Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – Emerging Diplomatic Dimensions

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By Jim Dennis Okore.

The decision of Addis Ababa to proceed with the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), off the Blue Nile, continues to exacerbate the already existing geopolitical tensions. With stakes higher, this might culminate into military confrontations. The GERD and the waters of the Nile are increasingly becoming foreign policy imperatives, thus informing the Regional Security Complex of the region. 

The activities of Addis Ababa have caught regional and international attention. Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, requested the US to mediate into the Egypt-Ethiopia hydropolitics. With no sight of probable solution, the US Administration is contemplating withholding of non-humanitarian foreign aid to Ethiopia, as a means of leveraging the negotiations. In asserting its power, Ethiopia refused to sign the US-brokered deal. 

It is also noteworthy to say that the Ethiopia-Egypt hydropolitics of the Nile has become an international diplomatic arena (an internationalization of transboundary water conflict). The feuding parties are Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. The Mediating parties are the African Union (AU), the US, and the Arab League. This means that two regional assemblies of the AU and the Arab League are drafted in as mediators.  

Hydropolitics of the Nile and the Riparian States: What are the issues between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan?

  • The pace of filling the reservoir
  • Livelihoods and drought mitigation
  • Water as the lifeline downstream (water supply).

For Ethiopia:

  • Over $4.6 Billion funded by the Exchequer
  • Probable source for hydroelectric power
  • Source of national pride
  • Ethiopia construes the Dam as symbolic of it as a regional hegemon. 

For Egypt:

  • Concerned with the strangulation of water supply downstream
  • Nile waters area national wealth (2012 constitution)

Egypt has historic rights on the Nile waters. The 2014 Constitution, specifically Art. 44, ‘the State commits to protect the Nile River, maintaining Egypt’s historic rights, thereto, rationalizing and maximizing its benefits, not wasting its waters or polluting it’. This is a transboundary message and takes a different approach from the 2012 Constitution. Critical here is water management and environmental concerns.

Egypt’s historical rights are tied to colonial treaties. In the 1929 Treaty, for example, Britain acted on behalf of Sudan and other protectorates. Also, Egypt, at this time, had no ‘Full Powers’ since it had no political independence. 

In 1950s, the Aswan High Dam sparked Egypt-Sudan crisis hence the 1959 Agreement. Egypt considers the Agreement as the cornerstone of its historic rights. Egyptian president by then, Gamal Abdel Nasser, backed Ibrahim Abboud during the 1958 coup in Sudan. This agreement became unpopular in Sudan. The opposition to Egypt’s claims of historical rights were even more rampant in the 1960s and are also illustrated in the Nyerere Doctrine. 

The Vienna Convention on the Law of the Treaties, in its Art. 34 postulates that a treaty does not create obligations or rights for a third party without its consent and this is customary law. Therefore, upon independence, the riparian states of the Nile were not bound to the treaty. 

Important to note, Ethiopia was not colonized. In 1957, Ethiopia advanced that it has the rights to use the Nile waters with hindsight of inter-generational equity. And that treaties not involving Ethiopia have no legal effects on its utilization of the waters of the Nile. 

Duality of Claims: A Conceptual Understanding                                             

  • Egypt / Historic Rights                           
  • Riparian States such as Ethiopia and Sudan / Source and Utilization
  • 16,000 GW hours of electricity aimed to double the current power generation.
  • 44% of Ethiopians have access to electricity.
  • ¼ of the 44% are on off-grid solutions.
  • Egypt, on the other hand, has 100% electricity coverage. 
Nile Bank village. Image by DEZALB.

The GERD as a positive initiative

  • It seeks to fulfill the SDG 7: Universal access to affordable and reliable sustainable energy by 2030.
  • The Blue Nile as a source of irrigation, hence food security and food sovereignty.
  • The revenue from the generated electricity will be a significant source of foreign exchange and also help mitigate the national debt burden.
  • The GERD will have the potential to export electricity to Eastern Africa.
  • Since power interruptions affect revenue, productivity, employment and export performance, the GERD will seek to cater for these deficits.
  • Electricity is central to poverty alleviation, economic growth and industrial production. 

Regional integration is probable. Egypt should acknowledge the regional benefits of the GERD, and Ethiopia’s right to equitable utilization of its natural resource.

Ethiopia and Egypt should embrace shared responsibility especially during low rainfall and drought. The GERD can result into a greater coordination and cooperation between Egypt and Ethiopia. 

Main picture: Nile River, Cairo. Photography by Remon Samuel.

Jim Okore

About the author:

Jim Okore is an Expert in the Remittances Experts Program of the African Institute of Remittances (AIR). The African Institute of Remittances (AIR) is a subsidiary of the African Union (AU).

He also teaches International Relations in Nairobi, Kenya. His interests are in Diaspora Remittances, International Law, International Political Economy, Diplomacy, and Leadership and Governance. He holds a B.A and M.A in International Relations from the United States International University-Africa (USIU-A). 

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