By Solomon Goshu
After the announcement of the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in 2011, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have been at loggerheads with regards to the project. Addis Ababa is confident that the construction of the dam would not harm Egypt and Sudan but Cairo has been skeptical and wants the whole project revisited. Now five years have passed ever since the announcement and countless negotiations have taken place to smoothen the tensions. Being considered as key partners, journalists from Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan and South Sudan paid a visit to the dam site over the weekend to report on what is actually happening on the ground, writes Solomon Goshu.
“All aspects related to the construction process, such as the design, material and workmanship aspects are being well taken care of in a responsible and professional manner, and according to international standards,” Simegnew Bekele (Eng.), project manager of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project, who briefed a group of journalists from Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia visiting the dam site on Sunday, 31 July, 2016 on the dam’s current status, said. The field visit to the GERD was organized by the Swedish Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) in collaboration with Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office (ENTRO) after three days of training in Addis Ababa and Assosa.
According to Simegnew, the dam is being constructed for the purpose of generating electricity which is affordable, green and non-water consuming. “Currently, about 11,000 people are engaged at the project location site, of which about 350 people are expatriates from around 30 nations,” he said.
This was the first official field visit by the Nile Basin media practitioners. The visit took more than half a day. Even if the training has provided new insights through exchange of ideas, scholarly presentations, and discussions with officials of the Eastern Nile basin countries, the field visit to the GERD has provided a totally different reaction to journalists coming from Egypt, Sudan, and South Sudan.
Haitham Mohamed is an Egyptian journalist who has worked for international media houses for the last five years. He has covered the political situation in Egypt throughout the five years including the issue of the GERD. A political scientist by training, Haitham Mohamed was also a political researcher at the beginning of his career. “Nile is the lung and the heart of Egypt,” he said.
For Haitham, the visit has a special meaning. “Now after being in Ethiopia, having a good look to its economic and social situation, and being to the GERD site itself, listening from the people working on it and the general manager, Engineer Simegnew Bekele, my personal conclusion is different. The visit was very helpful. It was very transparent. Now I can see a possible cooperation opportunity between Egypt and Ethiopia,” he explained.
It is Haitham Mohamed’s testimony that, in Egypt, the GERD is perceived as a threat to the country’s Nile water shares. “People in Egypt have their own right to be afraid. But also in Ethiopia, you have your own right to develop your country, to have prosperity, to plan for the future, to have the energy that makes the machine and the factories run, to have electricity. It can be a possible opportunity if the two people see it with a common eye. If Ethiopia acted in a responsible way and Egypt acted in a cooperative way, I think GERD will not be a threat. Not only for Egypt and Ethiopia, it would be a possible cooperation and development opportunity for the Nile Basin brothers as well,” he added.
The Egyptian journalist is of the view that the media should strike the balance between the different and at times conflicting interests of the Eastern Nile basin countries. “I think it is a very human idea to share development and to share better future. If we acted rationally and responsibly in a cooperative way, GERD will not be a threat. That is what I got from the six days in Ethiopia. And that is what I will try to deliver to my Egyptian audience. Water is not a commodity that we will compete to get. It is a lifeline that can help us grow and develop our economies and our lives. The media should put the true facts to the people and let them decide. Ethiopia should invite more people to come,” he suggested. In conclusion, he said: “As a human being I advise Ethiopia to give Egypt a written and solid promise that she would act responsibly.”
Ayah R. Aman is another Egyptian journalist who has covered water and transboundary rivers related issues. “I started to cover the Renaissance Dam from March 2010 onwards when the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced Project X. At that time we were going through a revolution in Egypt and we had many internal issues to focus on. But all the peoples’ eyes go to Ethiopia and started to ask what Project X is. I also covered many of the negotiation processes among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. I covered these issues for the last six years without seeing what I am writing about,” she commented.
“To have the experience, to see the dam in person, and tell the people what you see and take pictures, it builds the trust for your story. It also may decrease the amount of anger and fear for the people. It is not that easy to change everything. But now, at least you can deal with it. I think it is important to believe that there is no harm and start from the win-win situation,” she further explained.
“To be honest, the fear still exists in Egypt,” she added. She advised the experts and technical people dealing with this issue to be more confident to work together as a team and work on ways to reduce the negative impacts of the dam. “The door is still open for all of the three countries’ politicians and experts negotiating on the issue. That is exactly the message that I will try to focus on my coverage. That does not mean that there is no problem. Of course, there are problems. But these problems will not end the peoples’ lives or harm them as much as we imagined. Everything can be solved if we work together,” she said. Ayah R. Aman also remembers that the same message was communicated by Egypt’s President when he visited Ethiopia. “When he came here and delivered his message to the Ethiopian parliament, he said that we are one nation and share one destiny.”
The Nile Basin countries are Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. Two main sub-systems exist in the Nile River Basin: Equatorial Nile Lakes and Eastern Nile. The Eastern Nile basin which covers Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan is considered the most important one.
Fekahmed Negash, Executive Director of ENTRO, maintains that the Eastern Nile Sub-basin is the most important part of the Nile Basin by most criteria. The fact that historical relationship of tensions and mistrust exist in the region, and there is a big opportunity for win-win and cooperative development may indicate its real importance. In addition, Fekahmed mentions that its area coverage of 1.7 millionsq.km (60 percent of the Nile), population size of 240 million (54 percent), contribution to the Nile water resources (86 percent), and the fact that most of the existing and planned development projects exist in this region, makes it most important.
The media is considered as one key partner to enhance confidence building in the Eastern Nile basin countries. For Maria Vink, SIWI, water diplomacy enables countries to negotiate agreements on the management of shared waters. It seeks to develop reasonable, sustainable and peaceful solutions to water allocation and management while promoting or influencing regional cooperation and collaboration. It also opens up the cooperation dialogue to multiple stakeholders. Unlike Track I Diplomacy where official/formal communication between state actors with the authority and mandate to speak and make decisions on behalf of their governments or institutions, in multi-track diplomacy, the focus is on changes in attitudes and orientations that can inform the official process.
Maria Vink is of the opinion that the role of media in diplomacy is immense resulting to two opposing possibilities. “It can either escalate disagreements or transform towards cooperation,” she said. Furthermore, she explains that media may serve as a catalyst for reduced tension, broader cooperation activities and social transformation by: bringing in new perspectives and ideas; building wider identity communities; providing political capital for decision makers to advance cooperative solutions to transboundary water management challenges.
As outlined by Maria Vink, the objectives of the media training include contributing to the emergence and consolidation of constructive media reporting about the Eastern Nile Basin, promoting and disseminating informed, up-to-date and accurate coverage of current and future developments in the region, promoting wider awareness and enhance knowledge about the regional cooperation processes ongoing in the Eastern Nile Basin, by examining opportunities and benefits associated with cooperative water management and development. She also said, “Eastern Nile media has the potential to contribute to constructive analysis and reporting about rapid changes and its impacts for decision-making processes. It could contribute to the general public understanding that in face of these changes and its complexities.”
The GERD has been a source of controversy amongst Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan since its inception in 2010. While Ethiopia consider the project beneficial for her development and the well-being of the Nile riparian countries, downstream countries like Egypt and Sudan expressed their concerns that the dam will harm their interests. Confident with her assessment that the dam will not result in significant harm, Ethiopia agreed to study its possible impact together with Egypt and Sudan. As a result, on September 2011, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia agreed to establish international panel of experts (IPoE) to study the possible impacts of the GERD.
On May 2013, the report of IPoE was issued. It mainly called for additional studies. By the time the report was released, Sudan was already working with Ethiopia. The countries are still working on to conduct these studies. However, they endorsed BRLi Group and Artelia carrying out joint studies and set out roadmap for completion. In the training, National Technical Committee (NTC) members of Ethiopia and Sudan, Gedion Asfaw (Eng.) and Seif El-Din Hemdan (Prof.), respectively, told participants that in the 12th meeting, expected to be held this week or next week, the countries will finally agree on the details of the study.
In fact, it is a well-known fact that Egypt expressed her frustration on why the GERD construction continuous amidst a series of negotiations. The Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) seems to be the main reason for Egypt to withdraw herself from working with the upper stream countries particularly its main architecture, Ethiopia. The CFA is yet to be a binding agreement. It is signed by 6 states (Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Burundi). But it is only ratified by three states (Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania). It needs six states to ratify before entry into force. Then it is only binding on states that have ratified it.
According to Alistair Rieu-Clarke (PhD), University of Dundee and Reader in International Law, key provisions of the CFA are strongly reflective of customary international law. Equitable and reasonable use, no significant harm, duty to take all appropriate measures and the ‘principle of cooperation’ are just few examples of this.
Then the Declaration of Principles comes into existence. Declaration of Principles between the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, and the Republic of the Sudan on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project (GERDP) was agreed at the 7th ministerial meeting on March 2015. Rieu-Clarke holds that the general principles contained in the DoP are similar to that of the CFA. Particularly, it is interesting to note that the 3 countries agreed to take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm in utilizing the Blue/Main Nile and to cooperate based on common understanding, mutual benefit, good faith, win-win and principles of international law.
The DoP also has principles specific to the GERD. The three states agree to cooperate in implementation of outcomes of joint studies on the GERD. Specifically, they agreed on guidelines and rules for filling of GERD, annual operation of GERD, and to inform downstream States of any unforeseen or urgent circumstances. Priority is also given to downstream states to purchase power generated by GERD. They agreed as well to work together on the dam safety.
In almost all these countries, population growth, increased demand for water, optimization of resources, and climate change and variability are mentioned as serious concerns. Particularly the fact that in the Nile Basin watershed degradation and water quality deterioration is increasing is worrisome for many. At times, lack of agreements on how to manage these issues also has created peace and security related tensions in these countries.
Kevin Wheeler, P.E. (University of Oxford) argues that environmental impacts of GERD are unknown. However, he believes that GERD will reduce downstream variability of flows and downstream sedimentation. He also sees opportunities for Egypt as the dam allows additional storage for greater drought resilience and facilitates more efficient flood planning for High Aswan Dam.
He states that storage in GERD can provide a drought ‘safety net’ for Sudan and Egypt. GERD can also provide flood control space for downstream reservoirs but it requires coordination agreement for real-time communication of data and joint-seasonal planning. However, he admits that short-term impacts will be there in the filling period of GERD reservoir while at the same time arguing that these short-term impacts are manageable.
Cooperation as not an option
Almost unanimously, the experts and officials at the training stress the fact that cooperation is not an option but an imperative in the Nile. According to Fekahmed Negash, cooperation refers to the joint and organized management and use of freshwater resources at local, national, regional and international levels among various players and sectors. “The concept of water cooperation entails working together towards a common goal, in a way that is mutually beneficial. Cooperation is necessary to address: water allocation decisions, upstream and downstream impacts of water abstraction and water pollution, infrastructure development, overexploitation, and financing of water management” he said.
Fekahmed argued that attempts at the Nile Basin cooperation started in earnest in 1967 with Hydromet Survey which focused on Lake Victoria, Kyoga and Albert with the participation of Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda, Zaire, Burundi and DRC. Afterwards, the Undugu Group, TECCONILE (Technical Cooperation for the Promotion and Environmental Protection of the Nile Basin)
However, until the NBI came into existence, such attempts often focused on non-water issues and critical roadblocks to comprehensive basin wide cooperation like water allocation, need for legal framework, and common institution building was not tackled. The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) is a transitional institutional arrangement which started operating in 1999. All basin countries with the exception of Eritrea are members. Its vision is to achieve sustainable socio-economic development through equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources.
According to Fekahmed, some of the projects of the NBI which are implemented at a basin level include the Nile Basin Regional Power Trade; Water Resource Planning and Management; Confidence Building and Stakeholder Involvement; and institutional Strengthening Project. “There should be sustained cooperation despite the difference,” Fekahmed said.
For Fekahmed, Nile Basin cooperation has environmental benefit to the river, socio economic benefit from the river, political benefit due to the river, and catalytic benefits beyond the river. “The Nile is a shared resource which requires a shared custodianship and responsibility,” remarks Fekahmed. Alan Nicol advised Eastern Nile countries to look at options and scenarios for basin-wide development and capacity to overcome nationalism and embrace ‘regionalism’ as an approach.
For Alan Nicol, the Eastern Nile region is affected by rapid population growth, substantial economic transitions including urbanization and agricultural development. He argues that even if a regional approach is an imperative, unilateral projects continue. Alan Nicol also lists the risks of non-integration which include: inadequate planning and consultation over infrastructure construction and operation leads to costly impacts, Long-term adverse impacts create conditions for reduced cooperation at basin level across a range of sectors and projects, Future climate adaptation at system level inadequate and range of climate ‘bads’ affect overall human and economic security in the basin.
Among the main development challenges of the Nile Basin, Ana Elisa Cascão, SIWI, mentions population growth, migrations and urbanization, poverty, environmental degradation, and climate change. “Regional-based approaches to management and development of shared water resources are available and should be promoted,” she said.
In similar vein, Ana argues that cooperation is not a choice, but it is an imperative! She lists the costs of non-cooperation which need to be understood. Among the resource-based costs mentions are: pressure and mismanagement of natural resources, environmental degradation, and uncoordinated actions to tackle climate issues. In terms of political costs, Ana states that political/diplomatic conflicts as result of non-cooperation might take years to solve.
“The benefits of cooperation: increased benefits, decreased impacts, reduced costs, optimization of resources and planning/management, easier access to financing, fostering of good relations between neighbors, increased intra-regional trade,” Cascão added.
More than 55-percent of the dam’s construction is complete now. It will cost 3.44 billion euros. When completed, GERD will be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa.