Some observations on the troubling Ethio-Egyptian discourses over the Grand Renaissance Dam

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By Tadesse Kidane Mariam

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that Ethiopia has been building over the Abbay (Blue Nile) river over the last 9 years has provoked heated debate between Egypt and Ethiopia over a wide range of issues including the scheduled impounding of the river sometime in the first two weeks of July/2020. The frenzied speed with which Egypt has been defining and redefining the debate over the dam in recent months makes sound analysis of issues rather problematic. Yet, the underlying narrative of Egypt’s all-out campaign to mobilize the world community behind its position is the existential threat that the dam’s very construction will have on Egypt’s 100+ million people, The discursive frame that Egypt is a desert country whose very survival depends on the life giving waters of the Nile is not some thing new. Timothy Mitchell (1995) had captured Egyptian construction of its development challenge as emanating from a problem of geography and demography i.e. a narrow strip of 15,000 square miles of land along the Nile and its delta accommodating 98% of its 100+ million inhabitants. This overwhelming dependence of the country on the waters of the Nile and the absence of any other alternative hydraulic resource base has defined its position on the legitimate question of upper riparian states for a just and equitable share of the waters of the international river. Mitchell had criticized Egyptian construction of its economic development challenges from a nexus of ‘fixed amount of usable land and the rapid growth of the population’ as a constrained vision that had led to a myopic definition of solution spaces in the realms of improved use of technology and management of resources. The neglect or the downplaying of the social and political ecology dimensions of Egyptian society has remained a fundamental aspect of Egypt’s internal development dynamics and its external relations with critical countries that share the waters of the Nile.
It is interesting to note that successive Egyptian governments have taken such discursive frames in any serious discussion on the shared management of the waters of the Nile. Egypt’s hegemonic stand on the utilization and management of the waters of the Nile is grounded in the 1902, 1929 and 1959 colonial treaties and agreements that essentially excluded upper riparian states and gave it almost exclusive use rights to this day. The construction of the grand renaissance dam has dramatically changed the nexus and it is time to evolve a common ground for all riparian states to share the water and its management on the basic principles of fair and collective utilization of international rivers. The agreement that the Nile basin countries reached in charting out a strategy for the fair and cooperative management of the waters of the Nile basin was a good start. Unfortunately, subsequent measures were not taken largely due to the unreasonable opposition of Egypt to any meaningful strategy that would have evolved a workable basin-wide water management regime.
The current strategy of Egypt is unfair and devoid of any semblance of normative diplomatic approach to problem solving. The goodwill that Ethiopia has shown towards both the Nile basin initiative and the tripartite approach to the resolution of perceived or actual problems that could emanate from the construction of the Grand Renaissance dam has not been reciprocated by Egypt. Instead it used its diplomatic advantages in the US, the Arab World and the United Nations to subvert the goodwill shown by the Ethiopian side. The massive propaganda campaign of the Egyptian and Middle Eastern and Gulf press and social media against the Ethiopian project has poisoned the environment for sane deliberation on whatever critical issues that needed to be discussed. The continuous shifting of the forum for resolving the perceived danger emanating from the impounding of the waters of the Blue Nile is a strategy of diversion that lacks legality, sincerity and goodwill. The recent rhetoric by some in the Egyptian political circle that ‘all options were open’ is a veiled threat to seek non-diplomatic resolution to an essentially non-existing problem. The pronouncements of both officials and experts of the Ethiopian side have underlined the fact that the three countries had already reached a memorandum of understanding on most technical issues.
Egypt fully knows that its water supply will not be significantly compromised by the impounding of the waters of the Grand Renaissance dam. Even if there is a slight decrease in the volume of water during the impounding, it is neither an existential threat nor a gap that could not be filled with better management of the use of its water. Egyptian water management practices need to be revisited before anticipating water shortage and other management problems that could develop from the Ethiopian dam. Egypt should have appreciated Ethiopia’s tremendous sacrifice in building the largest dam in Africa without the assistance of any foreign source – a dam that has significant economic and social benefits to the entire Horn of Africa, East Africa and the lower basin countries of Sudan and Egypt.
I find the shifting discursive formations that Egypt has been manufacturing troubling. A cursory look into Egyptian geography, demography and political economy clearly shows the importance of the water of the Nile. Egypt has a total area of 386,000 sq. miles and a 2020 population of 100 mln, 98% of which is concentrated in 5% of the Nile river valley and its extensive delta. Egyptian agriculture is among the most productive systems in the world with an average acre of Egyptian farmland producing more than three times that of both Bangladesh and Philippines, two of the most densely populated countries of Asia (Egypt Stat, 2011). Egyptian agriculture growth rate had kept pace with its population growth rate. Egyptians consume large amounts of food (3,557 kilocalories/capita/day), higher than most upper middle-and-high income countries. Yet, social inequality was such that more than 30 % of children suffered from mild malnutrition and another 31% from moderate to severe undernutrition (1990 Studies in Family Planning). The growing disparity between social classes had been such that it had affected agricultural policy in favor of meeting the demands of the better off population for higher value foods such as meat. Studies in the 1990s had indicated that Egypt had been producing more food for animals than for humans. It has become one of the leading importers of food crops and commodities in the world notwithstanding the fact that it had a robust agricultural export sector. The US and its grain companies have benefitted immensely and continue to do so from the export of millions of tons of wheat other grains and commodities every year. The billions of dollars-worth of subsidies given to the food sector and the Egyptian military have created a political and social class that has followed a flawed agricultural policy that assigns more investment to animal feed than crops for human consumption. The social indicators for Egypt show a middle-income country with a well-established industrial and service economy. (Mitchell, 1995). Other Egyptian geographic, demographic, socio-economic and environmental indicators can be cited to refute the simplistic notion that Ethiopia’s grand renaissance will have an existential threat on the country’s development and livelihood. In comparison, Ethiopia’s social indicators show a significantly lower standing on almost all fronts.
The Grand Renaissance dam is being built to generate electricity. It will create a huge reservoir for the sustained supply of water to Sudan and Egypt. That is why Egypt should desist from the politicization of a regional project that will ultimately benefit all riparian states. The best way to resolve the current unpleasant and unnecessary misunderstanding is to see the project as a regional project that generates electricity for the entire riparian states, provides well-regulated water for multi-purpose use to downstream countries and improves the quality of life of millions in the basin. As clearly indicated by Ethiopia’s prime minister and minister of water resources and energy, Ethiopia has no wish or harbors any ill-will towards the peoples of the Sudan and Egypt and would in no way jeopardize the capacity of the lower riparian states to meet their national developmental objectives and goals. The Sudanese minister of water clearly dispelled the notion that the dam will have negative repercussions on his country’s development. Egypt should listen to its southern neighbor earnestly and act responsibly rather than engage in fruitless accusation and misrepresentation of ground realities. The disinformation campaign on the process of the negotiation and the technical realities associated with all aspects of the dam is counterproductive to the resolution of the current misunderstanding and the future management of the upstream and downstream management of the water of the Blue Nile.
On a people to people basis, the longstanding relationship between Ethiopia and the lower basin countries is written in a bond of amity and reciprocity lasting thousands of years. No well-meaning Ethiopian will have the heart to harm neither the peoples of the Sudan nor Egypt by embarking upon a deliberate policy of development that will have significant negative repercussions on their livelihoods. We also think that no Sudanese or Egyptian will willfully work towards creating bottlenecks against the realization of the Ethiopia’s developmental objectives and goals. The Sudanese and Egyptian peoples have hosted thousands of Ethiopians in their times of political and economic stress. Let us not dampen it with inconsequential posturing and political brinksmanship. The problems of poor access to electricity, water, sanitation services and the perennial challenges of food insecurity are real and have significant quality of life implications in Ethiopia.
Finally, I would like to cite the experience of the US in its Colorado river basin as an example of the positive ramifications of system-wide thinking in the development of the water of a regional character. The construction of the 221 meters (726ft) high and 6.5 million-ton concrete Hoover Dam over the 2,414kms long river in the 1930s created the then world’s largest reservoir in Lake Mead. Its construction ushered a new cycle of dam building upstream and downstream that benefitted millions of people in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and California. More that 20 smaller, medium and large-scale dams were built for energy production, irrigation, water supply, fishing, recreation, tourism and wildlife conservation bringing region-wide prosperity for all (G. A Klee, 1991, p.110). Notwithstanding Mexico’s displeasure at the intensity of US water capture and some of its environmental externalities, the project was largely a successful management of the waters of the Colorado basin. Ethiopia’s prudent approach of generating only electricity from the largest dam in Africa should be appreciated by downstream countries. Ethiopia had never posed any threat or created any diplomatic fuss over the building of the high Aswan dam in Egypt or the Roseries dam in the Sudan. I call upon the leadership and peoples of the concerned countries to desist from the politicization of a key regional project by bringing in external forces into the negotiation. Let us cap the unnecessary bickering over inconsequential issues by charting out a long-term collective water management strategy for the entire basin. The phase one filling of the dam went without creating a stir because it was technically a non-issue in the first place. Subsequent fillings will be made without any significant repercussions on either Sudan or Egypt. Let us collectively seize the moment and re-engineer our discourses on scientific analysis of possibilities rather than allow ourselves to be guided by emotive and unrealistic assumptions and expectations.

Tadesse Kidane Mariam, Ph.D. is Emeritus A/Professor at Edinboro University of PA