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Why Egypt called on America to mediate Gerd dam standoff

Effects of the dam were under-studied and could be catastrophic to Egypt, says Ambassador Khaled El Elabyad

In Summary

• Ambassador says Egypt and Sudan, the downstream states that will be invariably affected by the project, were neither notified nor consulted

• Says Egypt opted to the Washington agreement because it is equitable and mutually beneficial to all the three riparian states

The Renaissance Dam
The Renaissance Dam
Image: COURTESY

Egypt has come out to defend its move to invite the US to mediate the Gerd dam standoff with Ethiopia.

Through their Ambassador Khaled El Abyad, Egypt maintains it has engaged in intensive negotiations on the Grand Renaissance Dam (Gerd) for almost a decade since Ethiopia unilaterally commenced the construction of the Gerd in 2011.

"Egypt and Sudan, the downstream states that will be invariably affected by the introduction of such a project into the hydrological system of the Blue Nile, were neither notified nor consulted," El Abyad said.

 
 
 

He said Egypt has negotiated in good faith and with a genuine political commitment to reach a fair and balanced agreement of Gerd.

He said in an attempt to facilitate the reaching of an agreement on the Gerd, Egypt concluded an international treaty with Ethiopia and Sudan titled the Agreement on Declaration of Principles on the Gerd (DoP) on March 23, 2015.

Pursuant to this treaty, he said, Ethiopia is under an obligation not to commence the impoundment of waters for the purpose of filling the Gerd reservoir without an agreement with Egypt and Sudan concerning the rules governing the processes of the filling and operation of the Gerd.

Elabyad was responding to an article published by the Star last week, where Ethiopian Ambassador Meles Alam defended the country's right to dam the Nile to sustain its people. 

The standoff on the construction of the $4.5 billion Gerd Dam, Africa's largest, with a reservoir about the size of London, has resulted in water politics, with Egypt's and Ethiopia's grand standings taking centre stage.

The Gerd, formerly known as the Millennium Dam, is a gravity dam on the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia, which has been under construction since 2011. It was renamed on April 15, 2011, by the Council of Ministers.

It is in the Benishangul-Gumuz region, about 15km east of the border with Sudan.

Egyptian Ambassador Khaled El Abyad talks to Chief of Defence Forces Gen Samson Mwathethe on December 10 last year
Egyptian Ambassador Khaled El Abyad talks to Chief of Defence Forces Gen Samson Mwathethe on December 10 last year
Image: KDF

The primary purpose of the dam, according to Ethiopia, is to generate electricity, both to relieve Ethiopia’s domestic acute energy shortage and for export.

With a planned installed capacity of 6.45 gigawatts, the dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa and the seventh-largest in the world.

The filling of the reservoir began in July, and once completed, it will take between five and 15 years to fill, depending on hydrologic conditions during the filling period and agreements among Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has hinted at his country using military force to halt the dam’s construction. 

The potential impacts of the dam have been the source of regional controversy between the three riparian states.

Egypt, located over 2,500km downstream of the site, opposes the dam as it believes it will reduce the amount of water available from the Nile.

The precise impact of the dam on the downstream countries is not yet known.

Egypt, which relies heavily on the Nile, has demanded that Ethiopia ceases the construction on the dam as a precondition to negotiations. It has even sought regional support for its position, and some political leaders have discussed methods to sabotage it.

THE WASHINGTON AGREEMENT

Ethiopia accused US President Donald Trump’s administration of meddling in the mediation, terming it a biased mediator.

The East African nation said it is Egypt that unilaterally requested the US to get involved in the ongoing tripartite talks, and the US went beyond its mandate by stipulating how the filling and operation of the dam should be done before halting aid to Ethiopia when the country disagreed. 

Secretary of State Pompeo when he met with Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew
Secretary of State Pompeo when he met with Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew
Image: COURTESY

But Egypt said Article 10 of the declaration of principles (DOP) includes mediation as one of the dispute resolution mechanisms that the three states (Egypt – Sudan – Ethiopia) could invoke to overcome difficulties in the implementation of the DOP.

“Therefore, in light of the continued failure of the trilateral forums to reach an agreement, Egypt called upon the United States and the World Bank to join the discussions between the three countries. Accordingly, the US administration extended an invitation to the three governments to attend a ministerial meeting in Washington DC on November 2019,” El Abyad said.

“The Washington process was fruitful. In four months of intensive discussions, the three countries accomplished more than they had achieved in five years of talks since the conclusion of the DOP.

“The agreement was reached on various technical aspects of the filling and operation of the Gerd and on the institutional and legal architecture that would ensure the effective and honest implementation of the agreement.”

He said Egypt opted to the agreement because it is equitable and mutually beneficial.

“On the other hand, Ethiopia rejected this text and declared it would unilaterally commence the filling of the Gerd in breach of its obligations under the 2015 DOP,” he said.

“The agreement reached in Washington guarantees that Ethiopia will expeditiously fill the Gerd and generate hydropower sustainably in all hydrological conditions. Even in the worst prolonged drought, Ethiopia is guaranteed it will produce no less than 75-80 per cent of the hydropower production capacity of the Gerd,” he added.

The ambassador said the operation rules ensure the Gerd will remain at its optimal operational level, at which it will retain 50 billion cubic meters of water in its reservoir.

These rules also include mitigation measures that ensure the sustainable generation of hydropower from the Gerd, while assisting downstream countries to minimise the ravaging impacts of droughts.

The ambassador said the Washington agreement enables Ethiopia to operate the Gerd and reap the benefits of the project, while protecting downstream countries against significant harm.

This is an obligation according to the well-established principles of international law.

“The Washington agreement explicitly stipulates that it is not a water-sharing agreement among the riparian states of the Blue Nile. Therefore, any claim that the said agreement is a water-sharing arrangement is unsupported by the plain text of the agreement,” he said.

El Abyad termed it “troublesome” that a mega-dam such as Gerd is being constructed without any studies on its socio-economic impacts and without the environmental impact assessment. He said a state constructing the said mega project is duty-bound under well-established principles of international law to undertake these studies. 

He said in that regard, the International Panel of Experts (IPoE) issued its report in 2013, with troubling findings expressing concern regarding the adequacy of studies undertaken by Ethiopia on the Gerd, and recommended conducting additional studies to examine the impact on the downstream countries, and Ethiopia has accepted the said recommendation.

He said unfortunately, the studies were not conducted because Ethiopia, which at the time held the chairmanship of the Tripartite National Committee, refrained from sending the comments and remarks of the three countries to the consultant.

“Reaching a fair and balanced agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd) is not only necessary under the applicable rules of international law but also imperative, given Egypt’s hydrologically precarious situation,” he said.

Egypt has a dependency ratio of 98 per cent on the Nile, which is one of the highest in the world. As a country, we already suffer from acute water scarcity
Ambassador Khaled El Elabyad

EGYPT'S DIRE SITUATION

The ambassador said protecting Egypt against the potential adverse effects of the Gerd is necessary because Egypt is essentially a desert oasis.

He said although its territory is slightly over 1 million square kilometers, the inhabited area of Egypt is no more than seven per cent of its territory.

With a population of 104 million, this makes Egypt one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

Moreover, of that 7 per cent of inhabited territory, a mere 4 per cent, totalling around 3.8 million hectares, is arable land.

“Egypt has a dependency ratio of 98 per cent on the Nile, which is one of the highest in the world. As a country, we already suffer from acute water scarcity,” he said.

The water share of Egyptians is currently 500 cubic meters/per capita/per year and is projected to drop to below 500 cubic meters/per capita/per year by 2025, with current water available for Egypt already being insufficient.

He said although Egypt releases 55.5 billion cubic meters annually from the High Aswan Dam, the reality is that Egypt’s water needs are over 80 billion cubic meters.

This deficit, the ambassador, said is bridged by intensive water-recycling and reuse, which makes the water management system in Egypt incredibly efficient.

He said 85 per cent of the Nile waters that reach Egypt flow from the Ethiopian Highlands through three main rivers.                             

This means that Egypt is particularly vulnerable to waterworks undertaken in the Ethiopian Highlands, especially on the Blue Nile.

The ambassador said his government is concerned that the impacts of water shortages in Egypt caused by projects undertaken by Ethiopia could be catastrophic.

First filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
First filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
Image: COURTESY

HISTORY OF MISCHIEF

'If we examine the Ethiopian actions regarding other transboundary rivers, we can notice that this same exact ploy has happened before with its neighbouring countries Somalia, Eritrea and Kenya, where it built dams on shared rivers without prior notifications, studies, negotiations or agreements, and without taking into consideration the reasonable and equitable utilisation of water'

“Millions of jobs would be lost, thousands of hectares of arable land would disappear, cultivated land would experience salinisation, the cost of food imports would increase dramatically, and urbanisation would skyrocket due to rural depopulation, which would lead to an increase in unemployment, crime rates and transnational migration,” he said.

“Indeed, a decrease of only 1 billion cubic meters of water would lead, in the agricultural sector alone, to 290,000 people losing their incomes, a loss of 130,000 hectares of cultivated land, an increase of $150 million USD in the cost of food imports, and a loss of $430 million USD of agricultural production,” he added.

As water shortages increase and continue over an extended period, the ripple-effects on every sector of Egypt’s economy and its sociopolitical stability are inestimable.

The ambassador said Ethiopia, while playing the role of the adversary and the judge at the same time, has continued to claim it took all steps that ensure that the Renaissance Dam would not harm but rather bring Egypt tremendous benefits.

“If we examine the Ethiopian actions regarding other transboundary rivers, we can notice that this same exact ploy has happened before with its neighbouring countries Somalia, Eritrea and Kenya, where it built dams on shared rivers without prior notifications, studies, negotiations or agreements, and without taking into consideration the reasonable and equitable utilisation of water,” he said. 

The ambassador said at no point in history has Egypt sought to obstruct the implementation of water projects by its co-riparian.

This, he said, reflects Egypt’s unwavering commitment to supporting its fellow African states, especially the Nile Basin states, in their endeavours to achieve development, peace and prosperity.

“However, in pursuing these developmental objectives and in utilising the resources of the Nile, Egypt believes that, in keeping with the established rules of international law, riparian states are required to consult their co-riparian on planned projects and to ensure these projects are undertaken in a manner that is both reasonable and equitable and that minimises the harm that may be inflicted on other states,” he said.

Edited by  T Jalio