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From a barrier to a bridge

The Ethiopian Renaissance Dam can be a trigger for transformed and cooperative relations.

Last updated: 06 Nov 2013 12:03
Mehari Taddele Maru

Mehari Taddele Maru is International Consultant on African Union affairs, and Research Fellow at the NATO Defense College.
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"The IPoE has overwhelmingly agreed that the Renaissance Dam will not bring significant harm to the water security of Egypt and Sudan," writes the author [Reuters]

Plagued by misinformation, misunderstanding and distortion, the debate over the Nile and the new Renaissance Dam should begin with a direct and frank discussion about the various concerns of the relevant riparian countries. One such example was the meeting of water ministers of Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia held in Khartoum on November 4, to discuss the joint mechanism for implementing the recommendations of the International Panel of Experts (IPoE) regarding the Grand Renaissance Dam.

The panel evaluated the Dam and its socioeconomic, hydrological and environmental impact on Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.  The construction of the dam, which began in April 2011, has been a source of controversy between Egypt and the rest of the riparian countries. Once completed, the  dam will be the largest in Africa with 1800m long, 170m high with an overall volume of 74 billion cubic metres of water, and will generate 5238 megawatts of electric power.

As per the report of the panel, which has not been made public yet, the main concerns of the riparian countries on the impact of the Dam can be summarised into the following three areas: reduction of the volume of water (water security), the safety of the dam, and quality of the water.

The IPoE has overwhelmingly agreed that the Renaissance Dam will not bring significant harm to the water security of Egypt and Sudan. At the same time, the benefits of the dam will be enormous; it will save more than 20 billion cubic metres of water from evaporation, prevent the damage caused on the riverbanks during over-flooding, and significantly reduce sedimentation on the downstream countries.

Unless manipulated politically by governments, the Nile and the various projects in the riparian countries, including the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, do not threaten the security of any country or population. Indeed, to the contrary, the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) and the dam, could transform the Nile from a historical source of animosity to a transformative bridge between the peoples of the riparian countries. But what is required for this transformation to happen?

Monopolising the Nile

Egypt demands the rights it has enjoyed since the colonial 1929 treaty and later, the 1959 treaty, irrespective of the interests and aspirations of other riparian countries for a fair and equitable share of Nile water. Legally, treaties that exclude the other riparian countries and to which these countries did not officially become parties, or practice acquiescence, are not binding on the remaining eight riparian countries.

It is disturbing to think that Egypt expects the other riparian countries to accept these agreements that endorse nearly monopolistic ownership of the Nile. Facing grave food insecurity due to drought and famine, and critical shortages of electric power, all riparian countries would like to accelerate their developmental projects, including irrigation and hydropower, to the extent of their respective financial capacity. For this very reason, no riparian country should have a greater right to Nile water than any other.

In a bid to replace these old treaties under the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), the riparian countries negotiated the CFA.  A result of a decade long negotiation (1997-2007), the CFA aims to transform the Nile from a barrier to a bridge that will ensure collaboration among the Nile riparian states to achieve an equitable and fair use of the water, and establish multilateral permanent institutional mechanisms of consultations and collaboration in the development of projects affecting the Nile and the use of its water resources.

In 2010, Egypt, under Hosni Mubarak, decided that it would sign only if the CFA accommodated two of its demands. Firstly, Egypt insisted that the CFA should stipulate that the upstream countries needed to secure Egypt's approval first for all their projects on the Nile basin. Practically, Egypt demanded the privilege of a sole veto power in the NBI. Secondly, Egypt required the CFA to guarantee a fixed annual water quota of 55.5 billion cubic metres. Article 14(b) of the CFA, stipulates that the Nile basin states agree "not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile basin state". In contrast, Egypt demands this provision to read as "not to adversely affect the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile basin state".

Change of course

The other riparian countries rejected these demands. Six out of the ten Nile basin countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania) have signed the CFA. South Sudan and the DRC have repeatedly expressed their intention to sign the CFA. 

Egypt needs to make a significant effort to build constructive relations with the Nile riparian countries.

If the Nile is to transform into a bridge of collaboration among the various riparian countries, Egypt needs to jettison its position concerning "historical rights" to the river that totally disregards the interests of other riparian states as if their rights do not exist.

With the changing political landscape in Egypt, many of the upstream countries have hoped that its approach would be replaced by a more rational 21st-century state policy. Indeed, unprecedented during the post-Mubarak Egypt, the Nile basin has seen signs of hope, first witnessed through a series of higher level reciprocal visits since 2012, between riparian countries, including visits by the former Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, and the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and reinforced by the recent announcement of the benefits of the dam by the current Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem al-Bablawy.

The CFA and the dam mark a paradigm shift in the relationship among riparian countries. The internal politics and regional dynamics, the recent relative stability and development in upstream countries, the secession and independence of South Sudan, and the pan-African position of many of the affected riparian countries have made the Nile basin countries significantly more assertive. This should be reflected in Egypt's foreign policy towards the region. 

Given the adversarial approaches of previous Egyptian regimes towards sub-Saharan Africa, and the noticeable but subtle changes in the geostrategic considerations of the old and emerging global powers in regard to Africa, Egypt needs to make a significant effort to build constructive relations with the Nile riparian countries.  

Furthermore, supported by the UN, African Development Bank, the World Bank, Canada, European Union, and Japan, NBI, and logically CFA, offer a mechanism for collaborative partnership in accordance with international law and with the close support of the global community.

Thus, Egypt needs to sign the CFA as is, and resolve its differences under the umbrella of the core principles of the NBI. More importantly, states and elites on all sides need to stop manipulating the construction of the dam or the CFA, to instil unfounded fear in the people of Egypt or in other riparian states, in order to access or maintain power in the current struggle for supremacy at the national level.

Accordingly, Ethiopia  has also an obligation to be exemplary in infusing a new spirit of collaboration and consultation within and among the Nile riparian countries. It can consolidate this further by ensuring the safety of the dam, providing the details required for the hydrological and reservoir study, implement the removal of vegetation around the dam that may adversely affect the quality of water, and thereby secure the biodiversity in the Nile. With regard to the safety of the dam, a visionary solution to this concern would be to help Ethiopia build a high quality dam through technical and financial contributions from all riparian countries. Egypt can display African solidarity by contributing its share. 

As clearly spelt out by the chairperson of the African Union Commission, all the riparian countries should collaborate for "a win-win situation in a new context, not in the context of the colonial powers but in the context of pan-Africanism and African Renaissance". With the spirit of pan-African solidarity emanating from the legacies of leaders like Haile Sellassie, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Jomo Kenyatta, and abiding with international law, the Renaissance Dam could usher in a new fraternity among riparian states and a collaborative beginning for the Nile basin.

Dr Mehari Taddele Maru is International Consultant on African Union affairs, and Research Fellow at the NATO Defence College.

Fellow him on Twitter: @meharitaddele

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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