Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1239, (26 March - 1 April 2015)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1239, (26 March - 1 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A win-win situation

Many Egyptians fear that Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam will reduce the amount of Nile River water that reaches Egypt. Mona Sewilam sounded out Egyptian and Ethiopian opinion in advance of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to Ethiopia and Sudan

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Egyptians have the perception that Ethiopia intends to cut the Nile River water flowing to Egypt through its construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam. For their part, Ethiopians say that Egypt does not want Ethiopia to develop and break its cycles of poverty. Some even say that the Nile River is a gift to Ethiopia and Egyptians need to cooperate more in sharing this invaluable gift.

Egypt and Ethiopia have lately been working on confidence-building measures intended to resolve the Nile River problem peacefully and achieve a win-win situation for all.

Against this background, Mona Sewilam spoke to Aba-dula Gemeda, speaker of the House of People’s Representatives of Ethiopia, and Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, president of the Arab Water Council and honorary president of the World Water Council.

Abu-Zeid played a pivotal role in launching the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in 1999. He also took part in the negotiations related to the Agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework (CFA) as Egypt’s minister of water resources and irrigation between 1997 and 2009. The agreement was opened for signing in 2010.

Gemeda is Ethiopia’s former minister of national defence and former chief of intelligence.

Interview with Aba-dula Gemeda

You headed an Ethiopian Public Diplomacy Delegation, comprised of 66 members, that visited Egypt in December 2014. Did this mission clarify any misperceptions?

Yes. We received the Egyptian Public Diplomacy Delegation in Ethiopia in 2012, and they met with different sectors of society, including myself in my capacity as speaker of the House of People’s Representatives. They explained the Egyptian viewpoint, which was excellent.

As for the Ethiopian side, there is a perception, because of different media outlets, that Egyptians do not want Ethiopia to develop. This is not the perception shared by politicians. We are very close to Egyptian politicians, and we discuss with them in many forums and know many Egyptian investors in Ethiopia with whom we interact. But in Ethiopian society, such a perception is there.

As for the Egyptian side, they put it clearly that there is a perception in Egypt that Ethiopians are going to close, stop or reduce the Nile River’s water. This is not true. One people cannot benefit without others benefitting, especially when it comes to Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. It is impossible to take a contrary decision, not only by the current government but also forever.

We are very clear. We do not agree with the 1959 treaty signed between Egypt and Sudan on the Nile River as it excluded Ethiopia, which contributes 86 per cent of the water to the river. This is unacceptable, and we do not consider the treaty to be ours. Let us put the treaty aside and come together.

There is also the Agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework (CFA) between the Nile Basin riparian countries. This agreement is more feasible than the historical treaty. It is made by us, from Congo to Egypt. All are contributors. The CFA says that the Nile River should be used by all in a win-win way and not to ignore one country and benefit another.

As for the Grand Renaissance Dam, it is being built 20 km from the border with Sudan where the Nile flows in a gorge, and we are therefore not using a millimetre of water for irrigation because this is impossible. We want to use the dam for electricity generation as only 25 per cent of our population has access to electricity today.

We have a lot of water but a desperate electricity problem. So this is the win-win and fair share I am talking about, and it does not mean that we have the intention of cutting the size of the Nile River’s water flowing to Egypt.

How much of an impact did the visit have on the Ethiopian government? I am addressing you now not just as parliamentary speaker, but also as a former minister of national defence of Ethiopia and a former chief of intelligence.

First, we have a democratic constitution. The government of Ethiopia is an elected one, and we have elections in May 2015. The voice of the people always decides everything, and the government of Ethiopia always listens to the voice of the people.

As for the Grand Renaissance Dam, the government studied everything for a long time and there was a nationwide debate that indicated that the dam would not harm our neighbours and would benefit our development. The dam is being built by the Ethiopian people, and we do not get a single cent from abroad.

What does the dam mean to the Ethiopian people?

It is a national project. It is not easy for Ethiopia to build a project for around $5 billion. It needs a loan or other support, but we have nothing — not only to build the Renaissance Dam but also if we need to build in the Nile Basin in general.

We do not get anything from abroad. So the Ethiopian people discussed this issue and decided to contribute, not only the government.

Students, farmers, every sector of society, civil servants including myself, all are contributing. So this dam is not a government project. It is the project of 90 million Ethiopians.

We are 90 million in Egypt too.

Yes, of course. When the Ethiopian people decided that the Grand Renaissance Dam was our project, everybody confirmed that the project did not harm any neighbouring countries, including Egypt.

You asked me about the impact of public diplomacy. It does have an impact as we are representing the Ethiopian people and we already explained to them that the Egyptians do not object to our development, but have concerns related to the Nile River water.

During the revolution in Egypt Ethiopia announced that it intended to build the Grand Renaissance Dam. Construction is progressing in spite of the fact that studies of the  dam’s impact have not been finalised. What message would you like to convey to the Egyptian people and government about the dam, a project that has caused such tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt?

The Ethiopian government did not plan with the Egyptian revolutionaries to build the dam. We did not have any information about any internal movements in Egypt, and the date of the announcement was a coincidence. We are sorry for that.

The Egyptian delegation came to me, together with the Egyptian ambassador to Ethiopia, and said, ‘Please do not ratify the Cooperative Framework Agreement.’ They said, ‘We have not elected a parliament yet. Please give us time until we finish our issues and elect a parliament.’

They came to me on Monday and we were going to ratify the CFA on Tuesday. We discussed it, and I and the prime minister stopped it and put it aside for three to five months. After that, as you know, a public announcement was made.

Are you referring to the mistakenly televised meeting between the then-Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and Egyptian politicians on 3 June 2013 that suggested hostile acts against Ethiopia to stop it from building the dam? Morsi’s failure to handle the dam issue and deal properly with Egypt’s foreign policy was one reason the Egyptian people demanded he step down.

The public announcement was bad. After they sent us the delegation, the announcement was made, which was not good. We were not taken seriously because the best thing would have been to discuss and not to announce or declare anything. As I told you, the date was a coincidence and we did not take advantage.

Secondly, our late prime minister went to Cairo for the first time to explain this issue and talk with Egyptian leaders. Thirdly, to build trust our government suggested establishing a joint panel of experts not just from the three countries of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, but also international experts to come together to submit a report, the May 2013 report, on the dam. That was our proposal, not Egypt’s proposal.

The 2013 report recommended that further studies on the impact of the dam be conducted. To what extent will Ethiopia be committed to the recommendations of the international consulting firms appointed by Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan that will carry out the next study? Will Ethiopia abide by the recommendations, if the findings show that the dam will have detrimental repercussions on Egypt?

The Ethiopian government is confident that building the dam will not cause harm, and that is why it decided to trust the Egyptian government and people. That is why the late prime minister suggested appointing a tripartite committee, plus international experts, to study the impacts. This came out with the first report, which was satisfactory.

Will Ethiopia be committed to the findings if the next study proves that there will be harmful effects on Egypt from the dam?

Yes, because as I told you, we are extremely confident that the dam will not harm our Egyptian brothers. I and other Ethiopian officials have suggested that, if possible, we need Egyptian brothers to contribute to the dam.

First, we know how the Egyptian government spends millions of dollars every year to clean the Aswan High Dam because of the problem of silting, which will be solved after building the Grand Renaissance Dam.

Second, the Egyptian people will get regulated water in the rainy and dry seasons. Third, the Ethiopian people are working to develop water resources across their country through water and soil conservation.

Our focus is on a green economy. So for the last five or six years we have been planting five to six billion trees annually on the mountains to attract more rain, not only for our Egyptian brothers but also for ourselves. We are working not only for today but also for future generations.


Interview with Mahmoud Abu-Zeid

It has been reported that the Nile Basin countries are fed up with needing to get permission from Egypt before using the Nile River for development projects. This is required by the colonial-era 1929 Treaty signed between Egypt and Great Britain. Is the principle of prior notification intrinsic to this agreement, or it is also embedded in international law governing international rivers?

Let me start by saying that it is not a question of getting permission. It is consultation. Second, in all international agreements and law, prior notification exists, and it is mainly there to inform other riparian countries on the same watercourse that a project is being planned and to submit designs and specifications so that the countries concerned can look at them and see if they will cause any serious harm. If there are objections, they consult and discuss whether they are valid or not.

In April 2011, Ethiopia announced that it intended to build the Grand Renaissance Dam. Would you call Ethiopia’s announcement prior notification?

No, I do not think so because they announced that the building would start. They were not asking if we thought it had negative impacts or not. They said ‘We have started building it.’ So it was not prior notification. Ethiopia should have written to the Nile Basin countries telling them they planned to do this, and here are the preliminary designs and specifications. They should have asked for objections in advance.

What about the impacts of the dam?

When they informed us we would have been able to look into the impacts and see. Of course, if they had told us these were the impacts, it would have been much better. There is a procedure for prior notification laid down by international organisations and law.

The time limit could be within six months and if we had any objection, we should tell them. If not, the project is considered to be approved.

The Ethiopian government invited the two downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan to form an international panel of experts to study the impacts of the dam and address some of the concerns of both countries. Would this be considered prior notification?

Egypt objected to the procedure by Ethiopia to build the dam and in good faith Ethiopia accepted to form this tripartite committee that involved experts from the three countries, plus international experts, to look into the project’s details, to decide if there were any side-effects. This is not prior notification. It is joint work. Prior notification should happen before the construction starts and not while the construction is going on.

The International Panel of Experts (IPoE) submitted its final report to Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in May 2013, and another report is expected as a follow-up. Looking at the 2013 report, what do you think of the documents submitted by the Ethiopian government to the IPoE about the dam?

The report says that the studies and designs are not complete and are very preliminary. It seems that there are negative impacts on Egypt and Sudan, and the IPoE asked for additional work. This was 18 months after the production of the 2013 report.

Which important documents were not submitted by the Ethiopian government?

None on the environmental impacts have been submitted, nothing on the economic studies, and nothing on the safety of the dam that was completed afterwards. Studies on the spillway and some additional technical studies were also recommended.

Ethiopia says it will respect the results of the studies conducted by the IPoE. But Speaker of the House of People’s Representatives of Ethiopia Aba-dula Gemeda has said that the Ethiopian government will abide by the findings and recommendations of the next report. How binding are his words?

This is very good news. If it will be binding, we welcome that very much. But this is a little bit different from what our experts have received from the Ethiopian technical staff.

In your opinion, how detrimental was the mistakenly televised meeting between the then-Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and Egyptian political leaders that included irresponsible utterances when discussing the dam?

I would say it hurt relations between Egypt and Ethiopia very much, and it does not actually reflect the opinion of Egyptians. I hope that we can consider it to be history.

What are Egypt’s main concerns today?

The effects on the downstream flow, both during filling and during the operation of the dam, the impact on the Aswan High Dam’s electricity generation and lake levels, and the impact on downstream groundwater levels and water quality. But the most serious is the effect on the amount of water released to Egypt, as it will be reduced considerably.

Article (44) of Egypt’s 2014 Constitution stipulates that “the state shall protect the River Nile and preserve Egypt’s historical rights” and “every citizen is guaranteed the right to enjoy the River Nile.” How important is the Nile River for Egypt’s survival and security?

The case of Egypt is different from that of any other Nile Basin country. Egypt depends totally on the River Nile. Ninety-five per cent of Egypt’s water comes from the River Nile. So we have to make sure that our dependence is supported by regulations.

For example, we know that 1,660 billion cubic metres of water annually falls in the Nile Basin, while Egypt receives very little, 55.5 billion cubic metres. Egypt plus Sudan receive 5 per cent of this rainfall. The rest is either used by the other Nile Basin countries or is lost, and most of it is lost.

But beside the Nile River, many of the other countries have other rivers and watercourses and they all have lots of rainfall. So the situation is different. We depend mainly on the Nile, and that is why these things are stated in our constitution.
 
Ethiopia rejects the historical agreements, including the colonial-era 1929 agreement signed between Egypt and Great Britain and the 1959 Treaty between Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia’s position is that it was excluded from the 1959 Treaty and that such agreements should be replaced by the CFA. What is Egypt’s position on this?

There are about 16 agreements. Some of them deal with two countries, and Ethiopia was not a partner in all the agreements but only in one or two. For Ethiopia to agree to the treaties where it was not a partner is not a valid issue. The two agreements that Ethiopia signed were signed when Ethiopia was not colonised.

Additionally, and according to international law, after gaining independence a country should abide by the agreements already signed when it was occupied. So I do not think that they have a strong case when they say this.

Egypt took part in launching the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in 1999, which resulted in the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) signed by six countries in 2010 and 2011 and ratified by two, Ethiopia and Rwanda, in 2013. Egypt and Sudan opposed the signing of the CFA. What are Egypt’s reservations?

The NBI was the first agreement to be signed by all the Nile Basin countries. They decided to follow two tracks: to look into development projects and work out the CFA. Between 2004 and 2007, 43 articles were approved by all the countries out of the 44 articles of the CFA.

Article 14 was the main problem. Egypt wanted to have a reference in the agreement to its water share, the 55.5 billion cubic metres, because we, Egypt and Sudan, discovered that it was very hard to include the historical agreements in the CFA.

So we came up with a water security concept. Three proposals on how to include an article on water security in the CFA were made: one by Egypt and Sudan, another by the World Bank, and a third by the negotiating team. But we have not agreed to any of them.

The text of the CFA was developed over years of intensive work and Egypt was involved in that. Wasn’t it clear to Egypt during the negotiations that the agreement was intended to replace the historical 1929 and 1959 agreements?

When the negotiations started the draft included a reference to the historical agreements and the countries did not agree to that. So we looked for an alternative solution and the water security concept was introduced.

Will it be a breach of the 2014 Constitution if Egypt accepts replacing the historical agreements by the CFA at this point in time?

Yes, it will be a breach if Egypt agrees to Article 14 (b), which states “not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin States” which is approved by all other countries except Sudan. It will be a breach if Egypt agrees to this and signs.


The interviewer is a senior news anchor and correspondent for Nile TV International and an alumni ambassador of the European Peace University in Austria. The interviews were originally conducted for the award-winning “Peace in Focus” programme broadcast on Nile TV.

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