Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan sign an agreement on working together for the beneficial use of the Nile waters
It is a historic agreement. After decades of strained relations and disputes with Ethiopia over the Nile waters Egypt, joined by Sudan, has signed an agreement with Ethiopia that should bury the hatchet and herald in a new age of relations built on mutual trust.
The Nile, the world’s longest river, flows 6,700 kilometres through twelve countries in northeast Africa: Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt.
Gift of the Nile
The majestic river that flows through Egypt from south to north and bears no less than life itself originates in Africa. Technically a desert that enjoys almost no rainfall and has no sustainable underground water reservoir, Egypt has no chance for life without the Nile. As far back as the 5th century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus made his famous observation that Egypt was the gift of the Nile. Still unquestionably true today.
While the steady flow of Nile waters comes from the lakes in Uganda and Kenya, the annual inundation comes from the copious summer rainfall on the Ethiopian plateau. Tributaries, major among them is the Blue Nile, carry the rich waters to the main river which flows northwards through the Sudan and into Egypt. Throughout its millennia-long history the downstream country has depended on the Nile for its very lifeblood. Egyptians settled down on its banks, cultivated the fertile valley created by its waters and the silt they carried, and gave the world a civilisation that stands out for its compassionate culture, profound knowledge, advanced science, and long duration.
Modern times came with modern changes. During the late 19th century it became obvious that the Nile waters would be disputed by the riparian nations. Agreements were signed by these countries to regulate the rights of each to the waters; more agreements followed during the 20th century.
At the time, all the riparian countries were under colonial rule. The agreements gave Egypt the right to the lion’s share of the Nile waters, 55.5 billion cu.ft. and, given that it was a downstream country whose water rights may easily be abused by upstream countries and was additionally a desert land that depended absolutely on the Nile for its sole water source, was granted veto power regarding any water projects to be established upstream. Not that Egypt abused this power; when Uganda wished to build a dam at Owen Falls on Lake Victoria, today known as the the Nalubaale Dam, it was Egypt that in 1954 financed and built that dam and to this day shares in its operation with Uganda. Egypt has also shared in countless water projects in riparian countries and trained their nationals in water management in Cairo.
As the populations of the riparian nations ballooned in the 20th century, the need for development and better exploitation of the Nile waters became more and more pressing. Egypt spearheaded the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), formally launched in 1999, as a partnership among the Nile riparian states that “seeks to develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security”. The aim was to promote joint efforts to propose, study, secure finance for, and execute Nile projects in the riparian countries.
In the 2000s, however, Ethiopia led a move to sign a new Nile waters agreement that would strip Egypt of the veto right. Predictably, Egypt was up in arms against the new proposed agreement, the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) which was initiated in Entebbe in 2010, and which practically scrapped the NBI. To date, the majority of the riparian States have signed the CFA; Egypt and Sudan did not sign.
Even before that chapter was closed, a proposal to construct the USD4.2 billion 6000 megawatt Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile River came up, with the purpose of hydropower generation. The original design was changed to drastically raise the dam height to 145 metres so that the capacity of the water reservoir behind it would increase from an original 11 billion cu.m. to some 74 billion cu.m. Cairo fiercely opposed the move.
Whereas it was claimed the dam would move Ethiopia from poverty to prosperity, it was also obvious that Egypt’s water flow from the Nile would suffer, especially during the years of filling the reservoir. Many serious questions arose on that head, [http://en.wataninet.com/features/nile/ethiopias-designs-on-the-nile/821/] but Ethiopia merely paid lip service to the issue by denying the dam would cause any harm. It did not help that Egypt was at the time undergoing the Arab Spring upheaval that brought in an incompetent Islamist regime which handled the issue inadequately and raised Ethiopian ire. The Islamists were overthrown in 2013.
An Egyptian proposal that an impartial international consultancy firm should make a study of the dam project and assess, or deny, any damage to Egypt on account of the GERD and whose decision would be binding was met with apathy, stalling, and outright non-cooperation by the Ethiopian side.
Last month saw a historic turn in Egyptian Ethiopian relations. A tripartite agreement—a Declaration of Principles—was signed by Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, and was witnessed by Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya. Signing the agreement were Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Sudanese President Omar Bashir, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
The agreement, which effectively gives the green light to the Ethiopian dam, outlines principles by which all three countries would cooperate to use the water fairly, cause no harm to one another, and resolve any potential disputes peacefully. The details on specific procedures will be determined later after the release of joint studies by experts.
President Sisi who then headed to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa for a three-day visit, told reporters there that Ethiopia and Egypt are “on the right path to cooperation”. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said he will hold direct talks with President Sisi at least once a year either in Addis Ababa or Cairo. “The high-level meeting will enable us to work on issues without losing the momentum,” he said.
The right to life
The highlight of the Egyptian President’s visit to Addis Ababa was a speech he gave before the Ethiopian Parliament on Wednesday 25 March.
President Sisi stressed that, as members of the wider African family, “we need to build bonds of trust and to bridge the rift of suspicion that separates us and that must never have been allowed to grow to divide us. We already face too many challenges that need to be confronted, among them poverty and underdevelopment, as well as the peril of terrorism which threatens us all,” he said.
The President called on leaders of all Nile countries to work together on reaching a consensus about the waters, “one that allows us to overcome the differences and to address the needs” of all the Nile Basin countries.
Even as it presses ahead with the construction of the GERD, President Sisi urged Ethiopia to put aside “centuries of mistrust” and cooperate on sharing the Nile River waters. He said: “your Egyptian brothers also have the right, not only to development, but to life itself. And to live in safe haven on the banks of the River Nile over which they created a civilisation that extended thousands of years.
“As you work for the development of your people, keep in mind that for the Egyptian people the Nile is not only a source of water but a source of life.
“No one should ever feel secure about his future without the other, or to build his welfare at the expense of his brother. You will develop and grow and I am with you, but be aware that in Egypt the people live only on the water that comes from this river,” President Sisi said.
The speech was received with a standing ovation by Ethiopia’s lawmakers.
Though the new document does not create unconditional support for the dam, it provides a guideline for negotiations between the three countries. Addis Ababa has long complained that Cairo was pressuring donor countries and international lenders to withhold funding from the dam which Italy’s Salini Impregilo SpA, was assigned to build without bidding.
The original plans to resolve the issues on the dam still hold. An international consultancy firm should be technically assessing the dam and any harm it may cause to Egypt; and Egypt and Ethiopia should agree on a schedule for filling the reservoir. These had been Egypt’s demands all along; the difference now is that Ethiopia will be cooperating instead of stalling.
Following the signing of the Declaration of Principles, President Sisi said that Egypt had sought assurances that the dam will not significantly cut the river’s flow to Egypt’s growing population. According to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry, Egypt’s current quota of Nile waters is increasingly less able to satisfy Egypt’s needs. “We have already entered water poverty,” he said.
Experts have estimated that Egypt could lose as much as 20 per cent of its Nile waters if it takes three to five years to fill the dam’s massive reservoir. According to Egypt’s Irrigation Minister Hossam al-Maghazi, the signatories to the agreement have pledged to protect the interests of downstream countries while the dam reservoir was being filled, and gave them priority to the electricity generated by the dam.
Ethiopian water researcher Seifulaziz Milas says that once the dam is built and its reservoir filled, the amount of water flowing down the Nile would return to normal. “It’s just a question of filling up the reservoir, after that there’s nowhere else for the water to go but downstream.”
Shafiqul Islam, director of the Water Diplomacy Program at Tufts University, commented on Ethiopia’s promise not to affect water flow to Egypt. “Does Egypt believe it? Perhaps not. But Egyptians do not have much option.” Egypt can now purchase cheap energy once the dam goes into operation, Dr Islam said, meaning that the filling schedule is the only operational aspect of the dam that could play out as a point of contention between Egypt and Ethiopia. As long as Ethiopia fills the reservoir gradually, pooling some water at the dam site while still letting out a consistent stream, the downstream impact will be minimal, he said.
Egyptian analysts, however, have been almost unanimous in applauding the agreement. They welcomed the dissipation of tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia and the assurance that a mechanism has been put into action to ensure the dam will not harm Egypt.
The general sentiment among the Egyptian public was one of relief, that Egypt is better off for the agreement. This does not mean, however, that Sisi bashers on the social media were happy. They resorted to biting scepticism, claiming that for years the Ethiopian dam was a ‘rogue project’; “now it’s suddenly good?” But the majority of Egyptians on the street recognised this as in line with the stance that Sisi can do nothing good, a stance mainstream Egyptians vehemently oppose. At the end of the day, a climate of good hope widely reigns.
1 April 2015