Ethiopia to Cede 75% Right over the Blue Nile Water to Egypt and Sudan!
Makonnen Tesfaye, 17 January 2020
Ethiopia owns 100% of the Blue Nile, but agrees to cede 75% right over the use of the water in perpetuity - Is this an equitable and reasonable share when viewed from the needs and interests of current and future generation Ethiopians? Is this a Win-Win Settlement? The answers must be uncategorically NO !
1. It is about the Right over Water, not the Filling and Operation of the GERD, Stupid!
1.1 The Abiy Government has already severely compromised the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project by downsizing its energy generating capacity by 20%; undermining national industrial capacity and personnel; prolonging the filling period; unduly compromising on the independence of the operation, or management of the Dam; and allowing asymmetric third parties meddling to Ethiopia’s detriment. Furthermore and what is even much more detrimental to national interest and sovereignty is the ceding – “hidden” but apparent under the smokescreen of technicalities – of the 75% right over the use of the water of the Blue Nile (Abay River) to Egypt and Sudan. This is about what percentage of the Blue Nile water is to be retained for use (actual and potential) in Ethiopia and the percentage water obliged to flow to Egypt and Sudan. This has been the real and pertinent issue about the Nile and controversies regarding various colonial and Egyptian-Sudanese treaties that Ethiopia and other Upper Riparian countries have always objected to. Egypt and Sudan have always sought to get the lion’s share of the water of the Blue Nile, including and up to 100% use. It now looks that Egypt and Sudan have secured a tentative agreement where Ethiopia will release 75% of the water of the Blue Nile to them, which is not that far away from their “historic” claims since colonial times. If and when this tentative deal is signed-off it would indeed be a dark day in the annals of Ethiopian history.
1.2. Lurking behind the Joint Statement by Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, the United States and the World Bank (interestingly released by the US Embassy in Egypt) on 15 January 2020 and the Press Briefing given at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington DC on 17 January 2020 by Gedu Andargachew, Foreign Minister, and Seleshi Bekele (PhD), Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy, is the implicit and tentative agreement by Ethiopia for the first time in its history to ceding 75% right over the use of the water of the Blue Nile (Abay) to lower riparian countries, namely Sudan and Egypt. This conclusion follows from Ethiopia’s tentative agreement to release annually, on average, 37.5 bcm water (out of the total 50 bcm annual average water flow of the Blue Nile). This is not far away from the past colonial treaties that confer more or less 100% of the water of the Blue Nile to Egypt and Sudan at the expense of Ethiopia. This tentative agreement - which is monumental in its implications for current and future Ethiopian generations economic development needs as well as national interest - is shamefully to be concluded without debate in the country or Parliament regarding the equitability and reasonableness of the perpetual utilisation of the shared water of the Nile.
1.3 Following the Joint Statement and subsequent briefings given (to selected audiences lacking transparency and accountability) by Gedu and Shemlis at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington DC on 17 January 2020 confirmed that they have tentatively agreed to Ethiopia releasing 37.5 bcm of water annually to Sudan and Egypt (as reported by Ethio 360 Media on 17.01.2020). This is a huge and historic victory for Egypt and Sudan at the expense of Ethiopia; and will have monumentally and historically detrimental implications for future generation of Ethiopians down the centuries.
1.4 The Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is indeed a major national signature project that broke the mould (by successfully countering neo-colonial and Egyptian machinations and building a national consensus) through the use of a major national asset, the Abay River, for the economic development (almost exclusively for generating energy) of the country. Yet, great as the GERD project is, the “Elephant in the Room” regarding the Blue Nile has always been the extent of the actual and potential use of the water of the Abay River for economic development (in particular agriculture and fishery) other than for the generation of energy in Ethiopia. The Hidase Dam uses the Abay water with the intention of releasing it without using it for irrigation, water supply, or other economic development uses or activities. So, contextually and looking at the big picture, the “filling and operation” of the Dam is of second-order magnitude in importance when compared to the ultimate use and retention of the water in Ethiopia for economic development, mainly agricultural development. Egypt principal fear has always been not about the GERD per se but about how much of the water will be retained in Ethiopia and how much of it will be released to downstream countries.
1.5 By using smart diplomacy; the support of Western powers and institutions; and taking advantage of a weak, dependent and crony Government of Abiy Ahmed as well as the disunity in the country, Egypt has successfully managed, under the pretext of the technical procedure of the “filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”, to get Ethiopia to agree to release 37.5 bcm of water annually out of a total 50 bcm water flow of the Blue Nile. From this follows directly the conferring of 75% perpetual rights over the water of the Abay River to Egypt and Sudan. This is a logical conclusion and implicitly legally binding if agreed. There lies the true significance of the magnitude of Egyptian and Sudanese victory at the expense of Ethiopia. This is not by any measure a Win-Win settlement.
1.6 The tell-tale sign of the “sell-out” as most have argued can be discerned from point 5 of the Joint Statement, which reads “During long-term operation, GERD will operate according to a mechanism that determines release based upon the hydrological conditions of the Blue Nile and the level of the GERD that provides electricity generation and appropriate mitigation measures for Egypt and Sudan during periods of dry years, drought and prolonged drought”. What is instrumental and apparent is that the tentative agreement as summarised by the Joint Statement excludes or ignores the future implications of the agreed release of the Blue Nile water for current and actual, and future potential use of water from the Blue Nile for economic development activities other than for the current and planned generation of energy in Ethiopia. Sadly and depressingly, the Joint Statement is predominately about protecting the interests of Egypt and Sudan dressed up as mitigating the adverse implications of GERD for the downstream countries; deliberately side-tracking or burying the underlying implications of the release agreement on the equitability and reasonableness of the use of the shared water of the Blue Nile. This is detrimental to say the least, to Ethiopia’s needs and national interest for decades and centuries to come.
2. What is to be Done?
2.1 What is painful and unforgivable is that the tentative decision is made without an inclusive and transparent national debate in the country, Parliament, or amongst professionals and experts on what constitutes an “equitable and reasonable utilisation” of the shared water of the Blue Nile, given the significance and implications of which for national interest and sovereignty are profound, historical and inter-generational.
2.2 Granting 75% right over the water of the Blue Nile to Egypt and Sudan in perpetuity is too important question of national interest to be left to a handful of challenged politicians and to too severely compromised Government of Abiy Ahmed. Before it is signed-off the tentative agreement must be debated nationally, in Parliament and amongst experts in Ethiopia on what constitutes an equitable and reasonable use of the shared water of the Blue Nile with a view to reaching an agreement and consensus on Ethiopia’s long-term and lasting interest on the Blue Nile. This is a most important national interest and sovereignty decision the country has to make given the profoundly historical and inter-generational implications. Many would argue that failure to undertake informed, transparent and inclusive public dialogue with a view to reaching a national consensus on the issue is tantamount to a historical betrayal and national treachery.
2.3 Moreover (as a minimum), whatever percentage release the Government agrees to must not be permanent and in perpetuity (binding at all times in the future) since Ethiopia’s needs and capacity to use the water of the Blue Nile will vary depending on its economic development; its capacity to use the water; and its changing needs for water in the future.
2.4 It is time for debating the GERD and the much broader issue of Ethiopia’s rights and long-term and lasting position on the use of the water of the Blue Nile. This must be one of the major issues at the coming General Election for parties and the public express their views on; hence the Government must not sign-off a final and binding agreement with Egypt and Sudan this side of the General Election. This is more so given the magnitude and significance of the issue for national interest; questionable legitimacy and dysfunctionality of the current Government; and its lack of transparency and rationale in the way it has negotiated thus far. The question of Ethiopia’s lasting interest on the use of the water of the Blue Nile is too important to be decided in the current political climate, instead it requires a Government with a clear mandate and a much more unified approach and national consensus.