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It is time to...

It is time for Equitable utilization of Nile Waters -Cooperation is best option

Aklog Birara (Dr)

Part II of IV

In Part I, I urged the Governments of Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan not to ignore the ecosystem of the Nile River. I also recommended that Nile River riparian nations begin the hard but essential task of arriving at a fair, equitable and mutually beneficial Nile River Treaty. It is a gaping hole whose time has come.

I should like to start with the encouraging news that the stalled Tripartite technical negotiation has resumed. Sudan’s Foreign Minister and the Minister of Irrigation both expressed Ethiopia’s sovereign and legal rights to harness its waters and improve the lives of its people. Of special significance is the Foreign Minister’s reference to the UN Watercourses Convention of 1997 that defines the rights and obligations of countries sharing international watercourses. This Convention and other clarifications since provide a menu of legal instruments and tools in the use and management of transboundary waters. Ethiopia is entitled to equitable use of its waters for the improvement of the livelihoods of its people. Hydroelectric power generation is governed by the same Convention.

An area of contention by Egypt in the filling and operational management of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (the GERD) is quality. The Sudanese Minister of Irrigation Dr. Yasir Mohamed gave resounding testimony that the quality of Ethiopia’s Dam construction is far superior to that of the Aswan Dam (Egypt) and Rosario Dam (Sudan).

Both Ministers confirmed that the Sudan and Egypt would benefit from the completion of the GERD. Sudan and Ethiopia share a border that spans 1,600 kilometers. Supply of cheap electricity, reliable water flow to the Sudan and the expansion of its irrigable land will be a boon for the two economies. This large border and the communities around them can serve as economic and trade arteries; and both societies will prosper. In short, the benefits from the GERD outweigh the costs.

In the background of Egypt’s intransigence that the world community ought to be aware of is the huge investment in mega-size Egyptian and Sudanese irrigation farms catering to the Saudi and Gulf country food markets. For decades, Egypt has been constructing mega projects diverting Nile waters through a massive auxiliary channel via the Suez Canal and establishing a new central hub port and industrial zone, known as the East Port-Said Project.

In the South is what is known as the Al-Salam (El Salam or "Peace") Canal; and in the North is the Sinai Agricultural Development Program. Aerial photographs show that the desert has been converted into green irrigated agriculture zone. NASA Earth Observatory states that “Egypt’s North Sinai Agricultural Development” is real and operational. It notes further that “The Al-Salam Canal brings water from the Damietta Branch of the Nile, under the Suez Canal to the Sinai Peninsula. First, the project provided irrigation waters to the area west of the Suez Canal. In October 1997, the culvert under the Suez was completed and water became available for irrigation in Block 1, the Tina Plain Zone (50,000 acres). Fields soon began to appear.”

This expansion of irrigable land that produces the world’s most expensive agricultural products for export to Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries as well as to Europe and other locations continues unabetted. “The most recent photo, taken by the STS-100 crew in April 2001, shows a new extension of canals into the desert to the east. These canals will eventually feed irrigation in Block 3, the Raba’a Zone. Development of more fields can also be seen south of the Tina Plain Zone in an area called Block 2, the Southeastern Qantara Zone. Plans call for extending the canal by mid-2002 and irrigating a total of 620,000 acres. The cost of the project is estimated to exceed 7.5 billion Egyptian pounds (about $2 billion). Given the scarcity of water resources in the region and the costs involved, it is not surprising that the project is controversial within and outside Egypt.”

The Government of the United States and the World Bank that were pushing Ethiopia to sign an agreement abandoning its legitimate and sovereign rights to utilize its waters and alleviate poverty know this scandalous and irresponsible use of Nile Waters by Egypt. Egypt is literally exporting Nile waters and earning foreign exchange. This is unjust, unfair and unacceptable.

I ask a simple question. Who is being harmed by this travesty? It is 115 million Ethiopians. Millions do not have adequate foods; access to safe drinking water; access to electricity and so on. I do not know of a U.N. Convention that grants Egypt the right to squander waters and export what it does not even produce. Nor is there any law that denies Ethiopia the right to utilize its waters.

Ethiopians must defend their legitimate rights to live a better life by using their waters no matter the cost. Here I embrace General Birhanu Jula’s (Military Operations Chief, Ethiopian National Defense) penetrating and patriotic guide to Egypt. Briefly put, he cautioned General Sisi’s leaderships alarming and destabilizing vitriolic that the massive weaponry Egypt has “amassed over the past 30-40 years is inconsequential against the well-tested and patriotic Ethiopian people.” I recall a similar utterance by the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi who advised Egyptian aggressors that “He knows of no Egyptian invader of Ethiopia who survived to tell the story.” This is simply to reinforce my hypothesis that the best option to the impasse is negotiated settlement. For this to happen, Ethiopians must speak with one voice.

On June 10 and 11, 2020, the Ethiopian Ministry of Water and Energy released press statements concerning “The tripartite negotiation between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt” chaired by Ethiopia and with a focus on “the Guidelines and Rules for the first filling and annual operation for the GERD.” I welcome this development that involved independent observers. Sudan’s proposal was also discussed. Egypt is trying to subvert this process too.

Ethiopia’s position remains the same. It “reiterated the need for the three countries to focus on and approach the negotiation with good faith and commitment to achieve a win-win outcome.” In my view, “a win-win outcome” is one that ensures that Ethiopia has a legitimate and sovereign right to harness its waters; begin filling the dam; and operate it interdentally and without a third party overseeing its operation and management. Sudan’s confirmation of the technical quality and integrity of the dam supports this preposition. Its statement that all three countries would benefit from the completion of the dam buttresses Ethiopia’s position. The UN Convention cited earlier and other Agreements and treaties on transboundary rivers confirm Ethiopia’s position as well. The next round of negotiations including the one to be chaired by the Sudan on June 13, 2020, should firm up the fundamentals that govern any agreement.

Against this healthy development, I find it troublesome that Egypt continues to create obstacles with a deliberate intent to delay the filling of the dam. Postponement entails a huge financial cost for Ethiopia estimated at one billion dollars in foreign exchange earnings each year. Is Egypt or the World Bank prepared to compensate Ethiopia for this loss?

Under what Convention or treaty are the Ethiopian people obligated to defer or delay their rightful development utilizing their own waters? Is it not about time for the world community to demand that Egypt begins to behave like an adult rather than a spoiled child? Is it not about time to demand for the sake of the planet that Egypt stops exporting water that it does not produce?

Reverting back to the U.N. Security Council while negotiations are taking place is another deliberate Egyptian strategic move. Its constant posturing undermines in-good faith negotiations and further pressures the Sudan to take sides again. Ethiopia and the Sudan should stand firm together with regard to fundamental principles; while ironing out technical differences.

Egypt must be guided by and respect the entirety of the 2015 Agreement on the Declaration of Principles (DoP) that governs the filling, operation and management of on the GERD. It must not be allowed to cherry-pick provisions that it chooses and stretch them in order to continue its hegemony over Ethiopia’s waters. What comes in mind is “no significant harm.” Egypt tries to stretch this to mean no reduction of the volume of water it granted to itself regardless of weather conditions. Is there something called burden and benefit sharing in Egyptian vocabulary?

Egypt has enormous reservoir of waters at the Aswan Dam that will mitigate risks. Ethiopia does not. Ethiopia cannot control the weather, including drought years. Yet, Egypt wants to impose conditions that entail “significant harm” to the Ethiopian people. This is a punishment that no Ethiopian Government should ever consider.

Further, Egypt wishes to make sure that Ethiopia is barred from building other irrigation and hydroelectric dams in the hinterland. Accepting this Egyptian demand will make Ethiopia an Egyptian colony, a prospect that no Ethiopian would ever accept.

Observers are invited guests. The role of independent and impartial observers is not to impose their will on behalf of Egypt or the Sudan or Ethiopia. It is to be share best practices drawing from a rich menu of Conventions, Agreements and Treaties on transboundary rivers. Their involvement and participation are in the public interest and should be recorded and made public.

Transparency is crucial in building and nurturing mutual trust as well as confidence. For example, disclosure of the names of observers; disclosure of core working documents of the legal and technical teams; and the differing and generic positions of the three parties. Citizens of the three nations are anxious and deserve to know the general picture and direction. They have a vested interest in the matter. Equally, the world community that is afflicted by the Pandemic wishes to see a peaceful outcome

Both Ethiopia and the Sudan have been forthcoming; but not Egypt. Many of us who follow the issue closely were pleased to learn that Egypt decided to join the Tripartite negotiations. We soon learned that it reverted to the U.N Security Council that had expressed a well-reasoned opinion that the matter should be settled by the primary stakeholders.

This gyration in diplomacy is not only bizarre; but extremely dangerous. The ultimate objective of the U.N. Security Council is to prevent the prospect of war. Its members understand that the GERD is governed by a set of Conventions, Treaties and Agreements that nations use in settling differences.

Egypt’s sneaky and underhanded exertion of pressure on individual members of the Security Council to intervene and take sides undermines a body of international laws, treaties, norms as well as international and regional institutions such as the African Union and the Arab League that members cannot afford to subvert. A growing Africa should not be sidelined for short-term benefits. A second attempt by Egypt does not change the previous guidance and advice.

In the light of the foregoing, I urge Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan to continue with the noble and principled task of dialogue, honest conversation and negotiation that will go in the history books as pioneering. It will bring about a fair, equitable and mutually beneficial agreement.

In the meantime, I urge each and every Ethiopian to serve as Ethiopia’s Ambassador in defense of the country’s sovereign and legitimate rights to utilize its waters; to fill the GERD; operate and manage it without undue interference; and advance sustainable and equitable development for all Ethiopians. We can differ on numerous other things. However, trading or merchandizing Ethiopia’s rights for money or for power or for any other earthly glory will go down in history as a colossal betrayal of Ethiopia. The GERD is a generational legacy.

I recall that, Egypt reached out to, mobilized and empowered all Egyptians and their friends across the globe to defend its hegemony over Nile waters; and to demean Ethiopia since 2003. In Doha, Qatar, I defended Ethiopia’s legitimate rights and began writing about the matter without let up. I shall continue to do so as long as my Creator gives me the strength to do so. It is a matter of Ethiopia’s national survival, prosperity and honor as a nation. Ethiopia deserves our support and not deaf ears or leap services.

Given the seriousness of the issue, I contend that Ethiopians must speak with one voice. They should do all they can anywhere in the world and dispel Egyptian propaganda that Ethiopian operation and management of the GERD “could unleash highly destructive floods or, conversely, disastrous droughts on the downstream nations of Sudan and Egypt.” It is patently racist to assume that Ethiopians and other Blacks are incapable of constructing, operating and managing a complex technical and physical tasks. Anyone who has flown Ethiopian Airlines would attest to the well-established track records and abilities of Ethiopian technical and professional personnel to operate and manage complex projects.

I remember when I was a young college student in the United States the accolades Ethiopian Airforce personnel received from American trainers. They were stars. If Sudanese technical experts attest to the technical quality of the GERD, who anointed Egyptians to dispute Ethiopian quality and Ethiopia’s capacity to apply due diligence and safeguard its investment? No one did. It is self-appointment and self-aggrandizement to fulfil a hidden agenda: delay and delay and make it too costly for Ethiopia to complete the dam. This Egyptian arrogance and defiance has continued for more than 100 years.

Ethiopians must be firm in stating vocally and unequivocally that Egypt can longer act as the self-appointed judge, jury and executioner. It is time for Egypt to accept Sub-Saharan African nations as equals.

Finally, Egypt should never forget the historical fact that Ethiopia is one of the few internationally recognized independent nations on the planet. It is also the origin of human kind.

Part III will follow soon.

June 13, 2020

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