How ultranationalist rhetoric is stalemating the GERD dispute?

Authors: Dr. Nervana Mahmoud & Dr. Mohamed Fouad

The GERD dispute has proven to be a tough and challenging. Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have been negotiating for years, yet failed to reach a final agreement. The negotiations have resumed, but there are fundamental disagreements, particularly on filling the dam’s reservoir during drought and prolonged drought, as well as the safety measures and precautions adopted at the dam.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia seems to have a well-orchestrated international PR campaign underway portraying its dam as a case of national development that is obstructed by Egypt, using several tactics.

First, portraying past agreements that govern the Nile basin as unjust by-product of colonial-era. Many leftists and liberals in the West may cheer this populist approach, however, it is dangerous and counter-productive. Nullifying past accords set a dangerous precedent that can trigger various water disputes and possible wars, not just in the Nile basin, but also in other hot spots around the globe. This false colonial victimization does indeed attract regional and perhaps international empathy, but it a sound legal argument. This real aim of such self-victimization approach is to discard basic negotiation frameworks and to justify the proceeding with filling the dam, fait accompli, without agreement with Egyt and Sudan.

In reality, the colonial allegations do not sustain. Egypt has signed two treaties with independent Ethiopia in 1902 and in 1993. Both has established a mutual consultation mechanism in the management and running projects on the Nile river .

Furthermore, refuting old water agreements makes Ethiopia’s adamant refusal to sign a new binding deal with Egypt more suspicious. How can Egypt be feel secure that the current deal, if reached, will be honoured by future Ethiopian governments? There are valid fears in Cairo that Ethiopia’s main objective is water hegemony, to monopolize the Nile’s water exclusively for their own use.. Without a binding agreement that govern the GERD, there is nothing that could potentially prevent Ethiopia from withholding Egypt’s full water share in the future.

Second, despite the fact that Ethiopia has relied heavily in designing, financing and building the Dam on the west, Ethiopia’s speech at the UNSC has rejected Egypt’s appeal to the international community, depicting the dispute as an “African matter”. This tactic of privatizing the dispute is helping Ethiopia to evade its legal commitments and obligations under international law. Moreover, since decisions by international organizations are generally more compelling than that of regional/African organizations, Ethiopia, it seems, is trying to evade any international scrutiny of its water politics.

Third, Ethiopia appeals to the West by using the development glossary to depict the operation of the Dam as the end of all of its development challenges.

However, numbers do not back the Ethiopian claim. For instance, the World Bank indicated in 2015 that the poverty rate in Ethiopia is 23.5 per cent, while in Egypt it is much worse, 27.8 per cent. However, those claims were used by the ruling party in Ethiopia to mobilize the public sentiments against Egypt by making the Dam the final solution to all their domestic challenges.

This nationalistic oversimplification has obstructed the negotiations for years now as Ethiopia is solely focused to fulfil its nationalist promises to its citizenry with complete disregard to the interests of other Nile basin stakeholders.

For over a decade, Ethiopia has distracted the international community from the core essence of the GERD dispute. It avoided binding agreements on water shares of both Egypt and Sudan. It employed a populist agenda to garner support domestically and internationally, and played the victim card to snooker Egypt and extract more concessions.

Egypt represents 20% of the Nile basin population and only gets 3% of the Nile water. Historically, Egypt has never objected any developmental plan by African nations; on the contrary, it has supported many liberation movements for example in the Nasserite era in the 1950s and 1960s. Equitable share of the Nile water does not and should not mean forcing Egyptians to use expensive desalination as a replacement of the Nile water. Ethiopia can generate electricity and develop its country without ruining the life of millions of Egyptians farmers.

A solution of the GERD crisis is achievable, as long as there is willingness to compromise from both sides. The last thing the world need now is a water war in Africa.