The Case for a More Thoughtful Approach To Building Dams on Abay (The Blue Nile)

15 mins read
Getachew Begashaw (PhD)
Getachew Begashaw (PhD)

Most Ethiopians agree that appropriately planned, designed, constructed, and operated dams on Abay (the Blue Nile) are economic necessities that should be supported to ensure the long-term economic development of the country and the well-being of its people.
It is an incontrovertible fact that Abay is Ethiopia’s natural resource. It originates from Ethiopia and runs 800 kilometers inside Ethiopia out of its total length of 1,450 kilometers when it joins with White Nile in Omdurman, adjacent to Khartoum. Further, there is no evidence to suggest that a legitimate government in Ethiopia has ever entered into any kind of bi-lateral or multi-lateral agreements with any foreign government concerning Abay.
More than its economic and geo-political significance, Abay also has a special place in the Ethiopian consciousness. To most Ethiopians, it is a source of pride, nationalism, patriotism and cultural inspiration. So close to the hearts and souls of generations of Ethiopians, it has been celebrated in songs, literature, folklore, painting and other artistic endeavors.
For a number of reasons, building a dam is not a casual decision one will undertake for short-term political or economic expediency. Nor should it be a project one embarks on to show the world that it is one’s sovereign right to do so. When conceived by a representative government that works for the long-term interest and sovereignty of the country, building a dam is primarily an economic decision, which ascertains that the total benefit obtained from the dam operation exceeds the total cost incurred by building and maintaining the dam. That, in a nutshell, is the simple truth of the matter that Ethiopians should concern themselves with. Paradoxically, some articles have recently been published, both in Amharic and English, that generously, and uncritically to a large extent, support the current dam construction on Abay, despite our collective lack of understanding about whether this project will be an economic boondoggle or a strong performer.
The TPLF rulers and supporters try to give the impression that there are external legal constraints, unfairly imposed on Ethiopia, by the international community. However, there is no publicly available evidence suggesting such legal constraints ever existed. Even the browbeating and intransigency of Egypt have no international backing or legal legitimacy whatsoever.

The ethnic-based TPLF rulers are also busy spreading their spiteful propaganda that those who question their ill-advised policies are unpatriotic opponents of dam building. The truth is there can be no genuine Ethiopian who holds the view that we should not build any dam on Abay; who questions Ethiopia’s sovereign rights to build dams on Abay; or who argues that Ethiopia must sacrifice its national interest in favor of the downstream riparian states, Sudan and Egypt. On the contrary, the prevailing argument among genuine Ethiopians has been the need for manageable, sustainable, environmentally friendly and multi-purpose dams that are in tune with Ethiopia’s economic needs and capacity, rather than a hastily hatched single-purpose mega dam borne out of political urgency and expediency by an ethnic-based dictatorial regime that has repeatedly demonstrated its indisposition to Ethiopia’s territorial integrity, long-term security, and unity of its people.
Under no circumstance should it be construed as unpatriotic to ask questions about the biggest dam ever built in Ethiopia. With a project of this scale and cost, we need much greater transparency and openness of dialogue than the dictatorial regime has been willing to demonstrate. Without transparency and the ability to review the project’s ultimate costs and benefits, there is no way for anyone to say if this project is justified or not. On a megaproject of this scale, and especially in a country like Ethiopia where the development needs are great and available funds for addressing our needs limited, it is imperative to end the secrecy and allow an open look at the project from every angle.
As history has testified, time and again, Ethiopians will pay the ultimate price to protect their independence and defend their national sovereignty. Therefore, the issue at hand (amongst Ethiopians) is not whether Ethiopia has the historical and/or legal rights to conduct any project that will advance its national interest on Abay or Ethiopia will have to consult and secure permission from anybody to do what it desires on Abay within the bounds of international rules of trans-boundary waters. It is rather about what kind of feasible, sustainable, and manageable projects (a mega-dam in this case) Ethiopia should undertake on Abay. Of course, because Abay is an international water, it is prudent, and even wise, to have some sort of international understanding by way of clarification where an injured party, for real or perceived reasons, lodges concerns and complaints.
In a debate I had with Egyptian scholars at a forum convened by the Women’s National Democratic Club, April 1, 2014, in Washington, DC, I made it clear that there is a national consensus among Ethiopians that Ethiopia has the sovereign rights to use Abay fairly and equitably for its own economic development in accordance with international rules of trans-boundary waters, and that Egypt must not misunderstand the internal engagement Ethiopians are having on how best to use Abay as a disagreement on using Abay. And this is exactly how I want my Ethiopian colleagues also to frame the issue when they are contributing to the ongoing dialogues and exchanges.
That is to say, we must not confound and obfuscate the discussion on two separate issues: defending Ethiopia’s sovereign rights over Abay on the one hand, and how best Ethiopia can use Abay (including support for the GERD) on the other. It is my sincere hope that we all understand the fact that opposing the construction of the GERD as planned, designed, and executed does not mean opposing Ethiopia’s sovereign rights to make use of the river or build dams on Abay. Conversely, defending Ethiopia’s sovereign rights over Abay doesn’t mean blanket support for the GERD. They are two distinct issues where the first is a given fact of Ethiopia’s inalienable and unassailable rights on Abay, and the latter is an issue needing a thorough and rigorous scientific inquiry and respectable benefit/cost analysis and debates.
Putting all understandable patriotic fervors aside, it is quite appropriate to ask whether the GERD is good for Ethiopia. As will be explained in Part II of this piece, there is considerable evidence to suggest that many of the big dams, especially those in the developing world, are fraught with pernicious economic, social, political, and environmental problems. Therefore, it is abundantly evident that the GERD is not beneficial for Ethiopia, and it could even be argued that it is a debacle waiting to happen.
It’s unclear exactly how irreversible the project is at this point. As part of the construction plan, the course of the flow of Abay has already been altered. The secretive and corrupt government in power has not come forward publicly with its plan, if any, how to mitigate the adverse impacts of the dam. Therefore, it is incumbent upon all genuine Ethiopians to press the dictatorial regime in power to uncover all known and perceived dangers associated with the construction of the dam and let the people of Ethiopia take an active role in finding safeguard mechanisms that should be in place.

This view is further strengthened by two new developments. First, regarding the changing position of Cairo, the Egyptian reporter, Ayah Aman of Al-Monitor, wrote:

“…the Egyptian government is leaning toward adopting new policies aimed at resolving its dispute with Ethiopia concerning its Renaissance Dam project… In statements made to the press on May 11, 2014, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb said that Ethiopia’s construction of the Renaissance Dam had become a fait accompli and must be dealt with in the context of safeguarding mutual interests, thus guaranteeing that Egypt receives its water and Ethiopia generates its energy… Egypt’s conciliatory tone is Cairo’s attempt to extract whatever benefits it can from a dam that it seemingly cannot prevent from being built.”

Second, there is greater US-EU involvement in resolving the dispute. It is reported in the World Bulletin News Desk of 21 May 2014 that diplomats from the U.S. and E.U. are shuttling between Ethiopia and Egypt in hopes of persuading the two countries to restart tripartite talks to assess the dam’s possible environmental, economic and social effects on downstream countries Egypt and Sudan. According to the Ethiopian Boundary and Trans-boundary Rivers Director at the Ethiopian Ministry of Water, Energy and Irrigation EU-US effort is to help peace in the region;… to facilitate discussion on topics including ways of restarting tripartite consultations among Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan… and implementation of the Nile Basin Initiative, particularly that of the Eastern Nile Subsidiary Action Program (ENSAP). May be the scheduled visit of the newly elected Egyptian President, former army general Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, to Addis Ababa could be an outcome of this effort.

While it is unclear what the EU-US positions or proposals are, it is unmistakable that Egypt will do everything in its power to promote its own interest. Regrettably, Ethiopians are now faced with two unfavorable challenges. On the one side, they have to contend with an illegitimate government at home that cannot be trusted to resist outside pressure that would permanently compromise the country’s future interests. On the other hand, they are faced with dubious international players, who have a notoriously painful track record of betraying Ethiopia. All genuine Ethiopians at home and in the Diaspora are called upon to demand the ethnic-based government to be transparent, accountable, and accommodating to divergent views relating to the dam, and not to compromise Ethiopia’s long-term interest for short –term economic and political gain.

We call upon Ethiopian scholars to contribute to the real issues at hand, rather than echoing the newly manufactured TPLF’s propaganda about Ethiopia’s sovereign rights on Abay. Any discussion on whether a dam should be constructed is superfluous, in the face of the progress made on the ground. What is of essence now is the need to reveal the secrecy under which the project was planned, designed, and constructed; and the level and seriousness of the government’s corruption and its effect on the construction and operation of the dam. Genuine scholars should address the economic hardship the dam has inflicted on the vast majority of Ethiopians and the nation; as well as the environmental/echo system disruption it will inevitably cause. Above all, no scholarly work on the issue would be complete without addressing the kind of political climate that would be necessary to undertake such a massive national project with far-reaching and long-lasting consequences. Any Ethiopian scholar who is serious about Ethiopia’s sovereign rights on Abay would consider the state of the political stability in the country and the protection of the rights of its citizens. In this respect, recent publications that devoted considerable energy on whether a dam should be built, after the fact, in my view, have missed the target and are not of much value to advance the dialogue on this national question of supremely critical nature.