Experts agree that Ethiopian intransigence on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) issue has caused the current difficulties in negotiations, according to Abla Abdel Latif, Executive Director and Director of Research at the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies (ECES).
Abdel Latif’s comments came following an ECES seminar entitled “The GERD Predicament”, held on Wednesday, in which experts also noted the lack of a dispute settlement mechanism in previous agreements.
The seminar was attended by prominent experts, and aimed to undertake an integrated brainstorming of the issue’s technical, economic, legal and political elements. These considerations would have an input into Egypt’s direction in future GERD negotiations to reserve its right to the lifeline provided by River Nile waters.
At the same time, these would respect the rights of the other two countries involved in GERD negotiations, namely Sudan and Ethiopia, in light of the current negotiations and possible scenarios.
During the seminar, the experts also discussed what Egypt and African countries in general, and Nile Basin countries in particular, must do to stabilise relations and achieve sustainable development across the continent.
At the beginning of the seminar, a presentation was given providing a detailed outline of the negotiations to date, and to explain the main points of the issues that have occurred.
Abdel Latif reviewed a graph, using data from a 2017 study, showing the size of water resources per capita worldwide. On the back of the data, she noted that Egypt faces the reality of water poverty.
She said that Egypt is one of a group of countries where individuals have access to only 1,000 cbm annually. Statistics also show a 38% reduction in per capita water access between 1992 and 2017.
Abdel Latif said that studies conducted by foreign experts show Egypt’s water flow data over the last 115 years, and how a reduction would impact food production.
ECES Secretary-General Mohamed Qassem said that Egypt has reached a significant stage of water poverty, which increases the importance of securing its water resources.
He also said that the discussions during the seminar seek to ask and answer important questions regarding international agreements on River Nile waters. These questions would also cover the role played by the 2015 Declaration of Principles, the side-effects of the recent African Union (AU) intervention on Egypt, and the long-term solutions to Egypt’s water poverty.
Ambassador Ezzat Saad, Director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, said that as Ethiopia receives a large portion of the annual rainfall that falls on the River Nile, it does not have a water problem.
The current situation between Egypt and Ethiopia is a result of a troubled history between the two countries due to recent tensions on GERD. He added that it is widely known that Ethiopia’s goal is to take full control of the River Nile’s waters.
Saad pointed out that Egypt invested much between 2000 and 2010 in building trade and economic relations with Ethiopia. Egypt’s efforts were ostensibly to support trust between the two countries. However, negotiations on GERD have stumbled due to Ethiopia’s recent intransigence and keenness to fill the dam’s reservoirs.
A draft integrated agreement, which met 80% of Egypt’s demands, was created off the back of negotiations in the US capital, Washington, in February, although Ethiopia did not attend the last meeting.
Saad also pointed out that the Declaration of Principles agreement signed by Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan in 2015 did not include a legal mechanism for settling disputes. He noted that this was one of the reasons for Egypt sending a letter to the UN Security Council, for its help in solving the current stalemate, and to persuade Ethiopia to refrain from any unilateral measures that may harm the other parties.
Saad expressed optimism that a solution would be reached based on achievements made in the Washington negotiations round, with Ethiopia’s participation.
The legal side
Mohamed Sameh Amr, head of the Department of Public International Law at Cairo University’s Faculty of Law, said there are many international agreements relating to River Nile waters. Ethiopia, however, has not taken part in all agreements, such as the 1929 and 1959 agreements to which it was not a party. However, an agreement in 1902 was signed by the then Emperor of Ethiopia, and forms a binding agreement on the countrya.
He explained that the 1902 agreement states that Ethiopia may not establish projects on the River Nile without Egypt’s approval. However, none of the previously signed agreements provide for a dispute settlement mechanism.
As a result, Egypt is now insisting on a mechanism for settling disputes in the current negotiations, a basic requirement that Sudan is also demanding.
Amr stressed that Ethiopia does not want to reach an agreement and has no desire to do so, despite its promoting the opposite internationally. He noted that Ethiopia considers that the GERD project has been built with its money and on its land, and that it enjoys sovereignty over the Blue Nile.
As a result, Amr said that Ethiopia is trying to impose the fait accompli, which Egypt sought to fix by signing the Declaration of Principles agreement in 2015. Under the agreement, Article 5 stipulates that Ethiopia will not fill the dam until an agreement with Sudan and Egypt is reached, as it stipulated cooperation and fair and equitable distribution of water.
The article also stipulates that no harm should be caused to downstream countries, a stipulation that Ethiopia has not respected. It has, instead, attempted to reach a legal declaration to build the dam so that it can obtain financing and technical support from international companies.
Amr said that the Washington negotiations had the primary goal of including international mediation from the World Bank and the US, as eyewitnesses to direct negotiations following their previous stalemate.
Although Ethiopia was a partner in these negotiations, it did not attend the last session, due to its not wanting to reach an agreement. The country has also expressed its keenness to make use of the rainy season, and start filling the dam at the beginning of July without an agreement.
Ethiopia’s actions on the filling process resulted in Egypt’s sending a letter to the UN Security Council members. The letter sought to notify them of potential conflict between the two countries.
Amr added that Ethiopia rejected the Egyptian proposal for EU, AU and US observers, based on the results of the Washington negotiations. It also rejected a further Sudanese proposal, before submitting a proposal of its own two weeks ago that would allow it to amend the agreement.
The Ethiopian proposal also rejected any mechanism to settle disputes, and allow it to review the agreement after five years. The proposal outlined that the agreement would be cancelled should no agreement be reached, entailing the agreement was solely dependant on Ethiopia’s will.
Amr explained that Ethiopia does not differentiate between natural drought and artificial drought, and that other dams built behind the Renaissance Dam may lead to a reduction in the quantities of water reaching Egypt.
He described the Ethiopian standards for construction as “disturbing” for both Egypt and Sudan, given that the country’s proposal means it will be able to control the flow of water to the dam lake. Egyptian and Sudanese proposals have put forward that the construction of the dams behind the Renaissance Dam be subject to international standards.
Nader Nour El-Din, Professor of Lands and Water at Cairo University’s Faculty of Agriculture, said that Egypt’s current population currently stands at about 104 million people. This means that the country needs about 104 billion cbm of water annually to meet the water needs of its still expanding population.
He noted that the water poverty line is estimated at 1,000 cbm per person per year, with Egypt having access to about 62bn cbm of fresh water resources annually. Of this amount, 55bn cbm come from the country’s annual share of River Nile waters, with the rest from rainwater and groundwater. These figures mean that Egypt faces a water gap estimated at 42bn cbm annually.
Nour El-Din added that Egypt is the only Nile Basin country re-exploiting waste water. It has done so by trying to bridge the water gap by re-exploiting 20bn cbm of sewage, agricultural and industrial wastewater. Despite its efforts in this area, Egypt still suffers from a water gap of 22bn cbm annually. This has resulted in the country having to import 62% of its food needs from abroad due to a lack of water for agricultural use.
The technical side
Nour El-Din said that the Renaissance Dam reservoir capacity is estimated at 75bn cbm of water, while the capacity of the Blue Nile on which the dam is being built stands at about 49bn cbm. He added that all previous agreements are unrelated to the dam that will be built on the Blue Nile.
He also said that, although there is no talk of Egypt’s historic rights to River Nile waters, the current dispute is mainly due to the amount of water that will reach Egypt following the dam’s operation.
The economic side
Economics expert Ibrahim Nawar raised an idea related to the collective negotiations of Nile Basin countries that will see the maximised utilisation of Nile resources. This would be approached from a regional and multi-level perspective, so that the Nile Basin region does not turn into a zone of sustainable conflict.
Nawar said that this perspective should be used to set a joint system to operate dams in all Nile Basin countries. This would also see Egypt invited to an international conference where the formula for negotiations would be changed.
He noted that all Nile Basic countries would be brought together, along with the AU, the EU and the UN Security Council, to work out an integrated development system for the region. This would be set up in parallel with a legally binding agreement to fill the Renaissance Dam reservoir. An extended agreement for operation would be put into effect, until the future operating system for the dams is reached.
At the end of the seminar, Abelatif agreed with Nawar on the importance of regional cooperation between Nile Basin countries from the perspective of achieving common development. If adopted in the long term, Egypt’s treatment of the issue will differ in the short term, through the existence of a platform to achieve the common interests of all Nile Basin countries.