EthioPoint: Ethiopians Analysis | Research Articles

From Hostility to Cooperation: how Ethiopia and Egypt can serve future generations

19 mins read

Aklog Birara (Dr)

The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” — Albert Einstein

aklog birara
Dr. Aklog Birara

In the global debate on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that, among others, the Ethiopian poor are financing for the sole purpose of alleviating poverty, very little is said about climate change, the degradation of the ecosystem and sustainability. The devastating effects of soil erosion and degradation, the cutting of trees and bushes for fuel and other essentials, claims on lands for farming in response to increased population growth etc. have huge impact on the entire ecosystem. In turn, this has adverse impact on rainfalls and rivers, including the long-term viability of the River Nile, 86 percent of the waters of which come from Ethiopia. Doing nothing to mitigate the damage from climate change and increased population is not an option. Neglect is irresponsible and endangers the entire Nile River on which numerous countries depend.

While I understand fully the contentious and acrimonious debates and negotiations on the GERD, the global community misses a critical component that should also be addressed, namely, the need for addressing the entire ecosystem and the massive investment that is required. Here, I commend the Government of Ethiopia for its bold and innovative initiate of planning billions of trees each winter. It is not because Ethiopia possesses the budgetary means to plant billions of trees. Rather, it is because Ethiopians expend their free labor in order to sustain their natural resources and restore their environment for the wellbeing of their people.

Ethiopia and Egypt 1The parallel I should like to draw to the global community in general and to donors in particular is this. Ethiopians from all walks of life, from shoe shiners to millionaires resolved to finance the multi-billion-dollar hydropower project, namely, the GERD on their own. Here, I should like to record for eternity that donors such as the World Bank that purport to support poverty alleviation projects refused to finance dams in Ethiopia. Why? Because they did not want to upset their relations with Egypt, the Arab World and the powers that control multilateral institutions. I argue here that, by taking political sides, donor and financing institutions will face moral hazard.

This same determination to be self-reliant and self-sufficient compelled Ethiopians to initiate a greening revolution without donor support. At minimum, the UN should recognize Ethiopia’s remarkable contribution to mitigate climate change.

Upon completion, the GERD project has the potential to supply electricity to countries in the Horn and Eastern Africa, Egypt and the Sudan and far beyond. It will serve as a boon to the African grid. Sudan will benefit hugely by expanding its irrigable lands multifold.  Loss from evaporation of Nile waters will decrease, etc., etc., etc. These huge benefits are deliberately unappreciated and underreported by the Egyptian and by the further Arab world media.

It is time to recognize Ethiopia

The same is true with regard to Ethiopia’s huge investments in restoring the ecosystem by planting trees. The long-term beneficiaries of tree planting and other restoration initiatives in Ethiopia are not only of value to Ethiopians; but also, to all riparian nations including Egypt and the Sudan. Here, I should note that 90 percent of Ethiopia’s Rivers cross boundaries.

Accordingly, Ethiopia’s efforts at restoration of the ecosystem have substantial positive and lasting impacts on its neighbors. Can donors and the global media recognize this impressive contribution by Ethiopia that also mitigates climate change?

Should the global community, especially the Government of the United States and the World Bank not apply their leverage on Egypt such that it moves from its current position of hegemony over the Nile to that of cooperation for equitable and reasonable utilization of the Nile River; and on shared investment to restore the ecosystem?

This overarching theme leads me to the GERD and the important next steps that I believe all Ethiopians and the rest of the global community must recognize.

First and foremost, Egypt, the Sudan, Ethiopia, the rest of Nile River riparian nations as well as the world community must acknowledge and accept the principle that there is adequate water on the River Nile that will meet the current needs of all riparian nations. Greed is not the answer.

  • However, and as I noted in the previous paragraphs, upstream and downstream nations must do their best to restore the ecosystem; share the burden of investments in restoration and reduce waste.

Second, Egypt, the Sudan and their external supporters, especially Arab nations, the Government of the United States and the World Bank that stood with Egypt during the tripartite negotiations must recognize and accept the principle that Ethiopia’s portion of the Blue Nile that supplies 86 percent of Nile waters is available to the Ethiopian people only for 3-4 months each and every year.

  • For 8 to 9 months each and every year, millions of Ethiopians suffer from inadequate water or no water at all. Girls and women travel for miles to fetch water.


  • Egyptians have water options, huge storages and constant flow from the Nile; potential for massive desalination and huge untapped aquifers estimated to last at least 500 years.


  • Egypt squanders huge quantities of waters and literally exports waters by diverting Nile waters and utilizing it to irrigate deserts and export foods.


  • Huge vested investments in irrigated farm land by Saudi and Emirate billionaires prevent them from injecting an ounce of objectivity concerning GERD negotiations. They need to be fair, impartial and objective. In the long-term, a prosperous and wealthy Ethiopia will be a boon for their own national economies. A poor and conflict-ridden Ethiopia will not serve them at all. A conflict-ridden Ethiopia will not serve global security.


  • Egyptian society and the rest of the world must recognize the notion that, although the country is labeled as a water tower; an estimated 75 percent of Ethiopia’s land mass is categorized as extremely dry; Ethiopians who reside in these dry areas deserve reasonable access to Blue Nile Waters that originates in their own homeland. It is simply unfair and unjust to deny them the right to live by utilizing their own waters. No Ethiopian government worthy of its name can afford to deny them this right. Egyptians have alternatives while millions of Ethiopians have none.


  • Egyptian society must accept the notion that Egypt’s proxy wars against Ethiopia will only strengthen anti-Egyptian sentiments. In the long-term, this policy will be detrimental to equitable and fair distribution of Nile waters.


Third, Egypt must appreciate and recognize the irreversible trend that the colonial past does not govern or apply to the 21st century. The UN system has adopted water conventions that underpin the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization of water resources shared by transboundary river nations. The Nile River lacks such governance that the Nile Basin Initiative that the World Bank and the UNDP supported and that numerous riparian African nations adopted in the form of the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework, 2010, signed and ratified by Ethiopia among others. This is foundational document to start with; and to arrive at a 21st century Nile Waters Agreement.

  • Article 4 on Equitable and Reasonable Utilization provides guidance for signatory nations.
  • Among others, it states that “Nile Basin States shall in their respective territories utilize the water resources of the Nile River system and the Nile River Basin in an equitable and reasonable manner. In particular, those water resources shall be used and developed by Nile Basin States with a view to attaining optimal and sustainable utilization thereof and benefits therefrom, taking into account the interests of the Basin States concerned, consistent with adequate protection of those water resources. Each Basin State is entitled to an equitable and reasonable share in the beneficial uses of the water resources of the Nile River system and the Nile River Basin.”
  • It is this principle that Ethiopia has adhered to and is implementing within its own or “respective territory.”
  • The good news is that this principle is also consistent with norms and principles that have guided other nations such as the USA, Turkey, China, India and others.
  • Ethiopia has an obligation to serve its own huge population; possesses the legal means; has sovereign rights to harness waters within its own territories; has at its disposal the means to construct more dams in order to feed its increasing population; and to provide sufficient energy to propel manufacturing and industrialization.
  • This proposal is consistent with the UN sanctioned and supported Sustainable Development Goals. It will enable Ethiopia to eradicate poverty and to join the family of middle-income nations by 2030. Is this not what the world also wants?

Fourth, until recently, Ethiopian civil society and political leaders have neglected to challenge Egyptian government policy on non-reciprocity in their total disregard of Ethiopia’s societal needs. What upsets and angers me to no end is also the tendency of Egypt’s supporters and the global media to implicitly disregard and ignore the disastrous and inhumane quality of life of tens of millions of Ethiopians; and to designate these episodes as secondary or tertiary in the debate over Nile waters. These millions are human beings worthy of consideration too.

  • I have not found a single Ethiopian who does not believe that Ethiopia and the rest of Nile riparian nations should not share Nile waters with Egypt or with the Sudan or both.
  • Missing in the argument of Egypt’s supporters for Egyptian hegemony over the Nile is not only shared responsibility; but equally, the legitimacy of compensation by Egypt for total hegemony and use of the Nile since Pharaonic times. There is increasing shout out among Ethiopians who feel strongly and passionately that Egypt should be asked to compensate Ethiopia for its proxy wars too.
  • Mind you that hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian children, men and women perished during drought induced famines numerous times in the past. How just and fair is that?
  • These Ethiopians perished under a Nile River Agreement that granted Egypt and the Sudan 100 percent of Nile waters while Ethiopian and the rest of Black African riparian nations were allocated nothing. It is unreasonable and intolerable for this hegemony that punishes Black Africans to continue.
  • As I stated under principle three above, Ethiopia’s refusal to reject this unfair and unjust supremacy must be respected and honored by the global community and by the peoples of Egypt and the Sudan.
  • The Ethiopian people have no intention to harm the people of Egypt and their brotherly neighbors in the Sudan. This is why a fair and just deal becomes vital.
  • Egypt must abandon its sabre rattling and proxy wars immediately and for good. Instead, it must be willing and ready to resolve the current impasse by reaching a win-win deal that will also address the issue of sustainability and burden sharing during drought.
  • Egypt’s failure to negotiate in good faith, reverting to the Arab League and to the UN Security Council is no longer tolerable of acceptable. The issue is an African problem and must be resolved through the auspices of the African Union.
  • Ethiopia must not enter into a water sharing Agreement of any kind with Egypt or the Sudan or both without the participation and engagement of all Nile Basin countries.
  • The issue of a water sharing Agreement must be deliberate, well studied, consultative and must be based on the Nile Basin Initiative and the Framework Agreement Ethiopia signed but Egypt rejected.
  • The GERD is a single hydroelectric power generating project that is governed by the 21015 Declaration of Principles (DOP) that Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopia signed. It has no relevance what so ever to water sharing and the Nile.

Fifth, Egypt argues that the burden of drought mitigation must be borne by Ethiopia. I remember that during the worst drought-famine in Ethiopia that contributed to the down fall of Emperor Haile Selassie’s Government, thousands of Ethiopians died from starvation. I do not recall that a single Egyptian died from that drought. So, why does Egypt want to punish Ethiopia again? Why do Egyptians want an Ethiopian child or mother of father to die from drought induced famine again and again? Drought induced famine harms Ethiopia; and not Egypt

  • Drought mitigation must be a shared responsibility when and if it occurs.
  • Riparian nations in general and Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan in particular must invest in drought mitigation efforts; Ethiopia is doing its part. What has Egypt contributed to the common good of the Nile? None that I can find.

Sixth, the people of Ethiopia, Egypt and the Sudan have a long and distinguished history largely driven by the Nile water that their peoples share, albeit asymmetrically in terms of equitable use. The cultural, religious, trade and geopolitical bonds they share have often been marred by the vitriolic and unnecessary conflicts largely led by Egypt. This must stop once and for all.

In the long-run, these conflicts do not bode well for their respective peoples.

My recommendation is that all three nations must be bold, principled and foresighted enough to imagine a compelling future that will serve future generations by investing heavily into sustainable programs, such as the restoration of the entire ecosystem. Ethiopia is doing its part by planting trees; while Egypt is investing in proxy wars. It is time to flip this and craft a win-win formula that recognizes Ethiopia’s incontestable sovereign rights to fill the GERD; and provide power to millions that lack electricity.

This way, Ethiopia, Egypt and the Sudan will establish a key ingredient for future negotiations, namely, mutual trust. Proxy wars undermine mutual trust and confidence.

Finally, I should like to go on record that Egypt continues to undermine mutual trust by sponsoring proxy wars; and by trying to establish military posts in neighboring nations. Sponsoring nations must wary that Egyptian sinister and cunning intentions will not serve their own national security interests at all. Just think of Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen across the Red Sea.

What the world needs is not war and conflict. Rather, it is a stable and prosperous Horn of Africa in which Ethiopia serves as a hub.


August 4, 2020