It is not just business as usual for the Egyptian government. On the one hand, Egypt is prepared to send troops into Yemen, with President el-Sisi stating that his country must “fulfill the calls of the Yemeni people for the return of stability and the preservation of the Arab identity.”
On the other hand, there are also the quagmires in the home front regarding the political instability as well as the economic quandary, which came as a result of the oil price decline. Not to mention the strained relationship that Egypt’s government has with the West.
To some, common sense might dictate that the above problems require his immediate attention. But this did not deter the Egyptian president from making a visit to Addis Abeba, sending the message that the relationship with Ethiopia, with regard to the Nile, holds a spot at the top of his list of priorities.
The visit mainly focused on the relationship between the two countries, circulating around the issue that binds them together – the Nile River and Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
It was on April 2, 2011, that the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had laid the foundation stone for the construction of the biggest dam ever built both in the history of Ethiopia and the continent at a cost of 4.7 billion dollars.
The dam has been in the process of construction over the past four years with a plan to generate 6,000 Mw of electric power as part of the first Growth & Transformation Plan (GTP I), which proposed and promised to bring the countries current power generation capacity to 10,000 Mw; and in broader terms, to strengthen the regional integration of Nile riparian countries via connecting countries with power.
Initially referred to as Project X, then renamed the Millennium Dam until it was finally changed to its current name, the GERD is considered by the general public as a symbol of diplomatic superiority over its counterparts along the River Nile.
The dam, located in the Benshiangul Gumuz Regional State, has its foundation based 40Km east of the border with Sudan and 500Km north west of the capital, Addis Ababa.
This announcement to build the dam came in the midst of – as some would call it – war over utilising the 6,650Km long river with fair distribution of its waters among the Nile Basin countries. The lower riparian countries, especially Egypt have been keen to refer to the colonial agreements signed in 1929 and 1959, which claim to favour only Egypt and Sudan at the expense of the upper riparian countries.
The 1959 agreement between Sudan and Egypt give them the right to utilise 18.5 and 55.5 billion cubic meters of the water, respectively. Ethiopia, for its part, after these two agreements between the lower riparian countries, has tried to have a stake in the utilisation of the river starting from the regime Emperor Haileselassie I.
As part of this plan, the Emperor had tried to have a fair share over the Nile with the support of a study conducted by the United States Department of Reclamation (USDR) to build a dam in the Nile a.k.a. Abay River.
The USDR had helped the Emperor to develop a master plan for 29 irrigation and hydroelectric projects on the Blue Nile. However, following the collapse of the feudalist regime, the revolutionary Derg government seemed busy dealing with both internal instability and external aggression.
Egypt has been seen for decades as interrupting the upper riparian countries’ attempts to utilise the water due to its fear that their increased use would reduce the total amount of water it gains from the river, which is considered to be the engine of its economy.
But the coming of EPRDF to power as well as its success in finally managing to bring a relative political and economical stability to Ethiopia, in contrast with its predecessor, helped the regime to bring the issue of fair utilisation of the Blue Nile to the table and to finally push the agenda to the extent of persuading other upper riparian countries to claim their share of the Nile.
Subsequently, the Nile riparian countries agreed to establish the Nile Basin Initiative in 1999 with nine countries including Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. The initiative was founded by states with the aim to develop and utilise the Nile in a cooperative manner among the 280 million population of the river that covers 2.8 million square kilometres of catchment area.
Pushing the issue more and demanding greater share of the river, the upper riparian countries crafted and signed the Comprehensive Framework Agreement (CFA) a.k.a Entebbe Agreement in 2010.
As of now, six countries, with the exception of Egypt and Sudan, have signed the agreement. And out of this only three countries have ratified the agreement – Ethiopia, Rwanda, and as of March 26, 2015, Tanzania.
On side of Egypt, there were several cases that both the leadership of President Mubarak and the ousted post-revolution President Mohammed Morsi had intensified with the claim of maintain the country’s historical right. There were accusations on Ethiopia’s side that Egypt was funding and arming militant groups to raise arms against the Ethiopian government at some point in time.
Particularly, during the Morsi’s period, a video emerged showing Egyptian politicians discussing how to stop Ethiopia from constructing the GERD via aggressive acts and sabotage mechanisms, representing the climax of the sabre-rattling that was going on between the two countries.
In June 2013, the Daily News Egypt, an Egyptian newspaper, published an article about the aforementioned discussion and quoted the argument made by the Chairman of Al-Nour Party, Younis Makhyoun suggesting that Egypt would go so far as to create unrest in the domestic affairs of Ethiopia by supporting different political factions that are fighting against the Ethiopian government in order to sabotage the construction of the dam.
Since then, the mood of cooperation among upper and lower stream countries, particularly Egypt, was on unstable ground, adding to what has been a history of suspicion and mistrust as far as the historical and political relationship of the lower and the upper stream countries was concerned. In contrast to this, the three countries established an International Panel of Experts (IPoE) comprising two experts each from Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, as well as four from other countries. The IPoE recommended further studies, specifically on environmental and social impact of the dam on lower riparian countries, leading to four meetings among the minsters of each country to reach agreement over the conduct of the study by an international consulting firm.
Since el-Sisi took power from Morsi, he has been expressing his willingness to come to the table of discussion for cooperation. Then on March 23, 2015, the leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan all gathered in Khartoum to sign a Declaration of Principles (DoP) on Ethiopia’s GERD. This was followed by el-Sisi’s arrival in Addis Ababa.
On the first day of the visit, March 24, el-Sisi headed directly to the National Palace to meet with President Mulatu Teshome (PhD), and again to hold discussions with Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn.
On a press brief to the media and higher officials of the two countries, both have addressed that they have been consulting in all aspects of their relation.
“We discussed major issues such as bilateral and trilateral issues,” said Hailemariam.
He also elaborated that at the bilateral level, the two agreed to upgrade the ministerial commission to a high level ministerial committee that will be overseen by the leaders of the two countries, who will meet twice a year. And at trilateral level, the three parties agreed to have a committee led by ministers of each respective country (Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia) to ensure compliance with the DoP.
The declaration is a collection of 10 principles regarding the GERD.
“Within the declaration we agreed on cooperation, regional integration as well as on exchange of data that could be used for studies to be conducted by the experts committee from the three countries,” Alemayehu Tegenu, minister of Water, Irrigation & Energy (MoWIE), told Fortune. He also pointed out that coming to these principles was a good move from Egypt.
According to the English version of the declaration, the first principle talks about cooperation based on mutual understanding, followed by the principle of development, regional integration and sustainability whereas the third principle is that of not causing significant damage.
The purpose of the GERD is to generate power, contribute to economic development, promote cooperation beyond borders, and create regional integration through generating clean sustainable energy that can be relied on, said principle two of the declaration.
“The DoP shows the ‘official’ acceptance of GERD by Egypt. It can be said with certainty that the GERD is now a fact on the ground to be reckoned with by all. This will also shape some of the views the international community and development partners have on GERD,” said Wondwosen Michago, guest African researcher at Nordic African Institute and a former water resources consultant at the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) via an email sent to Fortune.
He noted that if Egypt accepted the GERD and started talking about the operation of the dam, there was no reason why others could fail to do so.
One of the principles is about dam security. Ethiopia will continue in good will to implement all recommendations related to the dam’s security in the reports of the international technical experts, stated the declaration. Again, principle three says that signing parties should discuss compensation if damage occurs while using the Blue Nile.
If the three parties are committed to settling any disputes resulting from the interpretation or application of the Declaration of Principles, they will settle their differences through negotiations based on good will. However, if they fail to do so, they can ask for mediation or refer the matter to their Heads of States or ministers.
The declaration deals with a host of issues including fair and appropriate use of the Nile, the filling of the reservoir, the security of the dam, building of trust and sovereignty. Addressing Egypt’s concern that the first five years, which are designated for the first filling of the dam, may affect the volume of water that flows to it, the DoP proposed that the first filling will be determined as per the study that will be made soon.
“This declaration is a signal of building a confidence and a context of working in cooperation bypassing the legacy of misunderstanding and suspicion,” said Mohammed Idris, ambassador of Egypt to Ethiopia.
Aside from the major issue surrounding his visit, el-Sisi also emphasised boosting the economic ties between the two countries, to that end, having a discussion with the business community of both countries at Sheraton Addis Hotel following his meeting with the Head of State and Government of Ethiopia. Prior to the January 25, 2011, popular revolution of Egypt that swept away the old vanguards, the economic tie between Ethiopia and Egypt specifically their trade turnover was estimated to be 121.6 million dollars; in 2013 this figure reached to 165 million dollars, with the balance of trade in favour Egypt, which accounted for 77.5pc of the business between the two countries.
Though the meeting was open only for the state media, Solomon Afowrek, president of Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce & Sectoral Associations, who attended the discussion, told Fortune that the meeting had deliberated on the topic of investing in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia exports mainly sesame, camels, and cattle to Egypt and in return imports petroleum oils, edible soya and palm oils. The Egyptian side has already made a request to build their own industrial zone in Ethiopia and Hailemariam has given them a positive response, added Solomon.
During the second day of his official visit, President el-Sisi received a warm welcome from the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HoPR), where he delivered a half-hour long speech.
Rira Julo, a Member of Parliament from South Omo, saw the visit as a turning point in the relationship between the two.
“What I understand from his speech is that there is a lot to share and to cooperate on the GERD in a way that it will cause no harm for all,” said Rira.
During his speech to the parliament, el-Sisi noted that the brotherly country, Ethiopia, has the right to develop and utilise its resources to improve the standard of living of its people. He also reiterated that Egyptian brothers also have not only the right to develop but also the right to life itself and to live in safe haven on the banks of the Nile, the river, which he said, had created ceaseless civilisation for thousands of years.
He also emphasised that Egypt’s water resources did not witness any increase despite the huge population increase, as well as the escalation of its needs.
“This visit will give a very strong impetus to the relationship Ethiopia has with Egypt, benefiting our people and our country,” said Idris.
Ahram, a renowned online Egyptian newspaper, on March 24, 2015, featured an article which presented arguments mainly surrounding the DoP and the implication it would have on Egypt and its people; under the title “Egyptian experts divided over Renaissance Dam declaration of principles.”
One of the arguments reflected was that DoP gave nothing to Egypt as well as granted nothing for any signing party; it was simply an introductory step, ran one line of argument. Another, coming from Mohamed Nasreldin Allam, Irrigation & Water Resources minister during the Mubarak era, and now professor of Irrigation & Drainage Engineering at the Cairo University, Faculty of Engineering, criticised the DoP for not being in favour of Egypt.
“Most of what was in the Entebbe Agreement that we refused in 2010 is in this declaration,” he said.
As recommended by the International Panel of Experts (IPoE) to further study the dam’s hydrology simulation model and trans-boundary environmental and socio-economic impact assessment, four international consultancy firms have already been short-listed though it is not clear when they will be evaluated and one selected.
The selection is within the evaluation process, said Alemayehu. But he declined to say when the exact selection of the firm would be.
GERD, the largest project undertaken by the Ethiopian government, is celebrating its fourth year since the inauguration, and has already completed 42pc of its construction.
Contracted by Salini Costruttori, an Italian company, it will have the capacity to hold a total volume of 10 million cubic metres of water when it is completed and will create a 1,680sqm reservoir. It is 1,800m long and 170m high.
The project involves the construction of a main dam in Roller Compacted Concrete (RCC), with two power stations installed at the foot of the dam. The power stations are positioned on the right and left banks of the river and comprise 16 Francis turbines with a total installed power of 6,000 MW and estimated production of 15,000 GWh per year, according a statement posted at Salini’s website. As far as generating power is concerned, principle six of the DoP gives priority for downstream countries to purchase energy generated by the dam.
The goodwill shown in the singing of the DoP may not lead to Egypt signing the CFA, which rejects the earlier accord signed in 1959 between Sudan and Egypt, says Wondwosen; it could be tantamount to throwing away what Egypt has always claimed as its historical right.
“Even if they want it, is very difficult to convince the Egyptian public,” he said.
But the way forward for Egypt is to continue to collaborate with upstream countries, as the old Egypt policy on Nile is not working anymore, he added.
“The assertion that Egypt is a gift of the Nile will not take Egypt anywhere. It requires the Egyptian politicians to uphold the principles of mutual benefit in a spirit of cooperation rather than advocating for monopoly of the Nile River, which is outdated and seriously challenged by the GERD,” commented Wondwosen.