Thursday, December 9, 2021 10:44 am
By Ismail Abdulaziz (NAN)
On Dec. 3, 2021, the final joint communique of the Fifth African Union-United Nations Annual Conference reiterated full support to the AU Chairperson, President Felix Antoine Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the AU Commission on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) issue in their ongoing efforts towards a peaceful and constructive resolution.
The communiqué underpinned the priority given to the issue by the African Union (AU) and the rest of the world. The GERD brought about the interest of three countries; Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in the sharing of a watercourse.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses 1997 dwelt on the equitable and reasonable utilisation and participation.
“Watercourse States shall in their respective territories utilize an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner. In particular, an international watercourse shall be used and developed by watercourse States with a view to attaining optimal and sustainable utilization thereof and benefits therefrom, taking into account the interests of the watercourse States concerned, consistent with adequate protection of the watercourse.
What is the significance of the GERD to the three riparian states?
According to “Water Technology”: the site of the GERD was identified when the US Bureau of Reclamation first made a survey of the Blue Nile River between 1956 and 1964.
“Two site surveys were also carried out in October 2009 and between July and August 2010, with the design being submitted in November 2010. The Government of Ethiopia kept the design phase of the project secret until one month prior to the laying of the foundation stone for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project.
“The planning phase of the project was carried out under a name called Project X, which was later changed to Millennium Dam and finally to its present name.
The dam project had been of great concern to the three countries of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan because of its likely impact on the economic and social wellbeing of their respective peoples.
A Nile treaty signed by the upper riparian states in 2010, the Cooperative Framework Agreement, has not been signed by either Egypt or Sudan, as it has been argued by both countries that the Agreement violated two central principles of international water law, namely pre-notification of and pre-agreement on future projects implemented on trans-boundary rivers.
Egypt, which relies heavily on the waters of the Nile, and while recognizing Ethiopia’s right to development, has demanded that construction and operation of the GERD is ceased until the impact of the dam on the riparian states is scientifically determined and a binding legal agreement governing its filling and operation is reached among the three riparian states. Ethiopia denies that the dam will have a negative impact on downstream water flows and contends that the dam will increase water flows to Egypt by reducing evaporation on Lake Nasser, a statement that is yet to be empirically supported.
Other nations in the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) have expressed support for the dam, including Sudan, the only other nation downstream of the Blue Nile, although Sudan’s position towards the dam has varied over time.
Understanding the conflict involved in the dam
The precise impact of the dam on the downstream countries is not known. Egypt fears a temporary reduction of water availability due to the filling of the reservoir and a permanent reduction because of evaporation from the reservoir. Experts involved in the matter indicate that the primary factors which will govern the impacts during the reservoir filling phase include the initial reservoir elevation of the Aswan High Dam, the rainfall that occurs during the filling period and the negotiated arrangement between the three countries.
Depending on the initial storage in the Aswan High Dam and the filling schedule of the GERD, flows into Egypt could be temporarily reduced, which may affect the livelihood of two million farmers during the period of filling the reservoir. The longer term impact of the completed filling and year-to-year operation of the dam thereafter may be even more devastating to the well-being of the wider Egyptian population.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam could also lead to a permanent lowering of the water level in Lake Nasser if floods are stored instead in Ethiopia. This would reduce the current evaporation of more than 10 million cubic per year, but it would also reduce the ability of the Aswan High Dam to produce hydropower to the tune of a 100 MW loss of generating capacity for a 3 m reduction of the water level. However, the increased storage in Ethiopia can provide
Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan established an International Panel of Experts to review and assess the study reports of the dam. The panel consists of 10 members; 6 from the three countries and 4 international members in the fields of water resources and hydrologic modelling, dam engineering, socioeconomic, and environmental. The panel held its fourth meeting in Addis Ababa in November 2012. It reviewed documents about the environmental impact of the dam and visited the dam site. The panel submitted its preliminary report to the respective governments at the end of May 2013.
Although the full report has not been made public, and will not be until it is reviewed by the governments, Egypt and Ethiopia both released details. The Ethiopian government stated that, according to the report, “the design of the dam is based on international standards and principles” without naming those standards and principles. It also said that the dam “offers high benefit for all the three countries and would not cause significant harm on both the lower riparian countries”.
According to Egyptian government, however, the report “recommended changing and amending the dimensions and the size of the dam”.
Beginning in November 2019, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin facilitated negotiations between the governments of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan with respect to the filling and the operation of the dam. Ethiopia proposed filling the reservoir with a release of 35 cubic kilometres of water per year, resulting in the complete filling of the reservoir in five years. Egypt countered that this would be too little, and demanded a larger amount of water to be released each year, asking for 40 cubic kilometres of water to be released and for the reservoir to be filled within seven years.
In February 2020, Mnuchin said in a statement: “We appreciate the readiness of the government of Egypt to sign the agreement and its initialling of the agreement to evidence its commitment,” adding “consistent with the principles set out in the Declaration of Principle (DOP), and in particular the principles of not causing significant harm to downstream countries, final testing and filling should not take place without an agreement.”
In September 2020, the United States suspended part of its economic assistance to Ethiopia due to the lack of sufficient progress in negotiations with Sudan and Egypt over the construction of the dam. On Oct. 24, 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump stated on a public phone call to Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “it’s a very dangerous situation because Egypt is not going to be able to live that way… And I said it and I say it loud and clear – they’ll blow up that dam. And they have to do something.”
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed responded that “Ethiopia will not cave in to aggression of any kind” and that threats were “misguided, unproductive and clear violations of international law.”
In April 2021, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi warned: “I am telling our brothers in Ethiopia, let’s not reach the point where you touch a drop of Egypt’s water, because all options are open.” El-Sisi has, meanwhile, stressed the priority given to reaching a negotiated settlement under the auspices of the AU that would serve the interests of all three states.
The dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia over the dam escalated in 2021. An advisor to the Sudanese leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan spoke of a water war “that would be more horrible than one could imagine”.
These disputes about the dam between these three countries have become something that must be addressed by all concerned stakeholders to avoid the looming conflict ready to add to the booming guns in the continent.
Way forward for resolutions
The AU theme of silencing the gun by 2020 and beyond in the continent which arose from the observation that too many conflicts are ongoing in the continent to allow for reasonable development to take place. The AU can forge ahead with this thinking to take proactive measures to tackle red flags in any country or between countries in order to bring the needed socio-economic development of the continent.
Article 7 of the Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses 1997, on obligation not to cause significant harm states that:
1.Watercourse States shall, in utilizing an international watercourse in their territories, take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm to other watercourse States.
2.Where significant harm nevertheless is caused to another watercourse State, the States whose use causes such harm shall, in the absence of agreement to such use, take all appropriate measures, having due regard for the provisions of articles 5 and 6, in consultation with the affected State, to eliminate or mitigate such harm and, where appropriate, to discuss the question of compensation.