By Lawrence Freeman*
Ethiopia is entering a crucial period for the future of its nation, as we approach the second half of July. Ethiopia must use the forthcoming rainy season (July to September) to begin the partial filling of its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) being built on Ethiopia’s Blue Nile River. When fully completed, the GERD, Africa’s largest hydroelectric project is capable of producing over 6,000 megawatts (MW). This is not only a game changer for Ethiopia, but will contribute to transforming the Horn of Africa.
The Blue Nile, which joins the White Nile just north of Khartoum, Sudan, provides 86% of the water that becomes the Nile River. From there, the Nile flows north through the deserts of Sudan and Egypt before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. Ethiopia has been involved in intense discussions with Sudan and Egypt, downstream from the dam, about the amount of water to be withdrawn from the Blue Nile to begin filling the GERD’s 76 billion cubic meter storage/reservoir. Egypt continuously attempts to forestall the filling of the dam, alleging that since it is dependent on the Nile, if the volume of the Nile is reduced, its citizens will suffer irreparable harm. For most of the last century Egypt has received the majority of the Nile River’s 84 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water.
Electricity for Development
The GERD, which is 75% finished was entirely funded by the Ethiopian people, is a $5 billion water infrastructure project initiated in 2011. Its purpose is to provide much needed electricity to power Ethiopia’s transition from an agrarian dominated economy to one that encompasses manufacturing and industry. In the years ahead, Ethiopia envisions become a light manufacturing hub for Africa, increasing manufacturing output, and manufacturing jobs by 440%.
The functioning of the GERD is not an option for this emerging nation of 110 million people, but a categorical necessity.
As a physical economist, who has studied Africa for decades, and knows the key drivers of economic growth, I can tell you that nothing is more vital for the survival of Africa, than the production of electricity. Without abundant and accessible electricity, poverty and disease will not be eliminated. Poverty is the number one enemy of Africa and is the cause of immense suffering for hundreds of millions of Africans.
Approximately 600 million Africans, almost half of the continent’s population, are not connected to a central energy grid. The overwhelming majority of them reside in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). More than 65 million Ethiopians, 40-45% of the population, do not have access to electricity. While Ethiopia suffers from one of the lowest per capita levels of electrical energy consumption, Egypt’s population of 100 million has 100% access.
When completed, the GERD will increase Ethiopia’s power generation from its current level of 4,500 MW to close to 11,000 MW, which will make it the second largest energy producer in SAA, behind South Africa. Ethiopia has already entered into agreements to export its excess electricity to other nations in East Africa.
Ethiopia’s commitment to construct the GERD resonates with the same vision that compelled the nation to build the Addis-Ababa to Djibouti rail line; to expand their economy, eliminate poverty, and provide a meaningful future for their expanding young population.
While Ethiopia is blessed with several water systems, the Blue Nile provides between 70% of its surface water. Ethiopia suffers from water shortages, droughts, and food insecurity due to inadequate infrastructure and under development.
It is true that Egypt has one of the lowest water per capita consumption rates in the world at 570 cubic meters per year, well below the global average of 1,000. Ethiopia’s amount is a mere 125 cubic meters per capita, barely more than 20% of Egypt’s level.
However, the Ethiopia government has plainly stated that the intention of the GERD is not to provide water for irrigation or consumption. The motivation and sacrifice of the Ethiopian people in undertaking this mega infrastructure project is to provide electrical power for the purpose of developing their nation. Ethiopia intends on becoming a low-middle income nation. It can no longer allow its people to be without electricity, relegated to burning wood. Improving the lives of their citizens today and future generations is the objective of an operational GERD.
Sovereignty Versus Colonialism
The Blue Nile descends from Lake Tana, deep inside Ethiopia’s mountains, traveling through Ethiopia before entering Sudan. The GERD will capture Blue Nile waters about 40 meters before the Sudanese border. Ethiopia intends to fill the dam’s reservoir with 14.5 bcm of water over the first two years for testing. The withdrawing of this amount from the Blue Nile’s 49 bcm will not adversely affect downstream nations (Sudan, Egypt). In fact, the GERD will benefit these nations by regulating the flow of the Nile, preventing flooding, reducing silt, and decreasing evaporation.
Ethiopia has the wonderful distinction in Africa of having never been colonized. Unlike my beloved American July 4th, celebrating our independence from the British Empire, Ethiopia has no Independence Day. Instead, Ethiopia celebrates Adwa Day, March 1, 1896, when they defeated the Italian army on the battlefield in northern Ethiopia. Yet Ethiopia is fighting the remnants of British colonialism today in its determination to generate energy to free its people from the bondage of poverty.
Contrary to Egyptian claims, the negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan are not about water sharing or water allocation. There have been two water allocation agreements regarding the Nile waters, that involved only Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia was not a signatory nor participants to either accord, yet Egypt asserts historical rights over the Nile River, including Ethiopia’s Blue Nile. The most recent such agreement was in 1959, three years after Sudan’s independence from Britain, which recodified the 1929 British Imperialist agreement guaranteeing 55 bcm of Nile waters to Egypt and 18.5 bcm to Sudan. At the time of the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, both Egypt and Sudan were colonies of Great Britain as stipulated by the 1899 Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. This treaty also “granted Egypt veto power over construction projects on the Nile or any of its tributaries in an effort to minimize any interference with the flow of water into the Nile.”
To maintain geo-political domination and control of trade along the eastern spine of Africa, Britain maintained authority over the Nile waters from Cairo down to Khartoum and beyond into southern Sudan.
Ethiopia, an independent nation was not subject to Britain’s edicts and retained sovereignty over the Blue Nile.
Thus, from whence does Egypt’s historical claim to dominance of the Nile originate.
In a statement signed by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, sent to the Honorable Congresswoman Karen Bass, Chair of the Black Caucus, dated May 19, 2020, Rev. Jackson reveals that Egypt’s “historical rights” over the Nile are derived from the British Queen.
He cites a letter dated May 7, 1929, from Mahmoud Pasha, Chairman of the Egyptian Council of Ministers, to the British requesting affirmation of Egypt’s “natural and historical” rights to the waters of the Nile. Lord Lloyd, Britain’s High Commissioner in Cairo, responded on behalf of the Queen:
“I would like to remind your Excellency [Mahmoud Pasha] that her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom has already recognized the natural and historical rights of Egypt to the waters of the Nile. I am entrusted with the responsibility of declaring that Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom considers the observance of these rights as a fundamental principle of the policy of Great Britain.”
Rev. Jackson stresses in his letter, that Ethiopia should not be pressured “into signing a neo-colonial agreement will make Egypt a hegemon over the Nile River.”
U.S. Gets Involved
In September, Egyptian President Al-Sisi requested U.S. assistance in negotiating the operation of the GERD. President Trump asked Treasury Department to host a series of meetings in Washington DC, beginning in November 2019. Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt attended along with a representative of the World Bank, with Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, to act as an impartial observer, not a mediator. Ethiopia compromised by indicating they would extend the filling beyond 3 years, to 5-7 years and increased the amount of water to be released from 35 bcm to 40 bcm in seasons of healthy rain. With the negotiations failing to lead to a resolution, Ethiopia requested to postpone the February 27-28 meeting. The meeting proceeded without Ethiopia. Sudan and Egypt attending, but Egypt alone initialed an agreement prepared without Ethiopia’s input, which the Ethiopia Foreign Ministry characterized as “unacceptable and highly partisan.”
On February 28, 2020, an official statement from the US Treasury Department praised Egypt’s “readiness to sign the agreement,” and instructed Ethiopia that “final testing and filling should not take place without an agreement.” The next day, Ambassador Shinn (ret), former ambassador to Ethiopia, whose has spent decades in the State Department, questioned whether the U.S. was “putting its thumb on the scale in favor of Egypt.”
In a June 22, 2020 bipartisan letter addressed to Ambassador David Hale, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, seven former Assistant Secretaries of State for African Affairs, asked the U.S. to embrace neutrality regarding the GERD talks. They wrote:
“The U.S. position at this sensitive juncture will also have long term implications. It will either strengthen or seriously weaken our future relations with Ethiopia. While there is no question that resolution of the Nile issue will require flexibility and compromise on all sides, it is not politically viable for Prime Minister Abiy (or any Ethiopian politician) to indefinitely delay filling the GERD. However, the perception—rightly or wrongly—that the United States has sided with Egypt in the negotiations will limit our ability to support efforts aimed at reaching a settlement.”
Discussions Move to Africa
Egypt, not satisfied with the negotiating process, attempted to involve the United Nations in forcing an agreement on Ethiopia that violated its sovereignty over the GERD. On June 29, 2020, Egypt with the support of the U.S. brought the matter to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC is not the normal forum to settle such matters, but Egyptians were hoping to mobilize international pressure against Ethiopia. The UNSC has instead preferred to have the African Union (AU) resolve the issue of Ethiopia’s right to operate the GERD. On the previous Friday, June 26, the Extraordinary African Union Bureau of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government conducted a video-teleconference meeting on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat noted that more than 90% of the issues between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan had been resolved.
South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, in his capacity as the Chairperson of the AU is committed to have “an African led process in the spirit of African solutions to African problems.”
In a June 23rd statement, the U.S. Congressional Caucus emphasized the pivotal role of the AU in these tripartite negotiations. They went on to discuss the importance of the GERD for Africa.
The GERD project will have a positive impact on all countries involved and help combat food security and lack of electricity and power, supply more fresh water to more people, and stabilize and grow the economies of the region.”
The Conference of Black Mayors, in a June 29th statement, expressed their support for the filling of the GERD
“Today, on behalf of global leaders throughout the African diaspora that hold the office of mayor, the Conference of Black Mayors released the following statement in support of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the impact GERD would have on Conference of Black Mayors member cities…
“It is known that Ethiopia generates 86% of the Nile waters but has been unable to use this considerable natural resource effectively in the past. Now, following more than a decade of impressive economic growth, Ethiopia desires to utilize its naturally endowed resource for its nation’s critical growth and development. Countries throughout Africa are in dire need of electric power to enable and sustain their respective nations rise out of poverty. The creation of a sustainable energy source will create a national infrastructure that directly contributes to the wellbeing of citizens our mayors represents through our global mayors’ association…
“We strongly support a timely fill of the dam without further delays to avoid the economic impact on Ethiopia and neighboring countries.”
Ethiopia is desirous to cooperate with downstream nations, but it will not have its sovereignty violated by having the operation of the GERD jointly managed or contingent on the requirements of water for Egypt’s downstream High Aswan Dam.
Ethiopia should and will begin filling the GERD. It would be irresponsible not to use this year’s rainy season to begin filling the reservoir, with the dam already 75% constructed. Ethiopia’s leadership will not disappoint the aspirations of the Ethiopian people, who view the GERD as emblematic of their national identity, and a critical vehicle to raise their standard of living and secure a more prosperous future for their posterity.
Ethiopia’s use of the word Renaissance in describing its new dam is not metaphorical. When fully functional, the GERD will lead to a rejuvenation of Ethiopia’s economy and that of its neighboring nations.
*Lawrence Freeman is a Political-Economic Analyst for Africa, who has been involved in the economic development policy of Africa for 30 years. He is the creator of the blog: lawrencefreemanafricaandtheworld.com