERD. An official visit to Ethiopia, the first by an Egyptian President, marked the beginning of an era of cooperation. His visit led to the signing of various bilateral agreements that aimed to enhance economic and social ties between two brotherly nations. It also conveyed a message to the international community that the two countries were committed to consider relations more widely than just hydro-politics of the Nile.
Subsequently, the leaders of the three states, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, agreed to set up Tripartite National Committee to conduct the two IPoE recommended studies. The three leaders then signed the Declaration of Principles in March 2015, accepting the international principles of fair and equitable utilization. The Declaration of Principles states that: “The three countries shall utilize their shared water resources in their respective territories in an equitable and reasonable manner.” (4)
This successful effort to produce calm diplomacy was followed by the highly successful visits of an Ethiopian Public Diplomacy Delegation to Sudan and Egypt in January 2014 and December 2015 respectively; and a visit of a Sudanese Public Diplomacy Delegation to Ethiopia in April 2016. The exchange of visits of the Ethiopian Orthodox and Egyptian Coptic Church Patriarchs was also an indication of the growing trust-building measures to enhance people-to-people relations.
GERD as a Game Changer
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which will generate 6000 megawatts when finished, reached 50% completion in May this year. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, in an interview with Egypt’s El-Hayat TV, downplayed the Egyptian media’s propaganda: “The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has become a reality. It is pointless to bury our heads in the sand by not acknowledging a tangible physical reality.” This signaled a major shift in approach, emanating from a belief in the reality that GERD will be completed soon. It also underlines that the construction of GERD is building up the confidence of the Nile riparian states in the concept of the fair and equitable utilization principle.
The benefits GERD has to offer have convinced Sudan to support the project officially. Sudan has, in fact, come to understand the scientific importance of the Dam for Sudan’s own development. Sudan now believes in the fair, reasonable and equitable utilization of the Nile water. GERD is also being used as a diplomatic tool to convince Egypt of the internationally accepted principles of sharing trans-boundary resources. The result of this could be seen in the official visit of President Abdul Fattah Al Sisi to Ethiopia, a visit demonstrating Egypt’s changing approach towards its relations with Ethiopia. The driving force behind President Al Sisi’s visit was a shift in Cairo’s previously aggressive stance to one of calm diplomacy.
The name of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam underlines the determination of Ethiopians, at home or abroad, to stand united against the country’s main enemy – poverty. To quote Engineer Simegnew Bekele, the Project Manager of the GERD, speaking at a meeting to brief the Ethiopian Public Diplomacy Delegation: “It’s more than 100% sure that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam will be completed soon and the electric power grids which will be routed to Sudan and then crossing the Sahara desert will replace the footprint of our youngsters dying and suffering while they migrate to Europe in search of better life. From now on, the fate of our sisters and brothers, who aspire to enter Europe in search of better life, will be here in their motherland. Our Renaissance dam’s electric power that will be exported to Europe will replace and shine in the kitchen in which our sisters were suffering.”