01 June 2013

Ethiopia Diverting Nile for Renaissance Dam Construction Sparks New Debate with Egypt

An article outlining the political and legal complexities of the Renaissance Dam here, is just one of several coverages of the recent changes on the Nile River. Ethiopia is moving forward with the Renaissance Dam. Now they have to divert water as a part of construction actions. This is causing a new wave of international concern, especially out of Egypt, regarding the project. The fact that Ethiopia continues to move forward with this project in absence of an international agreement is risky. But it seems to me that the current situation is more about feared outcomes than current realities on the part of Egypt.

If the case is that Egypt fears water shortage, let's consider for a moment the hydroaccount. Aswan has a load of storage water behind it in Lake Nasser. I have heard that there is 2 years worth of water storage there. If the Ethiopian dam takes 5 years to fill, reducing by 20% the water flow, this only takes away 1 year worth of water from Egypt, which it can make up with what it has in storage. More to the point, if there are worries about this filling being too rapid, I am sure that Ethiopia would be open to discussion about taking longer to fill the dam in order to avoid downstream problems. Ethiopia's government has remained constant on the point of invitation to cooperate with Egypt and Sudan on this dam. Ethiopia has also remained constant that they are going to build this dam, they need to develop themselves and get away from 1. wide-spread poverty, 2. lack of energy in the grid, 3. reliance on Western donor organizations, 4. being on the LDC - least developed countries list, which essentially looks at GDP. GDP will benefit from the sale of energy generated (not all of it, we are talking 6,000 MW and currently less than 50% national coverage).

Aside from all this official talk the situation is like this: the Blue Nile is a river that runs through Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. To date, only Sudan and Egypt have used the river to the advantage of their countries' needs. Ethiopia is seriously moving forward with national development - and developing the resource of the Blue Nile is part of that. It is not a minor river in Ethiopia - it constitutes almost 50% of all the surface fresh water. I don't know how many people live in the watershed exactly, but the point is that having been to Egypt and Ethiopia, there is a marked difference in development. Ethiopia is attempting to find ways to solve its own problems of poverty and development. I think Ethiopia, like so many donor countries, has waited for years for these donor organizations to solve problems of health, nutrition, education, etc. Although I saw some amazing projects that the Catholic Church was providing in Ethiopia, these are small compared with the rising tide of need. The government cannot wait anymore. They are responsible to their people. So, we have the Renaissance Dam project. They also have Gibe III, a favorite among environmentalists. What can be the alternative? If not their water resources for energy and then in turn for industry and production, the accepted course we are familiar with in development from a subsistence state to a technological state, what should Ethiopia do?

In my opinion, it is well understood that Egypt is an arid country and relies on the water of the Nile, not only for economic wellbeing, but for transportation, subsistence farmers, energy generation, tourism, and drinking water. It is not a question that Egypt has a right to the water. Ethiopia recognizes that this is a shared resource - at least this is the impression that I have from conversations with Minister Barakat and others in the Ethiopian government. They also expressed their willingness to work directly with Egypt and Sudan on this project. What about encouraging the two countries to invest in the project and then get a return later - like a say in the management of the water flow or some of the electricity generated???

But, the question still remains, does Egypt have the right to demand the portion of the water that currently is allowed in the standing treaty? Who can decide?

This is something that could be brought to court, and maybe to an international court to consider, since the original document was generated by the UK - maybe they should step up to help here????

The other riparian countries, minus Sudan, have been calling in the last several years, to revamp the colonial era treaty to reflect the fact that there are new nation-states since that treaty was signed that are riparian to the river. These nations are not considered in the original treaty - they didn't exist as independent states. This to me seems fair enough to revisit the legitimacy of the existing treaty. Because the group, Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), funded by the World Bank with offices in several places, has failed to move the negotiations forward, people are very disappointed in this organization and would like to see a different approach. Maybe a court hearing is in order. But about the dam? I think instead the dam should be kept in the realm of nation-nation negotiations. The problems cited are technical and best handled by the engineers and hydrologists.

As an aside: Why on Earth, the countries of the Nile Basin allowed Western interests to recommend a design for solving this problem with the NBI is beyond me. Of course it failed - it has no teeth and is too soft in dealing with very hard things. It was Western interests that put the countries in question in the situation that they are currently in now. Now this suggestion to take the two countries to international court to sort things out about the dam - probably in the interest to avoid armed conflict - is again a Western solution. Forget the West, Africa, you are capable of figuring this out without them.

Here is my advice:
Leave the technical problems to technical people, like Lama El Hatow and her capable team in Egypt and Mr. Meheret Debebe and his capable team at the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCO) in Ethiopia. Find solutions that everyone can live with regarding water sharing. Egypt could set up gauging stations in Ethiopia for more data sharing. The three countries, Sudan included, could look to other systems, like the international Columbia River, to see how the dams can be run in tandem for flood control and regulated water flow.

Here is the article:

International arbitration could be option for Ethiopia's Blue Nile dam: Govt source
If Ethiopia and Egypt fail to come to an agreement about controversial new dam project on the Blue Nile, the matter could be taken to International Court of Justice
Dina Ezzat, Saturday 1 Jun 20

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“We have a strong legal case to insist that our share of the Nile water is preserved – this is not just from a political perspective but also from a legal perspective,” said an anonymous Egyptian government source on the eve of the release of a report on the impacts of an Ethiopian dam on the Blue Nile.
Ethiopia had already started on the first phases of constructing the dam, on Tuesday diverting a stretch of the Blue Nile in preparation for the dam.
Egypt and Sudan, which both depend on water from the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia, have long objected to the plans for the dam, concerned that it could harm their share of the Nile water.
Egypt currently receives 55.5 billion cubic metres of the total Nile waters.
The reserve of the Renaissance Dam requires 74 billion cubic metres of water. Ethiopia has an initial plan to fill up the reserve in five years, which could cause Egypt a cut of over 20 percent in five successive years, contributing to Egypt’s existing water shortages.
The Egyptian annual share is decided by a series of international agreements that were signed in the first five decades of last century. Ethiopia has been arguing that agreements concluded during the colonial era should be revisited by independent African states.
“This is not a legal argument – it might be a political argument but not a legal one,” said the government source. He added that there are “precedents by which the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had stipulated the observation of international agreements reached during the colonial era by African states; we have a strong case if we were to go to the ICJ; that is for sure,” he said.
For Egypt and Ethiopia to pursue the arbitration of the ICJ, both countries have to accept the intervention. “If Egypt was to propose this intervention and Ethiopia declines it would put itself in a very unfavourable political situation,” the same source said.
In another option, he added, Egypt could resort to international arbitration in a mechanism that would require the presence of arbitrary representatives of both Egypt and Ethiopia along with international arbitrators. Egypt successfully pursued this to settle its dispute with Israel over Taba and managed to retrieve it in the early 1980s. 
Egypt’s pursuit of arbitration relies on international legal provisions that demand the consent of all the basin states of any river prior to the construction of any mega irrigation projects like the Renaissance Dam.
 These options, Egyptian officials say, are not the immediate choices of Cairo. “We are hopeful to fix the matter through negotiations; we might have a joint mechanism to decide the matter and we have had the firm assurances of Addis Ababa that it will not harm our water interests,” said another government official.
“We already have an idea of what we could do but we are waiting for the release of the report of the impacts of the Renaissance Dam which is being put together by experts from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on Saturday,” he said.
The report is likely to highlight the possible negative repercussion of the ‘proposed dam’ on Egypt’s share and to recommend the need for a consensual scheme to fill up the reserve.
The report may also raise questions about the possible negative environmental impact of the dam on the course of the river Nile. Other questions about the safety of the dam itself have also yet to be addressed.
However, the report would not at all go as far as recommending the cancellation of the project.
“Ethiopia is not without international support for the pursuit of this dam that would help development aspirations; still, it is not unaware of the growing international concern over the many problems of Egypt and the fact that nobody would want to see an acute water shortage problem added to the already tough challenges that the country is facing,” said a Cairo-based European diplomat.
“In fact, the matter could be fixed with the interests of both countries in consideration if Ethiopia agrees on a relatively slow process to fill up the reserve and if Egypt works to cut down on its water losses by upgrading its water usage; the international community could be of help there for sure.”