It’s nearly three months since the Extraordinary Meeting of the Bureau of the African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government held its inaugural meeting to resolve issues arising from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the gigantic $4.6 billion hydroelectric dam that has created dissension among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. The three countries need the mediation to tamp down sprouts of enthusiasm if not nationalism, and to suppress temptations to aggression.
The dam is as impressive as its name. It is by far the largest in Africa, and it’s the seventh largest in the world, Conceived by truly ambitious Ethiopian leaders, it is designed to be an economic game-changer. At full capacity it would contain 74 billion cubic metres of water or 19.5 trillion gallons of water. It is 1,800 metres long and 155 metres high with a total volume of 10.4 million cubic metres. It creates a lake of 250 kilometres (155 miles) upstream. It would incorporate two power plants equipped with 16 Francis turbines each with a capacity of between 375 and 400 megawatts. It will generate a massive 6,000 MW enough to power Ethiopia’s homes and industries and a lot to spare for struggling neighbours, South Sudan, Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, even Kenya. As the AU rightly observed, the GERD has a potentiality to lift the continent, not just Ethiopia.
Egyptians wish this dam was never built. In private and, sometimes, in public, Egypt’s leaders have confessed they would have aborted it but for the Arab Springs which blindsided the country and let the Ethiopians plan and announce the dam early 2011. Now Egyptians are resigned to the dam and they are trying to make the best of a situation they cannot change. And after ten years silent negotiations, between the two countries with Sudan in the middle, the sticking point came down to how quickly the dam reservoir would be filled. First, because hydroelectric power stations do not consume water, Egypt’s fear is that when the massive reservoir is being filled less water would be available for Egypt from the Blue Nile. Ethiopia conceded the point and offered to fill the dam in a space between five and seven years. Egypt suggested between 12 and 21 years but later settled for 10, Unknown to both sides, the 2020 rainy season could have filled the entire dam in one season and Egypt would not notice a drop in its Nile water flows.
It needs mention that the AU took over the issue from the United States and the World Bank whose attempts at mediation collapsed in February 2020 when Ethiopia felt the US had violated a cardinal rule of mediation. Both (US and World Bank) continue as observers in the on-going negotiations along with the European Union. The UN Security Council held a hearing on the matter at the behest of Egypt in June but the Council discreetly decided to refer it to the AU.
The AU was precise in framing the dispute. The three nations, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, the AU noted, are founding members of the Pan-African organisation in 1963, a fact which places on them certain levels of responsibility. Secondly, the AU further observed, the GERD project has a remarkable potential for the entire continent. The Chairman of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, stressed that more than 90 per cent of the issues in the Tripartite Negotiations among the three countries “have already been resolved.”
Knowing the entrenched positions of each of the parties, it was expected the AU would hasten to talk them out their respective doomsday positions. To Egypt, the dam represents an existential threat. To Ethiopia, it is the only escape from penury. To Sudan, it would help end the annual flood disasters; as at last week hundreds of towns and thousands of farms were drowned by the flood, 500,000 were displaced and more than 100 persons killed. The essential AU duty was, therefore, to assure the parties that “the eagle shall perch and the kite shall perch.”
On the 15th August the AU asked for proposals from the three countries on how the dam should be managed. They were given 48 hours to submit. The hope is that this would be the tail end of the paper work. And while the bureaucrats pore through the papers, everyone seems to have ignored the generous rainfall, which in a friendlier atmosphere would have rendered sterile all the arguments about how long it would take to fill the reservoir of the dam which has been the crux of the dispute especially for Egypt. Indeed had the dam been completed, this season’s rains alone seemed enough to fill the reservoir without diminishing the waters available to Egypt. Indeed, if the dam were ready it would have prevented the disastrous flooding in Sudan.
Compromise should come easier because the three countries are so weak at this time; the military option is not available to any of them. Ethiopia is having sleepless nights, especially Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, over what looks like an undisguised rebellion in the Tigray region. Egypt is devoting considerable attention to the containment of Turkey in Libya. Sudan is simply exhausted, convalescing from 30 years dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir. Indeed, when Egypt took delivery of a squadron of its $2 billion Russian SU-35 advanced fighters last month, there was some apprehension, especially when it was advertised that that the SU-35 could with an external fuel tank be able to reach Ethiopia without the need for aerial refuelling. Egyptians enthusiastic to go to war over the dam probably number in millions including the billionaire business man, Naguib Sawiris, “if Egypt’s rights to the Nile waters are harmed,” mercifully, there is no sign of an arms race.
To ordinary Ethiopian citizens, ‘it’s my dam’ is not an empty slogan. Many civil servants gave up at least a month’s salary as personal contribution to the dam. Some paid $6 for bonds to be part of the dam. It is a community project. If. therefore, there is a war over the dam, Ethiopia may have nearly 100 million volunteers. All the more reason for the AU to move heaven and earth to resolve the few differences among the parties.
The AU may need to lean more heavily on Egypt which tends to overplay its hand, to throw its weight about, and tries to intimidate Ethiopia with its connections in international high places. Clearly, Egypt’s dependence on the Nile waters is overstated. If things come to crunch Egypt has options. The dispute over the GERD is based on fear, often unfounded, as this year’s rainy season has demonstrated.
Ethiopia imputes hegemony, condescension and hostility to Egypt citing colonial-era treaties and sundry actions. Earlier this month, Ethiopia affirmed it would not sign on any agreement that would require passing specific shares for water from GERD downstream, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dina Mufti said. But the greatest service the AU could render to the three countries is a formal constitution of the Nile River Basin Authority, or a revival of the moribund Nile Basin Initiative tasked with the responsibility of assessing the river flow, the rains or drought as the case may be, and how the GERD could be used, wherever possible, to ameliorate the living conditions of all the parties.