Ethiopia: Rumors of Water War on the Nile?

By IndepthAfrica
In Alemayehu G. Mariam
Mar 11th, 2013
6 Comments
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Dam War of Words

Late last month, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid Bin Sultan fired a shot across the bow from the Arab Water Council in Cairo to let the regime in Ethiopia know that his country takes a dim view of the “Grand Renaissance Dam” under “construction” on the Blue Nile (Abbay) a few miles from Sudan’s eastern border.   According to Prince Khalid, “The [Grand] Renaissance dam has its capacity of flood waters reaching more than 70 billion cubic meters of water… [I]f it collapsed Khartoum will be drowned completely and the impact will even reach the Aswan Dam…” The Prince believes the Dam is being built close to the “Sudanese border for political plotting rather than for economic gain and constitutes a threat to Egyptian and Sudanese national security…” The Prince raised the stakes by accusing the regime in Ethiopia of being hell-bent on harming Arab peoples. “There are fingers messing with water resources of Sudan and Egypt which are rooted in the mind and body of Ethiopia. They do not forsake an opportunity to harm Arabs without taking advantage of it…”

A spokesman for the regime in power in Ethiopia sought to minimize the importance of the Prince’s statement  by suggesting that the Saudi Ambassador in Addis Ababa had disavowed the Prince’s statement as official policy or a position endorsed by the Saudi government. The alleged disavowal of the statement of a member of the Saudi royal family and top defense official seems curiously disingenuous after the fact. But that is understandable since “an ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” The regime spokesman also insinuated in fuzzy diplomatese that such inflammatory statements could result in war between Arab countries and African countries in the Nile basin.

The real possibility of a water war between countries of the upper Nile basin, and in particular Ethiopia, and Egypt and Sudan over the so-called Grand Renaissance Dam is the (white) elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about openly and earnestly at this stage. But in November 2010, the late dictator Meles Zenawi in an interview with Reuters seemed to defiantly relish the possibility of war with Egypt. With taunting, dismissive and contemptuous arrogance, Meles not only insulted the Egyptian people as hopelessly backward but bragged that he will swiftly vanquish any invading Egyptian army. “I am not worried that the Egyptians will suddenly invade Ethiopia. Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story. I don’t think the Egyptians will be any different and I think they know that…The Egyptians have yet to make up their minds as to whether they want to live in the 21st or the 19th century.” Meles also accused Egypt of trying to destabilize Ethiopia by supporting unnamed rebel groups which he promised to crush. Meles served the Egyptians an ultimatum to engage in “civil dialogue”: “If we address the issues around which the rebel groups are mobilized then we can neutralize them and therefore make it impossible for the Egyptians to fish in troubled waters because there won’t be any… Hopefully that should convince the Egyptians that, as direct conflict will not work, and as the indirect approach is not as effective as it used to be, the only sane option will be civil dialogue.”

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit denied Meles’ allegations and expressed amusement and amazement over Meles’ braggadocio. “I’m amazed … by the language that was used. We are not seeking war and there will not be war… The charges that Egypt… is exploiting rebel groups against the ruling regime in Ethiopia are completely devoid of truth.” Gheit may have been diplomatically deescalating the war of words, but his statement belies statements by a long line of top Egyptian leaders over the decades. President Anwar Sadat in 1978 declared, “We depend upon the Nile100 per cent in our life, so if anyone, at any moment, thinks of depriving us of our life we shall never hesitate to go to war.”  Boutros Boutros Gahali, when he was the Egyptian Foreign State Minister (later U.N. Secretary General), confirmed the same sentiment when he asserted “the next war in our region will be over the water of the Nile, not politics.”

“If it comes to a crisis, we will send a jet to bomb the dam and come back in one day, simple as that.”

What will Egypt will do if Meles’ “Grand Renaissance Dam” is in fact built? “Simple.” They will use dam busters to smash and trash it.

An email from the American private security organization Stratfor released by Wikileaks citing its source as “high-level Egyptian security/intel in regular direct contact with Mubarak and Suleiman”, “If it comes to a crisis, we will send a jet to bomb the dam and come back in one day, simple as that. Or we can send our special forces in to block/sabotage the dam. But we aren’t going for the military option now. This is just contingency planning. Look back to an operation Egypt did in the mid-late 1970s, I think 1976, when Ethiopia was trying to build a large dam. We blew up the equipment while it was traveling by sea to Ethiopia. A useful case study…”

The same source further indicated that Egypt is “discussing military cooperation with Sudan” and  has “a strategic pact with the Sudanese since in any crisis over the Nile, Sudan gets hit first then us.” That military cooperation includes stationing Egyptian “commandos in the Sudan for ‘worst case’ scenario on the Nile issue. Sudanese president Umar al-Bashir has agreed to allow the Egyptians to build a small airbase in Kusti to accommodate Egyptian commandos who might be sent to Ethiopia to destroy water facilities on the Blue Nile…The military option is not one that the Egyptians favor. It will be their option if everything else fails.” So far Egypt has successfully lobbied the multilateral development and other investment banks and donors to deny or cut funding for the dam and to apply political and diplomatic pressure on Ethiopia and the other upstream Nile countries. The World Bank has publicly stated it will not to fund any new projects on the Nile without Egypt’s approval.

The Grand Renaissance Dam or the grand dam (de)illusion?

All African dictators like to build big projects because it is part of the kleptocratic African “Big Man” syndrome. By undertaking “white elephant” projects (wasteful vanity projects), African dictators seek to attain greatness and amass great fortunes in life and immortality in death. Kwame Nkrumah built the Akosombo Dam on the Volta River, at the time dubbed the “largest single investment in the economic development plans of Ghana”. Mobutu sought to outdo Nkrumah by building the largest dam in Africa on the Inga Dams in western Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire) on the largest waterfalls in the world (Inga Falls). In the Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouët-Boigny built the largest church in the world, The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, at a cost of USD$300 million. It stands empty today. Self-appointed Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic built a 500-room Hotel Intercontinental at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars while millions of his people starved.  Moamar Gadhafi launched the Great Man-Made River in Libya, dubbed the world’s largest irrigation project, and proclaimed it the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”  Gamal Abdel Nasser built the Aswan High Dam which could be affected significantly if upstream Nile countries build new dams. Ugandan dictator Yuweri Museveni built the Bujagali dam which was completed in 2012. The backflow from that dam has submerged a huge area of cultivable and settled land forcing migration and resettlement of large numbers of people.

Meles Zenawi hoped to build the “Grand Renaissance Dam” as the mother of all dams on the African continent to outdo Nkrumah, Mobutu and Gadhafi. Like all of the African white elephants, this Dam is a vanity make-believe project partly intended to glorify Meles and magnify his international prestige while diverting attention from the endemic corruption that has consumed his regime as recently documented in a 448-page World Bank report. Meles sought to cover his bloody hands and clothe his naked dictatorships with megaprojects and veneers of progress and development.  The “Grand Renaissance Dam” is the temporary name for the “Grand Meles Memorial Dam”. Meles wanted to be immortalized in that largest cement monument in the history of the African continent. To be sure, he had a “dry run” on immortality when he commissioned the construction of  Gilgel Gibe III Dam on the Omo River in southern Ethiopia which has been dubbed the “largest hydroelectric plant in Africa with a power output of about 1870 Megawatt.”

The Dam and the damned

There is little doubt that IF the “Grand Renaissance Dam” is completed, it will have a significant long term impact on water supply and availability to the Sudan and Egypt. The general view among the experts is that if the dam is constructed as specified by the regime in Ethiopia, it could result in significant reduction in cultivable agricultural lands and water shortages throughout Egypt. According to Mohamed Nasr El Din Allam, the former Egyptian minster of water and irrigation, if the dam is built “Millions of people would go hungry. There would be water shortages everywhere. It’s huge.”

The regime in Ethiopia claims the depth of the Dam will be 150 meters and the water reservoir behind the Dam could be used to irrigate more than 500,000 hectares of new agricultural lands. Experts suggest that the water reservoir behind the dam could hold as much as 62bn cubic meters of water; and depending upon seasonal rainfall and the rate at which the reservoir is filled, there could be significant reductions in the flow of water to Egypt and Sudan. The environmental impact of the Dam in Ethiopia will be catastrophic. Experts believe such a dam if built will “flood 1,680 square kilometers of forest in northwest Ethiopia, near the Sudan border, and create a reservoir that is nearly twice as large as Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest natural lake….” The so-called tripartite committee of international experts is expected to issue its report on the potential environmental impacts of the Dam in May 2013.

The legal dimensions of the Nile water dispute

The are many knotty legal issues surrounding the treaties and agreements concluded between Britain as a colonial power and the countries in the Nile basin (Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Sudan, and Egypt) on the use of Nile water. Beginning in 1891, Britain concluded at least seven agreements on the use and control of the Nile. In the major treaties, the British included  language which effectively prevented Ethiopia and other upstream countries  from “construct[ing] any irrigation or other works which might sensibly modify its flow into the Nile” or its “tributaries.” For instance, the May 15, 1902 Treaty regarding the Frontiers between the Anglo- Egyptian Sudan, Ethiopia and British Eritrea, restrained “His Majesty the Emperor Menelik II, King of kings of Ethiopia” from “construct[ing] or allow[ing]  to be constructed, any works across the Blue Nile, Lake Tsana or the Sobat,… except in agreement with his Britannic Majesty’s Government and the Government of the Sudan”.

The current legal and political controversy over the Nile water revolves around the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement (which guarantees disproportionately high volumes of Nile water (85 percent) to Egypt and gave Egypt the right to monitor the Nile flow in the upstream countries and veto powers on all Nile projects upstream) and the 1959 agreement between Britain and Egypt in regards to the use of waters of the River Nile for irrigation purposes which recognized “Egypt’s natural and historic rights in the waters of the Nile and its requirements of agricultural extension…”

A number of the upper-riparian states including Ethiopia, Tanzania and Burundi have rejected the validity of the 1929 Treaty and believe that they have the right to do whatever they choose with the water that flows through their boundaries (“Harmon Doctrine”). In 1964, the Government of Tanganyika openly disavowed the 1929 agreement (“Nyerere Doctrine” which asserts that a newly independent state has the right to “opt in” or selectively succeed to colonial treaties):  “The Government of Tanganyika has come to the conclusion that the provisions of the 1929 Agreement purporting to apply to the countries ‘under British Administration’ are not binding on Tanganyika.” On similar grounds, Uganda and Kenya subsequently rejected that agreement. Even Sudan has challenged the allocation ratio of the water it got under that agreement.

Ethiopia’s legal position on the various colonial treaties is explored in full in Gebre Tasadik Degefu’s authoritative work, The Nile: Historical, Legal and Developmental Perspectives (2003). Gebre Tasadik challenges the validity of the treaties on the grounds that “while Ethiopia’s natural rights in a certain share of the waters in its own territory are undeniable…, no treaty has ever mentioned them. This fact would be sufficient for invalidating the binding force of those agreements, which have no counterpart in favor of Ethiopia.” He also points out significant technical issues in the treaties. He suggests  that the “English version of the 1902 agreement obliged Ethiopia to seek prior accord with the united kingdom before initiating any works that might affect the discharge of the Blue Nile… The Amharic version does not oblige Ethiopia to request permission from the British Government…”

Others have argued that Ethiopia is not bound by the 1902 treaty with Britain because the “treaty never came into force as Britain did not ratify it and the Ethiopian government had rejected it in the 1950s”. Even if that treaty were valid, Britain is said to have violated its terms by “supporting and recognizing the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in violation of Article 60 of the 1902 agreement”. Technical interpretation of the relevant clauses of the 1902 treaty are also said to favor Ethiopia since that treaty “does not prohibit use of the Nile” but obliges Ethiopia “not to arrest of the Nile, which is interpreted to mean total blockage.”

The 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between Egypt and Sudan sought to give the two countries full control and utilization of Nile water by modifying certain aspects of the 1929 agreement. But that agreement completely ignored the interests of any of the upstream countries, particularly Ethiopia.

Egypt has refused to renegotiate the 84-year-old treaty and insist on the perpetual binding authority of the colonial era treaties as legal formalizations of Egypt’s historical and natural rights over the Nile water. They also insist that the international law of state succession makes the treaties made by colonial Britain binding on successor post-independence African states.

The general consensus among informed commentators is that the Nile treaties are not binding in perpetuity. They point to the inequitable elements of the various agreements on upper riparian states and the radical change in the scope of obligations under the agreements over the past eight decades to challenge the validity of the colonial era treaties.

The paramount question is not whether the Nile water dispute can be resolved in an international court of law or other tribunal but what political accommodations can be made by the basin states to equitably benefit their nations and strengthen their bonds of friendship. Equitable sharing of Nile water is necessary not only for regional stability and amity but also to meet the growing energy and food production needs of the populations of all Nile basin countries in the coming decades. There is no shortage of predictions of doom and gloom over the looming water scarcity worldwide. Over a decade ago, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan warned, “Fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future.” Insisting on the eternal validity and binding nature of the Nile water treaties is untenable and unreasonable.

The Nile Basin Initiative was established in 1999 to develop a scheme for the equitable distribution of water among the Nile basin countries. Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya have signed the Agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework (Entebbe Agreement). This agreement allows construction of projects that do not “significantly” affect the Nile water flow. Egypt has rejected the Agreement because it necessitates renegotiation of its share of the Nile water and surrender of its veto power guaranteed under the old agreements.

Water, water everywhere… and Meles’ “damplomacy” of brinksmanship

Whether there will be an actual “Grand Renaissance Dam” is the $5bn dollar question of the century. Because Egypt has been successful in pressuring multilateral development and investment banks not to fund the project, the regime in Ethiopia has defiantly forged ahead to fund the project itself. But is self-funding of the mother of all African dams a realistic possibility?

The regime has kept much of the details of the Dam behind smoke and mirrors. The regime claims that the dam is 14 percent complete (whatever that means) and will reach 26 percent completion by the end of 2013. When it comes online in 2015 as scheduled, the regime claims the dam will have the power generating capacity of nearly 6,000MW, much of it to be exported to the Sudan, Egypt and the Arabian peninsula.

But the whole “Grand Renaissance Dam” project is being staged in the theatre of the absurd. Is it possible to raise USD$5bn by 2015 from the people of the second poorest country in the world, the vast majority of whom live on less than USD$1? The dam is said to cost as much as the country’s total annual budget of USD$5bn. Is the largest recipient of international aid in Africa capable of raising multiple billions of dollars from its citizens for the Dam? Can a country which “lost US$11.7 billion to illicit financial outflows between 2000 and 2009” be able to undertake construction of a USD$5bn dam (unadjusted for cost overruns) on its own?  According to the World Bank, Ethiopia’s “power sector alone would require $3.3 billion per year to develop” in the next decade.  Can the regime in Ethiopia be able to build the largest dam in Africa and other energy projects resorting to such “desperate measures” as “musical concerts, a lottery and an SMS campaign to raise funds”? Can a country which the IMF describes as having “foreign reserves [that] have declined to under two months of import coverage” as of June 2012 really be able to build the largest dam in African history? Can a country whose external debt in 2012 exceeded USD$12bn be able to build a $5bn dollar project?

The regime has forged ahead to build the “Grand Renaissance Dam” by “selling bonds” domestically and in the Ethiopian Diaspora. The regime claims to have collected  USD$500 million from bond sales and “contributions” of ordinary citizens. Business and institutions have been forced to buy bonds. The regime’s Diaspora bond sales effort has been a total failure. Most Ethiopians in the Diaspora have been unwilling to bet on imaginary and speculative future earnings from operations of the dam because of the regime’s morbid secrecy and lack of transparency. They have little confidence in the regime’s capacity to guarantee their bond investments. For instance, current underpricing in power tariffs which have ranged between “$0.04-0.08 per kilowatt-hour are low by regional standards and recover only 46 percent of the costs of the utility.” That does not bode well for long term bond holders.

The regime in Ethiopia also has serious problems of cost overruns and poor project management in dam construction. For instance, the Tekeze hydroelectric dam on the Tekeze River, a Nile tributary, in northern Ethiopia was initially estimated to cost USD$224 million, but when it was completed seven years later in 2008, its cost skyrocketed to USD$360 million. How much the “Grand Renaissance Dam” will eventually cost, if built, is anybody’s guess.  Regime ineptitude and mismanagement of Gilgel Gibe II on the Omo River in February 2010 resulted in a “tunnel collapse [which] closed the largest hydropower plant operating in Ethiopia, only 10 days after its inauguration.”

To add insult to injury, the Meles regime has the gall to say that it intends to sell the power from the “Grand Renaissance Dam” to the Sudan, Egypt and the Arabian peninsula once construction is complete. That is not only nonsensical but downright insane! Why would Egypt or the Sudan buy power from a dam that damns them by effectively reducing their water supply for agriculture and their own production of power?

Meles and his disciples have always known that they do not have the financial capacity to complete the Dam. They also know that actually completing the constructing the dam will be dangerous for their own survival as a regime should regional war break out. But Meles has always been a peerless grandmaster of intrigue, machination, duplicity, one-upmanship and diplomatic gamesmanship. With this Dam, he was merely pushing the envelope to the outer limits. His real aim was not the construction of dam but to use the specter of the construction of a gargantuan dam on the Nile to fabricate fear of an imminent regional water war. His price for continued regional stability, avoidance of conflict and maintenance of the status quo would be billions in loans, aid and other concessions from the international community and downstream countries.

Meles’ diplomatic strategy shrouded a clever deterrent military strategy: If Egypt goes for broke and attacks the “Grand Renaissance Dam”, Ethiopia could retaliate by attacking the Aswan dam. Meles likely believed the threat of mutual assured destruction will prevent an actual war while maintaining extremely high levels of regional tensions. By playing a game of chicken with Egypt and the Sudan, Meles hoped to strong-arm donor and development banks and wealthy countries in the region into giving him financial, political and diplomatic support. There is no question Meles would have driven on a collision course with Egypt only to swerve at the last second to avoid a fatal crash had he been in power today. It is unlikely that Meles’ disciples have the intellectual candlepower (“megawattage”) or the sheer cunning and artfulness of their master to play a game of chicken with Egypt to skillfully extract concessions.

For love of white elephants and war of the damned

Water is a source of life. War is a source of death. The water of the Nile has given life to Ethiopians, Egyptians and the people of the Nile basin countries since time immemorial. If Meles prepared for war by building his dam, his disciples shall surely inherit war. But Meles should have reflected on the  words of Ethiopia’s poet laureate Tsegaye Gebremedhin before embarking on his “Grand Renaissance Dam” project: “O Nile, you are the music that restores the rhythm of existence…/ You are the irrigator that cultivate peace…/ …From my Ethiopia sacred mountains of the sun…”

Meles’ legacy could indeed be a water war of death and destruction on the Nile, but he will never have a cement monument built on the Nile to celebrate his life. Meles’ disciples would be wise to remember an old prophesy as they march headlong to build their doomsday dam on the Nile: “God gave Noah the Rainbow Sign: No more water. The fire next time!”

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

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