No need of armed conflict and confrontation over construction of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

By Dr. Jacob K. Lupai[

Associate Professor of Food Security

University of Juba

In Africa like anywhere else, confrontation and armed conflict may occur in competition over perceived scarce resources. One group may fear that it is not getting its fair share of the resources while the other may be seen to be getting more than its fair share. However, one way to resolve such confrontation and armed conflict over the fear of losing out in sharing perceived scarce resources is to abide but an agreement or international law if any exists.

In the context of construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Ethiopia, the fear is that the GERD will drastically reduce the volume of water flow downstream. For convenience, it may be appropriate to highlight the extent of concern of the downstream countries over the construction of GERD.

The Nile, the longest river in Africa, provides water as the basis for human life in the arid lands of the Sudan and Egypt. However, the Sudan and Egypt are not the only countries in the Nile Basin. There are other countries and they include Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. Also, there are two additional countries in the Nile Basin and they are Eritrea and South Sudan which separated from Ethiopia and Sudan respectively. This makes a total of eleven countries in the Nile Basin.

The Nile flows from south to north and passes through countries with a variety of climates and natural formations, from mountainous highlands to barren deserts. In the Equatorial Lakes Region and in the Ethiopian Highlands rainfall is high. In contrast, when one moves downstream from north of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and through Egypt towards the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile flows through semi-arid areas that receive little or no rainfall at all.

It can be confirmed from the above paragraph that the Equatorial Lakes Region and the Ethiopian Highlands contribute enormously the bulk of water to the Nile where the Sudan and Egypt hardly contribute anything. It is important to note that there are four major tributaries of the Nile drainage system. Three of those four major tributaries originate in Ethiopia. The three major tributaries which originate in Ethiopia are the Blue Nile, Sobat and Atbara. The other one major tributary is the White Nile.

By virtue of the three major tributaries, the Blue Nile, Sobat and Atbara, Ethiopia contributes 86 percent of the total volume of water while the White Nile contributes the remaining 14 percent. In addition, Ethiopia’s contribution to the Nile flow rises to 95 percent during the summer big rainy season that stretches between July and September. This seems to confirm that Ethiopia is the most single contributor of water to the Nile system.

In contrast to Ethiopia’s enormous contribution of water to the Nile system, Ethiopia gets next to nothing in return in terms of the use of the Blue Nile water which originates in its highlands. Sadly, Ethiopia instead gets threats of violence and war for the construction of GERD on the Blue Nile which is on Ethiopian soil. It is regrettable that Ethiopia is not getting any cooperation for its enormous contribution of water to the Nile system.    

During the colonial era Britain controlled the major part of the Nile Basin and the White Nile. However, the Blue Nile and the Ethiopian Highlands were outside British control as Ethiopia was not under British colonial administration. Since time immemorial, Egypt has been desperate for the control and use of the Nile waters. It has always been sensitive to any plan by the other countries in the Nile Basin to use the Nile waters. Egypt fears that any development that involves the use of water by any country in the Nile Basin will reduce water availability for its own sort of God-given use.

The use of the Nile waters in the colonial era emerged as a serious issue in Anglo-Egyptian relations. British engineers worked in the colonial administration in the Sudan and also in the irrigation service of the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works. The engineers planned and the use of the Nile was regulated by the Nile Water Agreement in 1929. The agreement gave Egypt absolute power for the control and use of the Nile waters. No any other country in the Nile Basin was allowed to initiate and implement a project on the Nile without the consent of Egypt.

When the Sudanese had a plan for a dam on the Blue Nile at Roseires for irrigation and hydroelectric power Egypt was hostile until the 1959 with the Sudan when Egypt got the lion’s share of the Nile waters. It is worth noting that despite Egypt’s desire for the absolute control over the use of the Nile waters, Egypt does not contribute any drop of water to the Blue Nile. This is in contrast to Ethiopia which is contributing almost 100 percent of the water.

In 1959 Egypt and the Sudan signed an agreement which ushered in a new era in the history of the Nile. The agreement stipulated full utilization of the Nile waters for the benefit of the two countries in the Nile Basin and full control of the river. It is interesting to note the reference to full utilization and full control of the river where there were only two countries involved. The majority of countries in the Nile Basin were excluded, especially Ethiopia which is contributing 86 to 95 percent of the gross flow.

The other countries in the Nile Basin were not invited either for any negotiation for the agreement. To begin with the two parties to the agreement of 1959 were just recipients and users, dependent on water from Central Africa and Ethiopia. Egypt and the Sudan would not cooperate with those upper basin countries. Ethiopia was never involved in the construction of the dam at Roseires on the Blue Nile in Sudan even though almost 100 percent of the water flows from Ethiopian Highlands. The implication is that any plan for the use of the Nile waters by any other Nile Basin country will be utterly rejected by Egypt and the Sudan as is seen in the opposition to the construction of the GERD.

There is no doubt that the construction of GERD has soured relations between Egypt and Ethiopia with the Sudan caught in the middle although the Sudan is likely to side with Egypt probably as birds of the same feather flock together. Unable to stop the construction of GERD, Egypt is fuming and planning what to do next. For Ethiopia it seems it is business as usual with the construction of GERD at advanced stage and the filling up of the GERD may go on as planned in the face of steep opposition from Egypt and of course from the Sudan.

It can be asserted that confrontation and armed conflict are not in the best interest of Africa. There is already a serious problem people in Africa are facing and the problem is the coronavirus pandemic. Confrontation and armed conflict over the use of water to resolve the problem of the use of the Nile waters should be discouraged by all means. Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopia have a lot in common in preserving peace in the region. The problem of water can be resolved peacefully without resorting to confrontation and armed conflict. This is in order to avoid the loss of lives and destruction of property, and infrastructure that are there improving the quality lives of people. Armed conflict will result to innocent civilians, children, women and the elderly being maimed and killed for no fault of their own.

Armed conflicts polarize people and nations, and that may increase the suffering of people. This is because one side may have supporters against the other. This is likely to create unnecessary enmity between nations and people with the resultant insecurity in the area for no good reason.

In the interest of peace in the region, Egypt and the Sudan may need to be self-reliant. Ethiopia has already built the GERD and there is little Egypt and the Sudan can do except may be to declare war on Ethiopia which they may hardly win anyway. This is because it is most likely that the international community will not keep quiet when the region is burning. It is therefore in the interest of Egypt and Sudan they should explore other peaceful options to augment the perceived losses of water from Ethiopian Highlands due to the GERD.

It is well known, for example, that there are ample groundwater aquifers across Egypt that can most likely provide Egypt with enormous amount of water that can compensate for some of the losses as a result of the construction of the GERD. There is therefore no need of confrontation and armed conflict over the GERD between Egypt and the Sudan on the one side and Ethiopia on the other when there are alternative sources of water.

It is convenient to recall that Libya, the neighbour of both Egypt and the Sudan, has a Great Man-made River (GMR) which is a network of underground pipelines bringing high-quality fresh water from ancient underground aquifers deep in the Sahara for domestic use, agriculture and industry. Surely, if Libya can create a great man-made river what will stop Egypt with a vast system of underground aquifers deep in the Sahara from creating such a river in the best interest of peace and stability for all in the region?

In terms of development-driven water demands, there should be regulations for the use of water in Transboundary River. There should be a broad range of agreements among, for example, the countries in the Nile Basin for a fair and equitable distribution of the Nile waters. The African Union (AU) and the Inter-governmental Agency for Development (IGAD) may play a crucial role in developing a treaty or convention for the use of the Nile waters by all the countries in the Nile Basin. It is important to take into consideration that any country in the Nile Basin should not be held hostage neither by Egypt nor the Sudan against its will to use the Nile waters for the badly needed socio-economic development in improving living standards of all the people in the Nile Basin.

In conclusion, there is no need of confrontation and armed conflict over the GERD because Ethiopia has already built it and Egypt definitely has other sources of water in billions of cubic metres in numerous groundwater aquifers across the country that can make Egypt self-reliant in water.

[i] Dr. Lupai is also paralegal in human rights

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