Deaf Ears and Blind Eyes

–Ethiopia’s sovereign rights to harness its water resources are incontestable–

Aklog Birara (Dr)

Part II of II

“Ethiopia is prepared to share Blue Nile (Abbay) waters with its neighbors (downstream) in a fair and equitable manner. Its primary responsibility is, however, to use its waters for the benefit of its growing population and changing economy.”

                        Emperor Haile Selassie, 1964

When Egypt pressured multilateral financing organizations including the World Bank successfully not to lend to Ethiopian for irrigation and power dam projects, Emperor Haile Selassie offered an enduring advice to the Ethiopian people.  The Emperor advised Ethiopians to “safeguard the studies as national assets” with the belief that future generations will have the “capacity” to construct the dams.

The conception of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) traces its roots to the intense rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1960-1970, Egypt received support from the Soviet Union and constructed the Aswan Dam that practically transformed the Egyptian economy over night. It constructed the dam on the River Nile without consulting Ethiopia. Egypt became the primary beneficiary of waters that it does not produce, while Ethiopia was ‘condemned’ to supply Nile waters and soils.

Emperor Haile Selassie requested technical assistance from the Government of the United States. The U.S. obliged and deployed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that conducted feasibility studies on the Blue Nile and Atbara Rivers. The team prepared preliminary designs for four irrigation and power generating dams. These dams would potentially impound a total of 73.1 billion cubic meters of water and generate 5,570 megawatts of power (MW). By comparison, the GERD would impound 74 billion cubic meters of water and generate 6,000 MW. These recommendations by the Bureau were submitted to the Government of Ethiopia in 1964.

Tragically for Ethiopia, none of the irrigation or hydropower generating dams came to fruition. Egypt denied Ethiopia access to international capital; and Ethiopia did not possess the means to fund them. As result, we can calculate the billions and billions of dollars in income and wealth that Ethiopia lost for more than half a century. Egypt’s massive and sustained lobbying literally robbed Ethiopia of the opportunity to transform its economy. Egypt’s international campaigns deployed media and public relations tools that included distortions of technical and scientific facts and graphic portrayals of Ethiopia’s just and balanced position as threats to Egypt’s very existence. The strategic intent is foreclosing Ethiopia’s chances to harness its water resources and alleviate endemic poverty.

Egypt remained the primary beneficiary of Nile waters for thousands of years; while Ethiopia produced and supplied 86 percent of the waters of the mighty Nile. Egypt is the only downstream nation that still feels entitled to apply veto power over upper riparian nations, especially Ethiopia. How just is that?

There is no UN sanctioned transboundary river convention, international law or practice that bars an upper riparian nation from constructing irrigation or power dams within its own territory. In the Middle East, Turkey, an upper riparian nation, has constructed several dams on the Tigris-Euphrates River. Ethiopia has in fact gone the extra mile by adhering to a staggered timetable in filling the only large hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile. It has provided Egypt and Sudan with data and documentation.

The GERD is an Ethiopian Dam whose time is now.

To his credit, the late Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, announced to the international community that the Ethiopian Government had decided to “design, finance and construct/build” a massive new dam (Renaissance/ሕዳሴ ግድብ) on the Blue Nile using Ethiopia’s own capabilities. He then laid the foundation of the GERD on 2 April 2011, forty-seven years after the Bureau had made its recommendations. Egyptian politicians were awed and alarmed at the same time.

It goes without saying that the scale and technical complexity of the project makes the GERD unique. More compelling to me is the fact that it is the Ethiopian people: from shoe shiners to millionaires; from poor farmers to members of the Diaspora, etc. that are financing the GERD. Each successive year since groundbreaking, this monumental project has empowered and mobilized tens of millions of Ethiopians as never before. It is one of the few projects in the developing world that I am aware of that is genuinely supported, owned, financed, and cherished by indigenous people. It is Ethiopians for Ethiopians.

Females who carry firewood on their back are eager to access electricity. Children unable to read in darkness are eager to enjoy a light bulb. Young entrepreneurs plan to venture into new businesses. The information and telecommunications sector will expand exponentially. Those who now suffer from frequent outages of electricity will look forward to reliable supply of power. Foreign investors that rely on good infrastructure will be attracted by the availability of reliable electricity. Ethiopia’s neighbors will also benefit from cheap power supply as would the much-anticipated African continental grid.

Sudan will benefit in multiple ways: flood control, predictable water flow into the Nile, expanded irrigable lands and cheap electricity that will in turn fuel manufacturing and industrialization; as would Egypt. Research findings— “Long Term economic impacts of the GERD on the Sudan, 2020” — by Sudanese experts Dr. Khalid Siddiq, Dr. Mohammed Basheer, and others project that Sudan’s GDP alone will expand by $29 billion. This and other benefits for the people of Sudan have been sidelined by the Government of the Sudan deliberately. The culprit behind it the military dominated regime in Egypt.

Egypt’s denial of the enormous benefits notwithstanding, the GERD is as transformative for Ethiopian society that the Aswan Dam was for Egyptian society. A win-win strategy offers mutual benefits.

Egypt’s hardline position on the GERD can be attributed to the following factors. By all accounts, Egypt:

  1. Wishes to maintain its superiority and colonially earned hegemony over the River Nile and all its major tributaries. Egyptian hegemony over the Nile is not just water. It also entails massive annual infusion or supply of an estimated 40 billion tons of topsoil from the Ethiopian highlands. The calculation is that potential depletion of this rich supply reduces agriculture-based employment and productivity and will affect agricultural exports of fruits and vegetables, potatoes, textile products etc. to the European and Middle East markets adversely.

In 2020, Egypt that does not produce an ounce of rain or possess fertile soil of its own exported five million tons of agricultural products, equivalent to $2.1 billion. Exports to the Arab world and to Europe included citrus fruits, potatoes, onions, beets, pomegranates, grapes, potatoes, mangoes, garlic, strawberries, beans, guava, and pepper. Egypt is one of the few countries on the planet with arid and inhospitable terrain that has succeeded in converting the sand, including the Sanai into huge agricultural granaries with the ability to export huge quantities of foods. On the contrasting side of the Nile debate, Ethiopia that supplies 86 percent of the waters of this river is food, energy and water insecure.

I therefore ask the international community and the people of Egypt “Is it fair to deny Ethiopia’s poor to harness their own waters and secure energy, water and food that Egyptians enjoy?”

  1. Is determined that its status as the dominant power of the Arab League gives Egypt the leverage to exercise uncontested geopolitical superiority throughout Sub-Saharan Africa; and that a shift in the control of what the Arab world calls hydropower hegemony over the Nile that might emanate from the completion of the GERD will erode or at least diminish this dominance.


  1. Decided to securitize the Nile River in a manner that binds the Government of Egypt to maintain an ultranationalist and militaristic position while cornering Ethiopia to the wall. This makes the tripartite negotiation process—Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan—geopolitical and strategic rather than scientific and technical. The science says no harm; the politics says existential threat!

Sudan supported Ethiopia’s legitimate rights to construct the GERD until the military wing of the Sudanese transitional Government sided with the military dominated regime of Egypt. President Sisi persuaded his counterpart Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan, Chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, to join forces with Egypt against Ethiopia. This militarization of the GERD is solely intended to buttress Egypt’s hegemony over the Nile and its tributaries. This is costly for Sudan.

The border war is a deliberate diversion.

It is clear to me that Sudan’s position on the GERD changes constantly due to non-technical factors. For example, Sudan invaded Ethiopia and annexed Ethiopian lands at a time when Ethiopia was preoccupied with the treasonous acts of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front that attacked Ethiopia’s Northern Command on November 4, 2020. The unprovoked attack by Sudan and its constant gyrations are motivated by the impasse in GERD negotiations. Sudan is acting as a “Trojan Horse” for Egypt.

Many African borders are contentious, crafted by colonialists and thus artificial. Following Sudan’s independence in 1956, Egypt and Sudan continue a tense and sometimes war-like relationship. A military flareup in March 2021 demonstrates that the relationship between the two can go sour.

The border problem between Egypt and Sudan arises from the unsettled issue of the Halayeb triangle. This is a mineral rich land mass that both Egypt and Sudan claim. Uncovered by the Arab media, it is more problematic than the Ethiopian-Sudanese border that can easily be settled through bilateral negotiations. Yet, Egypt and Sudan agreed on a military pact targeting Ethiopia. How wise is that?

  1. Escalates and internationalizes the GERD deliberately and systematically with the intent of making the project costly for Ethiopia.

The Nile River is the only large transboundary river without a modern and internationally sanctioned water sharing agreement. Ethiopia that supplies 86 percent of the waters of the Nile is denied the potential benefits of waters that it supplies annually. The GERD is a reality that Egypt must acknowledge.

The second fill that is poised to take place this coming Ethiopian winter will impound only 5 percent of the rainfall. Postponing the fill will cost Ethiopia a minimum of one billion dollars every year. Independent experts estimate that the cost to the Ethiopian economy is eight times higher or about 8 billion dollars per annum. Egyptians and the rest of the Arab world must imagine the implications of closing the Suez Canal for any duration.

Ethiopia must not be forced to sign any agreement that diminishes its sovereign powers and incapacitates its ability to harness its water resources for the benefit of 116 million Ethiopians.

What are Ethiopia’s options in defending its huge infrastructural and other investments?

  1. China is heavily invested in the Ethiopian economy: telecommunications, roads, rails, power transmissions and turbines for dams, manufacturing, and industrialization. This huge investment portfolio estimated at more than $13 billion suggests Ethiopia and China can and must sign a joint memorandum of understanding to protect investments including the GERD.


  1. Ethiopian-Israeli relations go back to Biblical times and are still strong. The Ethiopian community in Israel is a strategic asset for both countries. Israelis were instrumental in fighting and containing a major fire on the Semien Mountain in Ethiopia. The two countries share a common agenda against international terrorism in the entire Horn of Africa and in the Red Sea. Key Israeli officials support Ethiopia’s position on the GERD.


  1. Ethiopian-Russian relations are buffeted by numerous factors, including the Christian Orthodox faith that both shares. Recent sentiments expressed by key Russian officials critiquing the avalanche of misinformation in the Western press and the veto powers of China and Russia in the UN Security Council suggest that Ethiopia has reliable friends across the globe. It is up to the Government of Ethiopia to raise the bar and forge strategic deals.


  1. Turkey has significant investments in Ethiopia. An upper riparian nation, it has urged Egypt and Sudan to settle differences with Ethiopia through negotiations rather than through proxy or other forms of war.


  1. Eritrean-Ethiopian relations are stronger than ever before. I believe the opportunity for scaling up and forming a strategic partnership between the two brotherly peoples exists. This will change the geopolitical scenario in the Horn, Eastern Africa, and the Red Sea cost dramatically.


  1. Ethiopian Government decision to adhere to the 2015 Declaration of Principles (DOP), to tripartite negotiations under the auspices of the African Union, and its refusal to consider the Egyptian and Sudanese ploy of a quartet—the Government of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and the AU jointly—is commendable. Among other things, reverting to a quartet will do irreparable damage to the African Union. The Nile River is African. The AU must be empowered and encouraged to settle differences and conflicts among its member countries. The Biden Administration accepts Ethiopia’s position that the AU must lead; and that the UN, EU, USA and the World Bank must participate as observers.

Restoring to war by Egypt will have devastating consequences for all countries including Egypt and Sudan. War will foreclose Egypt’s long-term chances of receiving waters and soils from the Blue Nile and its tributaries.

I can opine with full confidence that any attempt to destroy the GERD will fail. Egyptian civil society must consider the prospect that draconian actions by Egypt and Sudan will also force generations of Ethiopians to deny Egypt waters from the Blue Nile and other tributaries on which the Nile depends. It is simple logic to imagine that Ethiopians and not Egyptians control the sources of the Nile.

A win -win option is not to foreclose Ethiopia’s alternatives. Rather, it is to consider a water-sharing agreement among all Nile River riparian countries in line with the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and the Comprehensive Framework Agreement (CFA) that Ethiopia embraced, and that Egypt rejected.

Finally, I urge Ethiopians to appreciate the notion that the single most important variable that will determine the realization of the cherished dreams of generations of Ethiopians–the timely completion of the GERD— is internal unity. The GERD is a monumental project owned by Ethiopians for Ethiopians.

March 31, 2021.