Nile Basin at Crossroads

By Tesfu Telahoun Abebe – The embattled yet resilient administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has announced that the preliminary phase of filling the reservoir of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) had begun. There was no fanfare and the official statement refrained from overly dwelling on this most sensitive issue, treating it as just a matter of engineering standard practice.

The announcement was a bland press release and attributed to Dr Engineer Seleshi Bekele, the minister who has been deftly and methodically steering Ethiopia’s dossier on the GERD as it relates to the downstream countries. Sileshi is a dapper and imposing figure; soft spoken in that typically Ethiopic manner and comes off as a person worthy of the immense trust bestowed on him.

Equally commendable are his colleagues and other professionals handling the seemingly endless rounds of tripartite negotiations among Ethiopia and Egypt and Ethiopia. Sileshi somewhat confirmed the various reports by world media that satellite images taken as far back as at least nine days ago revealed a substantial area which has only recently been covered with water-the beginnings of what is to be Lake Hedassie.

Regardless of the anticlimactic announcement, Wednesday July 15, 2020 will undoubtedly be marked in history as the day on which Ethiopia definitely and irrevocably redeemed its sovereign rights to responsibly exploit the boundless potential of The Abay River, otherwise known by non-Ethiopians as The Blue Nile.

What does it all mean for the principal country-Ethiopia? How about the two downstream countries? Will Sudan and Egypt finally emerge out of denial and come to terms with an inevitable and inescapable development in the regional balance of power?

Last but not least, how will Ethiopia’s bold action plan and a persistent adherence to international law to secure its rights impact on the other four or more upstream nations which are also eager to exploit their own inalienable rights to profit from their hydrological resources.

A note of caution
We must however, proceed very cautiously with all announcements, press releases and other official statements issued-or not issued, by the official organs, media and other authorities of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. If we have learned anything over the near decade long GERD ‘negotiations and subsequent communiqués it is that the statements may not actually mean what they say.

Even as this piece is being written, we are learning that Ethiopia has distanced itself from the ‘news’ that it had started filling the dam, attributing the growing expanse of water as “flood water from the heavy rainfall in the area”. It seems that perhaps Ethiopia has taken a lesson from the Egyptian play book and is playing mind games.

The phased filling of the dam is inarguably a milestone in the history of Ethiopia as it demonstrates a profound statement of intent as it pertains to domestic economic development and a marked realignment of regional dynamics especially vis a vis Egypt.

The beginning of the completion of GERD is also a huge political boon for the embattled yet resilient administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. He and his youthful cabinet have persevered despite a tumultuous and stormy political transition and with too many enemies to count round and about.
He took over a severely compromised and even failing mega project, redirected its execution and the results are so clear they can be observed from space. Current status of the GERD is also soothing grievous national pain and suffering wrought by a series of malicious ethnic violence which has plunged the nation to near despair.

No matter at this juncture that the inception of the GERD had been more political than an economic strategy by the regime which launched the project. The Ethiopian masses are starved of good news and have wholeheartedly backed the project, not least because of its economic promise and investment attraction potential.

In fact, the GERD is so critical to our future growth that not building and operating such a dam would actually be worse than any possible external action for having built it. Ethiopia has all to gain and literally little to lose except perhaps the historically non-existent goodwill of Egypt and a few of its backers.

The GERD-even at this early stage-has been changing the status quo along the Nile Basin and has bestowed a certain prestige on Ethiopia. This reality should be respected by all riparian states and Ethiopia should be and will be conscious of its new role and act accordingly with decorum and commitment to regional cooperation.

The GERD will undoubtedly upset Cairo but then Egypt has always been against any water project by any upstream country, childishly clinging to outdated and romanticized notions of proprietorship. However, the actual facts on the ground might cause a change of heart and lead to acceptance and a completely new foundation for Ethiopia-Egypt relations.

The Sudanese reservations over GERD are much easier to resolve as this country does maintain an often warm and at least cordial ties with Ethiopia. Sudan can also play a role as a peace broker between its two powerful neighbors to settle the issue once and for all.

In fact, by accepting the inevitable Egypt can renew its ties to virtually all of Africa, given that its Africa foreign policy is centered on the Nile and the continued Egyptian hegemony over the region. It is a golden chance for Egypt to return to Africa with an honest form of multilateralism.

For several other East African states such as Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Burundi, Ethiopia has set down a marker which they will no doubt take as a historic precedence. Already, some are gearing to launch hydro projects and Uganda is finishing up a modest (by GERD standards) 800 MW power station. The era of multinational development under mutually assured and respectful sharing of resources is at hand. Let’s hope this new epoch is here to stay as the status quo had never been workable-there is no justice when a certain state demands to be given 100 percent of the resources found beyond its borders.