EthioPoint: Ethiopians Analysis | Research Articles

The Ethio-Djibouti Water Deal: the Lasting Game or the Last Game?

13 mins read

The Ethio-Djibouti Water Deal: the Lasting Game or the Last Game?
Last week we have heard that Ethiopia is going to supply a neighboring nation, Djibouti, with water in the amount of 103 thousand cu m. per day. To that effect, the Ethiopian Government has entered into a 30-years agreement with the Government of Djibouti to enable Djibouti to mine fresh water for free from ground water resource in Ethiopia. According to the agreement, the Ethiopian Government grants a big chunk of land in Shinile Zone of the Ethiopian Somali Region, eastern Ethiopia, while Djibouti runs the water development project over part of that land. The project will be owned, financed and operated by Djibouti. The deal was kept confidential until last week, when a bill to that effect was presented to the federal parliament (the House of Peoples Representatives) of Ethiopia for discussion and promulgation.
Before I go further, I would like to make clear that I am not standing against our brotherly people of Djibouti in any way and I understand their need for water. I recognize that the Djiboutian people need to get fresh water that they need. However, there are a lot of ironies relating to this agreement. For instance, the deal has not been transparent and the conduct of the negotiation has never been known to the public.  Some of the other troubling points that need to be questioned are the following:
1.   The first one is that in exchange for the gift of water, there is not any benefit for Ethiopia that was included in the agreement or the designers of the project did not want to disclose it. According to the pro-TPLF media, The Reporter, some members of the Ethiopian parliament had questioned this aspect of the agreement when they debated the bill and the Ethiopian Government, through its representative in the parliament, admitted that Ethiopia would not get any economic benefit out of it. The government did not specify, as well, what other benefits Ethiopia may gain out of the deal that the country would not without it. However, Djibouti is an independent country and any deal or business between two nations is expected to be based on mutual benefits according to internationally accepted norms and practices. Furthermore, the Ethiopian Foreign Policy envisages that the country’s foreign and security strategy is centered on economic interest.  The policy document states Ethiopia’s relations of friendship or otherwise should be based first of all on economic matters. The policy further states that Ethiopia shall enter into friendships or hostilities based on matters relevant to its development.
With regard to Djibouti, though the Ethiopian foreign policy is directed towards ensuring long-lasting and reliable port services, it is all at reasonable fees and no free service or gift is expected on either side. The policy further promotes strengthening economic ties between Djibouti and Ethiopia on the basis of trade and investment where sound legal practices are adhered to and on the basis of give-and-take principle in which both sides benefit.
Thus, one can observe that the water gift agreement is inconsistent with common sense practice and international norms, and with the foreign policy of Ethiopia. The first question is “Why was it necessary?” Second, given the secretive and corrupt nature of the TPLF junta, one should ask also if the deal is really a free gift agreement. Or some one or group might stand in between and do business with Djibouti. We cannot get the answer for this because the Djiboutians will not tell us if they pay for or not as far as they get the water safely.
2.   We already heard that the local residents of the area around the water mining project were instructed to evacuate to some where at least 70 km away as soon as possible by the Federal Government forces. The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) has issued complaints on this forced eviction of residents. I was wondering why it was necessary to evict residents in order to run a ground water project from technical point of view? Residents do not normally have contact with deep-seated ground water. In particular, hydrogeological documents indicate that the aquifers in that part of the country get their recharge mostly from flood waters originating from the highlands in the west and east and from Awash River (see, and as a result local human activities do not have significant impact on the water quality.
The local residents in that part of Ethiopia are so sparsely populated and live on natural agriculture of mainly animal raising type. They do not have mechanized farms that utilize polluting chemicals, and there is not any big urban center in the area. Further, the people do not have any intention, capacity, motive, and culture that adversely affect the ground water resource because they need it for themselves. For that matter, those people were living there for years and the ground water was also there without any problem. Why is it necessary to remove residents and handover an empty land to Djibouti?
3.   The local residents of the area depend on that very water resource that the Ethiopian Government is donating to a foreign nation.  The Somali Region in general and Shinile Zone in particular is where scarcity of water is a major problem (see the following reports for example).
To tackle the problem, several governmental and nongovernmental institutions have been working in the area on the study and development of ground water. Moreover, the Somali Regional Government embarked upon drilling and developing 70 water wells in Shinile Zone with about Birr 160 million in 2012. ( see
However, the federal government intends to donate this same water to a foreign country. On one hand, this shows that the Djibouti water project has not been planned for and it is an arbitrary overnight decision, which is a common behavior of the TPLF led Government. On the other hand, the decision is unfair and unacceptable by any measurement when our own government gives precedence to foreigners over its own citizens.
But it is hardly surprising as far as TPLF regime is concerned. This regime never considers most Ethiopian peoples as its citizens. This is the government that has been evicting its citizens from their ancestral farmlands to grant the land to foreign farmers and members of its corrupt political family. This is the government that sells and still vows to sell more electric power to foreign countries while Ethiopian cities including the capital do not get enough power.  Now, the Ethiopian Government is concerned for water problems in another country while most of Ethiopian peoples do not have clean water. Even in most parts of the capital, Addis Ababa, residents get water supply on shift basis.
Who is this Government working for? Is it really an Ethiopian Government? Additionally, the way the Ethiopian Government does business is becoming very much totalitarian. The TPLF leaders do not know policies, laws and procedures but their narrow and short sighted interest only. Any thing they want to do, they bring it over night to the public as a surprise and implement it by military force. The will of any TPLF leader is a law in Ethiopia.
4.   The water development project could have been handled and treated under the existing legal framework like any foreign investment without any requirement to take it to parliament separately. This legitimate question was also raised by one member of the House, in fact.
5.   As a result of this agreement, Ethiopian Government will secure the exclusive rights of the Government of Djibouti over the land for the terms of the agreement. The Government of Ethiopia also tasked itself with safeguarding the water resource from pollution and other dangers that may harm the resource. Moreover, this land grant agreement, being effected as a separate bill by the national legislature, is not governed by other existing investment, mining, and environmental and safety laws and regulations. Therefore, unless it is specifically addressed in the agreement, environmental impacts and other consequences that may result from the ground water development and production operations will not be inspected, regulated or mitigated in accordance with normal business procedures in that country. However, I cannot comment further on this issue as I have not seen the details of the agreement.
Finally, I am puzzled as to what the intention of TPLF is and what is behind this deal?
A)    Is TPLF trying to establish a lasting relationship between Djibouti and Ethiopia to secure the port service? If this is the case, I think that TPLF has gone too far a distance unnecessarily and at the expense of Ethiopians. Djibouti is giving us a port service based on internationally accepted trade practices. They are benefiting from the business and I believe as much as we need their service they also need us, their customers. There is no other competitive customer coming up for Djibouti. Therefore, it is questionable if it was really necessary to give a special present that costs us evicting and endangering our own citizens.
B)    Or are TPLF leaders making a secret deal in this that we do not know?
C)    Or is TPLF finalizing its journey and preparing for its plan B? Plan B is preparing for the worst if the inevitable comes. Presumably, they already consider Afar as part of Greater Tigray. They isolated Dire Dawa as a buffer zone long time ago. They are diverting the new rail road to north from Awash. Now, through this mysterious Djibouti project, they are securing the area east of Awash including Dire Dawa all the way to Djibouti.