Misplaced opposition to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Part II

By Minga Negash, Seid Hassan and Mammo Muchie

The key features of the IPE’s report could be summarized as follows:-

  1. Unlike the options of smaller dams which would have included potential irrigation projects, GERD is an energy production project and any fear of large and permanent reduction in the flow of freshwater to downstream countries is unfounded;
  2. The filling up of the dam is planned, to be done in stages by taking into account rainfall patterns and the catchment area;
  3. Both the financial and social cost-benefit preliminary analysis of the project on upstream and downstream countries are favorable and the expected damages on downstream countries are not insurmountable;
  4. The preliminary findings about the project’s side effects on Egypt is not sufficient and hence there is an information (hydrological) void, and much of the current allegations and threats are based on unfounded Egyptian fears;  
  5. Work has progressed to the extent that, at the time of writing this article, the project has reached a degree of completion rate of 31% and the water diversion has been successfully carried out;
  6. The expected loss of water due to evaporation for the new project is not worse than what Egypt is currently losing from its environmentally unfriendly projects and poor water management;  
  7. Recent geological and hydrological studies have documented an abundant level of ground water in the Nile basin countries  and hence downstream countries will not be thirsty if upstream countries build dams that generate electricity.

It is clear, therefore, that Egypt’s no dam policy or stance against large energy producing dams in upstream countries is a misplaced opposition and therefore calls for a new thinking in Cairo.

As Professor Aaron Wolf of Oregon State University observes, there are about 261 trans-boundary rivers across the world and unless carefully handled a significant proportion of these rivers could be causes of conflict.

Wolf documented that water has been the cause of political tensions between a number of countries, including but not limited to Arabs and Israelis; Indians and Bangladeshis; Americans and Mexicans, the Chinese and other downstream countries, Brazilians and Paraguayans and all the ten riparian states of the Nile River system.

He observes that “war over water seems neither strategically rational, nor hydrographically effective nor economically viable.”     In other words, there is little reason for a “water war” between Egypt and Ethiopia.

The two countries can also learn from inter-basin development projects that are successful, such as the Colorado River Basin allocation between the US riparian states and Mexico, the Columbia River Agreement between the US and Canada and the numerous European collaborative projects and integrated river basin managements of the River Rhine.

In particular, Egypt and Ethiopia could learn a lot from South Africa paying  Lesotho to quench its increasing thirst from the Lesotho Highlands Waters Project. The framework for exploiting the Niger River Basin, the Zambezi River basin and the Nile Basin Initiative  itself could serve as useful points of departure for cooperation.

Notwithstanding the above, Egyptian politicians often argue about “historical rights” and connect the water issue with the civilizations of the antiquities on the Nile delta and forget about the history of the formation of nations and states.

Evidently this stance is self-serving in that it ignores historical tensions between black people in the region (present day Sudan, South Sudan, Niger, Eritrea and Ethiopia, among others) and the race controversy in the African origin of humanity and the history of the Nile Valley (see for example Martin Bernal’s Black Antenna, 1987; Anta Diop , among others).

The politics of the Nile River system thus has an Africa-Arab dimension and hence sensitive to Pan Africanist and Pan Arabism agendas. Hence, if a conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia erupts, it is more than likely to have spillover effects on the rest of Africa.

Like most of the post colony states of Africa, modern and independent Egypt was created out of the ashes of colonialism (see for example Achille Mbembe and Samir Amin, among others). Britain’s colonial interest on the Nile dam at Lake Tana (main source of Abay/Blue Nile) is the foundation of Egypt’s historical and legal claims to the water.

Britain’s interest however was primarily driven by its desire to irrigate its large cotton plantations in the Anglo Egyptian colony of the Sudan and supply its factories which were located in the United Kingdom. Modern day cotton plantations in Egypt are entirely dependent on the soil that gets exported by the river primarily from Ethiopian highlands.

In a series of short articles, Dr. Yosef Yacob  documented the history of colonialism in the region and indicated how Emperor Menelik (1844-1913) and Emperor Haile Selassie (1892-1975) managed to escape Britain’s colonial ambitions over the Ethiopian highlands.

He also revealed how Emperor Haile Selassie was visionary in that he successfully resisted Britain’s encroachments on Lake Tana by hiring an American engineering company to construct the dam and trying to finance the project through the issuance of debt securities in the United States.

In other words, had the Emperor’s wishes were realized, the GERD would have been built a long time ago. We have yet to see any reasonable criticism of Dr. Yosef Yacob’s treatise by those who oppose the construction of the dam.

The next leg of the Egyptian opposition is international law. Here too the argument collapses before it faces the scrutiny of legal scholars. Egyptian officials often refer to the 1929 colonial era agreement and the 1959 agreement signed between Egypt and the Sudan (both former British colonies) that Ethiopia was not party to and had never consented to.

First, it is important to note that colonial treaties have no direct relevance for resolving Africa’s contemporary problems. The Nile basin countries have already rejected it.

Thus, the dominant view is that trans-boundary assets belong to the post-colonial states and the new states have to agree how to share their jointly owned assets. Second, Ethiopia was and is an independent state and it was not a party to the 1929 and 1959 agreements.

Historical records also indicate that Britain, Egypt and the Sudan conspired and excluded Ethiopia from the negotiation. In this respect, Wuhibegezer Ferede and Sheferawu Abebe, writing on the Efficacy of Water Treaties in the Eastern Nile Basin, Africa Spectrum, 49, 1, 55-67 (2014) outline two approaches that evolve from the principles of international law.

The authors show the fundamental differences between upstream and downstream countries in that upstream countries (Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea and South Sudan) appear to  favor clean slate policy while downstream countries (Sudan and Egypt) favor colonial treaties.

Notwithstanding the preference of one or another form of legal principle, Egypt’s insistence on colonial treaties collapses simply because Ethiopia was not a colony of Britain or indeed any other European power.

Misplaced opposition to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam III

Now that we have seen Egypt’s historical and legal arguments falling apart, the next step is to examine the third foundation of the Egyptian stance – the environmental aspects of the dam.

Previous literature indicated that carbon emissions and contaminations of rivers that cross national boundaries are examples of trans-boundary environmental problems. Hence, policy formation requires enforceable global treaties, sound national policy and the examination of advances in a number of disciplines.

Furthermore, investments in big national projects such as stadiums, mineral extraction, oil and gas, canals, big dams, highways, and big architectural projects add behavioral and political dimensions to the science, technology and the economics of such undertakings.

Most of the finest buildings and stadiums that host world cup games were and are being constructed in that national pride. And behavioral and emotional factors dominate financial arguments.

In other words, national projects by their nature have behavioral dimensions and may not be captured by the paradigms of rationality and net present values. Time will tell whether the Ethiopian dam is different.

The mainstream literature on environmental economics focuses on welfare measurement, sustainability, technological change, externality and green accounting.

The world commission on environment and development (aka the Bruntland Commission, 1987), for example, states that “sustainable development is meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Consistent with this understanding, the Nile River system has both trans-boundary and non-trans-boundary features for the riparian states and hence Egypt, in theory, may have a cause for concern.

This concern can nonetheless be resolved through international instruments and institutions and bilateral relations that are based on mutual respect and trust.

The international convention on the protection and use of trans-boundary and international lakes which was signed by nearly 40 countries does not provide the base for resolving disputes, and worse, no country from Africa (including Egypt) has actually ratified it.

It nonetheless can be another point of departure. The United Nations Environmental program could also be a facilitator. Furthermore, as noted earlier, Africa has frameworks for inter-basin development.

The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) has been a major institutional development which enables all riparian states to collaborate and act as equal members. Egypt’s effort to undermine  this agreement is a mistake.

Other features of the leaked report of the International Panel of Experts covers the main factors of the project.  Among other things, it confirms that:

  • (i) GERD is economically feasible;
  • (ii) the design meets international standards, subject to  minor “corrections”;
  • (iii) the contractor is reliable and has extensive international expertise and reputation in building large dams;
  • (iv) the environmental impact study within Ethiopia is adequate and the trans-boundary effect on the Sudan is favorable and controls flood; and
  • (v) the section on trans-boundary effect on Egypt requires additional study using complex models and actual data rather than reliance on desk work.

In short, the authors of the 48 pages-long confidential report did not say that they expect a catastrophe and the vanishing of the Egyptian nation if the project gets completed. In short, Egypt is not in any imminent danger.

This conclusion has ramifications for the multilateral institutions that refused to finance the project. In summary, Egypt’s opposition to GERD is indeed misplaced.

Its return to the negotiation table and the African Union and the ratification of the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework and Convention on the Protection and Use of Trans-boundary Watercourses and International Lakes are avenues for resolving the sticky problems of water sharing.

Also read Various Ethiopian Intellectuals’ thought-provoking commentaries on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: