Foreign Policy

Ethiopia's energy play on the Nile has left the area at a lifeless finish

Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan have been negotiating the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) for almost a decade. Unfortunately, these negotiations did not lead to an agreement. Countless technical reports have been written, dozens of declarations have been made, and hundreds of meetings have been held with leaders, foreign and water ministers, hydrologists and engineers, attorneys and litigators, and foreign mediators and international observers. Aside from a 2015 treaty that provided a legal framework for the negotiations, there is little to show for this diplomatic excitement.

The reason these efforts have failed is because the purpose of these negotiations is radically different. Egypt is pursuing an agreement based on a simple and mutually beneficial consideration: Ethiopia should be able to generate hydropower from the GERD while minimizing the damage to downstream communities in Egypt and Sudan. However, Ethiopia's goal is to use these negotiations to gain control of the Blue Nile, the largest tributary of the Nile, and to reconfigure the political topography of the Nile Basin.

The classic puzzle of transboundary watercourses is that downstream states, with their lush valleys and lush deltas, often build highly developed economies on the banks before mountainous upstream states begin to develop the need and capacity to use these common natural resources. This is especially true for the Nile Basin. Essentially a desert oasis of 100 million people, Egypt has depended entirely on the Nile for survival throughout its history. Ethiopia, on the other hand, is a water-rich upstream country that has recently been using its many cross-border rivers as development vehicles for the construction of hydropower dams.

The difficulty, however, is that upstream developments invariably affect downstream states and could expose millions of people to the devastating effects of water scarcity. This danger is particularly acute in the case of GERD, which when construction is completed will be Africa's largest hydroelectric dam with a storage capacity more than twice that of the US Hoover Dam. If filled and operated without a deal with Egypt and Sudan, GERD could have a disastrous impact on the livelihood of downstream communities. When Ethiopia began unilaterally replenishing GERD in July by quickly confiscating nearly 5 billion cubic meters of water, Sudan's drinking water supply systems and hydropower production facilities were disrupted. (As a sign of growing concern over Ethiopia's decision to fill the dam and the lack of progress in the negotiations, the United States announced a "temporary hiatus" on some of US aid to Ethiopia.)

It is not an insurmountable challenge to reconcile the development needs of Ethiopia with the survival requirement of Egypt. In February the United States made an agreement that did just that. It enabled Ethiopia to quickly and sustainably generate hydropower from the GERD while reducing the dam's damaging effects. While Egypt accepted and initialed this agreement, Ethiopia rejected it. Since then, there have been two rounds of negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, in which observers from the African Union, the European Union and the United States have participated. During these talks, Egypt and Sudan proposed several solutions based on the win-win formula to ensure that GERD produces hydropower while minimizing its adverse effects. Even so, Ethiopia remained adamant.

The reason is that these negotiations are about much more to Ethiopia than GERD and its economic value. Indeed, the dam is an instrument in an Ethiopian endeavor to exercise full control over the Blue Nile, to free itself from the restrictions of international law that apply to all riparian states that share international waterways, and to force Egypt and Sudan to to divide the waters of the Nile on Ethiopia's terms.

These motives are reflected in the proposals made by Ethiopia during negotiations this year, such as the text that Ethiopia sent to the United States Security Council in June. These proposals show that Ethiopia is unwilling to enter into a legally binding agreement – it has even refused to refer to the negotiated instrument as an "agreement". It has also refused to include a binding dispute settlement mechanism, suggesting instead that disputes be resolved through negotiation and mediation.

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government is demanding that Egypt and Sudan sign a document granting them the right to unilaterally adjust the terms of an agreement on GERD. It insists that such an agreement would give Ethiopia the full right to undertake more development projects and amend the GERD agreement to include these new waterworks in the future. However, this would effectively require Egypt and Sudan to sign their shore rights and turn into Ethiopia's hydrological hostages.

Ethiopia also argues that Egypt and Sudan must join the Framework Cooperation Agreement, an ineffective and divisive treaty drafted a decade ago to manage the waters of the Nile, but which has since lacked the necessary support to enter into force. In addition, Ethiopia insists that a GERD agreement will be terminated if Egypt and Sudan fail to agree to divide up certain portions of the Nile waters for the countries bordering the White Nile, the other great tributary of the Nile, within a decade – even if the White Nile Nile does not flow through Ethiopia.

In short, Ethiopia seeks to establish a hydrological tabula rasa by dictating the distribution of the river's waters and ignoring the geographic realities that have long made Egypt's survival dependent on the Nile.

On the other hand, Egypt's position was principled and pragmatic. It recognizes the inalienable right of Ethiopia to take advantage of the Blue Nile and carry out future development projects. However, Egypt believes that international law should regulate future projects on the Blue Nile. In addition, Egypt assumes that in these GERD negotiations it will be impossible to resolve decades of disagreement over the legal and institutional infrastructure of the Nile Basin. Hence, Egypt is striving for the achievable by working to reach an agreement on GERD only. This would be a technical agreement governing a single project on a single tributary of the Nile by setting out the details of the filling and operation of the GERD. It would not preclude Ethiopia's right to undertake future development projects, nor would it undermine the shore rights of downstream states. It would also bypass insoluble problems such as the Framework Cooperation Agreement that have weighed on the Nile Basin for decades.

It is untenable to behave as if the management of an international watercourse is a zero-sum game. Ethiopia should not seek to establish a fait accompli or take advantage of the river's wealth by dictation. This would only fuel tension and undermine stability across East Africa. To keep peace in an already turbulent region, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan must avoid a scenario in which a state threatens the existence of downstream communities or turns a dam into a Damoclean sword.

The AU, EU and United States should urge the parties to exercise flexibility and encourage Ethiopia to enter into a legally binding deal that will allow the country to earn a return on its investment in GERD while protecting downstream communities . Such an agreement would create trust and lay the foundation for broader cooperation in future development projects in the Nile Basin.

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