By Dr. Mesfin Genanaw
Ethiopia is the prime headwater of the Nile River. Egypt and Ethiopia share a lot of common civilization, history, religions, culture, and drink the same water. The Nile river has a great influence on both countries’ cultures, songs, rituals, and folklores. But lately, a simmering dispute over the filling of the Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD) is heating up between the two sisterly countries at the two ends of the Nile valley.
The writer of this article was born and raised just five miles away from Abay (Blue Nile) Basin on the Ethiopian side, where there was no electricity and clean water, just like 60% of contemporary Ethiopians. The contrast is so dramatic at the other end of the Nile in Egypt, where electricity and clean water is readily available for everyone. The variation in the satellite night images of the two countries is so dramatic; if you are not from that region and geography-challenged, you would mistakenly think the mighty water that generates tremendous electricity and fresh water in Egypt is flowing in a reverse direction from Mount Sanai of Egypt, passes through Sudan but could not defy gravity to move up to the highlands of Ethiopia to make life better there. In fact, 86% of the Nile River’s water originates from Ethiopia and flowing to downstream Egypt to build a great pharaonic civilization for thousands of years that we are all proud of. And strange as it may sound, it is now Ethiopia that is appealing for equitable water-sharing arrangement, sitting at the mouth of the water supply, and Egypt that claims to own all of it, sitting at the tail of the Nile valley.
Ancient Egypt would have stayed a desert had it not been for the Nile River and the fertile black soil that came with it to sustain life. As the primary beneficiary of the Nile River, however, Egypt should have invested hugely by cooperating with upstream Nile Basin countries in planting trees and developing the sources of the Nile to increase the amount of flow of water going downstream. Instead, Egypt in the late 19th century had tried numerous times to conquer the primary source country Ethiopia to control the source of water. Despite their large army and better guns, they were crushed three times by Ethiopia’s emperor. In the twentieth century, however, she shifted the strategy into supporting all types of liberation fronts that rose arms against the Ethiopian government and block any dam construction projects or any funding by western countries or international organizations (like the World Bank and IMF) for dam-building projects in Ethiopia.
As a case in point, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was established in Cairo in 1960 under the blessing of then Egypt’s charismatic leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The purpose of his support was to weaken the Ethiopian State from within so that no budget will be siphoned off for such a developmental project. True to his desire, with the financial, diplomatic, and military support of Egypt and many wealthier Arab countries, this organization later morphed into the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF) that successfully liberated Eritrea in 1991 by cutting off Ethiopia from its historical access to the red sea. What Egypt under successive colonial rule (the French, Ottomans and British) couldn’t accomplish in several grand expeditions to conquer Ethiopia, its support of the ELF and later EPLF from within finally paid off by “liberating” Eritrea and turning Ethiopia into the dubious distinction of becoming the most populous landlocked country in the world. The Egyptian, Boutros Boutros Ghali, was at the right place as the Secretary-General of the United Nations to approve it, no questions asked.
In the heydays of his administration, His Imperial Majesty Haileselassie of Ethiopia had launched a dam-building project on the Nile Basin. But around the time of the Camp David agreement b/n Egypt and Isreal, United States washed her hands off this project. According to Stratfor intelligence news, a dispatch from June 1, 2010, that cited a “high-level Egyptian security/intel source, in regular direct contact with Mubarak and [then-intelligence head Omar] Suleiman” said: “The only country that is not cooperating is Ethiopia. We are continuing to talk to them, using the diplomatic approach. Yes, we are discussing military cooperation with Sudan. … If it comes to a crisis, we will send a jet to bomb the dam and come back in one day, simple as that. Or we can send our special forces in to block/sabotage the dam…Look back to an operation Egypt did in the mid-late 1970s, i think 1976, when Ethiopia was trying to build a large dam. We blew up the equipment while it was traveling by sea to Ethiopia.”
And it is this country that sees itself as a “victim.”
The Greek historian Herodotus called Egypt the “gift of the Nile”, but Egyptians added on the word “only” into the phrase and conveniently believed that the Nile belonged to Egypt-only and the aspirations of people at the source of their water must be crushed. If the Almighty God had intended the Nile River to benefit what we now know as Egypt, he would have sprung up the mighty water at the Mount Sanai or Nile Delta instead of at Lake Tana or Lake Victoria, thousands of miles away to the south. When Egypt says, “do not touch my share of the Nile water”, the language has finally been decoded clearly to mean “DO NOT TOUCH ALL NILE WATER” save a fraction to Sudan and nothing to the prime originator Ethiopia and eight other upstream nations.
The tangled Web of Deceptions
1) If one has been following news from Egypt and its friends recently regarding GERD, one would assume Ethiopia is out to get Egypt and STOP the flow of the Nile River. In a letter addressed to the UN Security Council dated 05/01/2020, Egyptian Foreign Minister said, “Filling and operating the dam would jeopardize the water security, food security, and indeed, the very existence of over 100 million Egyptians, who are entirely dependent on the Nile River for their livelihood,” This is a statement that deceives the world into thinking of Egypt as a victim and Ethiopia as a victimizer when in fact the truth is the other way around. In fact, Ethiopia plans to fill up a mere 4.9 BCM water (out of a total of 85BCM annual Nile water) to the GERD reservoir in the first year and another 13.5 BCM in the second year. The international panel of experts found the dam “would not cause significant harm on both the lower riparian countries and offers high benefit for all the three countries.”. The 18.4bcm of water loss due to the GERD filling over two years could easily be compensated with releases from its High Aswan Dam, which holds up to 169bcm and presently near historic high. Instead, Egypt crazily demands the GERD water reservoir be depleted to the level of generating power under capacity in the event of any drought in Egypt.
2) The other common deception is that “The Nile is a life and death issue for Egypt but a developmental issue for Ethiopia.” But development has been a life and death issue for Ethiopia too. As it is well known, Ethiopia has a history of famine and starvation, mainly for lack of using its resources to develop. Which self-respecting nation would instead beg for food than using its resources? Would Egypt share its oil resources with Ethiopia as payback for its Nile water for thousands of years and still going?
3) The third notable deception is that “Egypt has only Nile water to rely on to sustain life.” Egypt is sitting on a trillion CM of groundwater enough to keep it safe for another thousand years. It can also use the technology to desalinate the salt from the seawater (from the Mediterranean and the Red-Sea) and make it drinkable like other middle eastern countries. According to experts, Egypt’s water bank, Lake Nasser, wastes 10 to 16 BCM to evaporation every year and three times as much due to wastage in its farmlands. Imperial British engineers had not approved of building the huge Aswan dam due to its massive loss of water.
According to experts in the field, the advantage of GERD to Sudan and Egypt is a multitude. Besides the additional much-needed power, when it regulates the water flow, the loss due to evaporation from the reservoir is not more than one BCM, saving more water for Egypt and Sudan. It increases the amount of rainfall in the Ethiopian highlands due to the evaporation from the reservoir, increasing the water flow downstream. Furthermore, it serves as a silt embankment for the dams in Sudan and Egypt, making more land available for irrigation.
Ethiopians are like eggs, the more you boil them, the harder they become. It is not by accident that Ethiopia stayed independent throughout human history. If there is any foreign threat, the seemingly fragile country will unite overnight. The GERD has unified Ethiopians of all walks of life like no other issue in recent memory. No one can stop the country from being able to use resources at its backyard.
Furthermore, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) financed by citizens from the poorest of the poor to business owners has now become the citizens’ project and ‘Ethiopia’s pyramid’ in terms of symbolism as well as the potential to light up for over 60 million citizens, the power to forge industrial expansion in the country, and the source of a much needed hard currency from electricity sales. GERD will benefit all three countries by generating massive energy for the entire region, efficient storage during the dry season, and regulated water flow and flood control to make more irrigable land for downstream countries. It brings a win-win result to all parties in the region and no harm to anyone.
Egypt must realize that Ethiopia honoring the 1959 bilateral treaty b/n Egypt and Sudan over the Nile water, to which an independent Ethiopia was not a party, is like accepting the scheme of two ungrateful residential neighbors encroaching on your backyard to block you from the fruits and berries that you let them eat for years.
Egypt has to get off its high horse and negotiate in good faith with all upper riparian countries. It can no longer build its wealth off of the backs of the suffering upstream neighboring states, nor can it rely on blocking external financing of development projects in water source countries. Egypt’s insistence on colonial treaties and its insensitiveness to others’ needs will only put her at odds with Ethiopia and other upstream Nile Basin countries. If it doesn’t come into the fold of the Cooperative Framework Agreement of the Nile Basin countries, unilateral actions by upstream countries are inevitable due to the population explosion. Let cool heads prevail, and all parties look forward than backward and not try to stop the unstoppable.