Just as his 30-month term in exile was about to end, the Sudanese politician Sadiq Al-Mahdi wrote a long article in an Egyptian newspaper entitled “Intellectual Blockages and the Riparian Dam”.
In it, he condemned Egypt for securing “exclusive advantages” in all Nile water agreements since 1902 and praised Ethiopia’s determination to build a mammoth dam, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), regardless of the provisions of international law regarding transboundary rivers which prohibit countries from undertaking hydraulic projects that could harm other countries sharing the same river and require upstream nations to obtain the approval of downstream ones before building dams.
Setting aside certain notions regarding the cultures of Sub-Saharan African nations, which reflect the biases and “intellectual blockages” that actually characterise the author of the article, this article will focus on responding to Al-Mahdi’s remarks regarding the Nile Basin countries.
First, he writes that “when Egypt and Sudan struck an agreement on the Nile water in 1959, they agreed on a bilateral mandate and refused to include the other countries.” This is misleading as there was no mandate or full control over the Nile to the exclusion of other partners in the 1959 agreement. Instead, it was based on a calculation of the average quantity of water that had crossed the border into Egypt per year over the preceding century.
Therefore, rather than the maximum amount, which came to 124 billion m3, the figure of 84 billion m3 was used as a benchmark. Moreover, it was Sudan that benefited the most from this, not Egypt, as Egypt was to bear the costs of building the Aswan High Dam, thus increasing Egypt’s share from 48 to 55.5 billion m3 and Sudan’s from four to 18.5 billion m3. On top of this, it was Egypt that was paying compensation to the Nubians on the Sudanese side of the border who would be displaced by the Aswan High Dam.
Al-Mahdi also omitted to mention in his article the fact that the agreement explicitly gave upstream nations the right to demand shares of Nile water in the future and that Egypt and Sudan would be prepared for any deductions in their quotas.
Second, Al-Mahdi’s claim that the construction of the Aswan High Dam marked the start of a “cold war” with the upper Nile Basin countries is not true. The dam did not reduce the shares of other Nile Basin countries. In fact, it tamed the Nile, forestalling the violent floods that could sometimes destroy entire villages and preventing billions of cubic metres of precious freshwater from going to waste in the Mediterranean Sea.
One might have thought that the Egyptian people were more deserving of that water than the Mediterranean, and that action to protect Egyptian villages from the threat of flooding was both essential and commendable. That was certainly the opinion of the UN experts who in response to Ethiopian complaints against Egypt praised the High Dam as one of the most useful projects of the 20th century. It saved vast amounts of precious freshwater from being lost to the sea, and there were no other countries downriver from Egypt that might have been harmed by the High Dam.
Curiously, Al-Mahdi, who condemns the High Dam, has no words of censure for the Ethiopian claim that the construction of the GERD on its territory is a “sovereign” act that does not require Addis Ababa to ask permission from any other country, in spite of the fact that the dam is being constructed on an international river over which Ethiopia does not enjoy absolute sovereignty to the exclusion of downriver partners. The High Dam, by contrast, is built on Egyptian territory, and there are no downriver nations, unless Al-Mahdi believes that a body of salt water is more deserving of the water of the Nile than Egypt.
Third, Al-Mahdi backs his support for the Ethiopian side with selective citations from Egyptian or Ethiopian officials. He says that former Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmi said in July 2016 that the Ethiopians had proposed building a smaller dam than the GERD, but that this had been rejected because of Egyptian “arrogance” and a lack of proper strategic assessment. He then cites news reports from last December to the effect that an Ethiopian minister in a press conference in Khartoum had offered Egypt and Sudan an opportunity to jointly manage, finance and benefit from the GERD, but that Khartoum and Cairo had snubbed the offer.
This is totally untrue, and the opposite is in fact the case. By December 2016, the construction of the GERD had already reached an advanced stage, and the talks were moving in the direction that Ethiopia wanted. Moreover, since 2011 Addis Ababa has consistently refused any notion of Egyptian or Sudanese partnership in funding or administering the dam. It has declared repeatedly that the GERD is “purely Ethiopian”, and it has made clear its determination to apply the principle of absolute national sovereignty even over shared natural resources, a notion opposed by the international community and international law because of the dangers of unilateral decisions.
If Egypt had rejected the purported offer, why did not Sudan accept it? In reality, this “offer” is simply a figment of his imagination. There is no truth in it whatsoever. Moreover, it is odd that Al-Mahdi should cite newspaper remarks without citing the source or the person quoted. The same applies to the remarks he attributed to the Egyptian foreign minister regarding Egypt’s “arrogance” and poor “strategic assessment” as long as he did not hear these words from the minister first hand and only picked them up from some newspaper that is probably at least as wrong as it is right.
The foreign minister in question was the best informed official Egypt had on the GERD and its repercussions on Egypt. He solicited the views of all the relevant experts in Egypt and listened to them one-by-one in the hope of reaching an understanding that was always likely to run up against Ethiopian intransigence — another subject on which Al-Mahdi has no words of criticism or censure.
ETHIOPIAN MOTIVATIONS: Fourth, Al-Mahdi does acknowledge that since 1997 Ethiopia has been contemplating revenge against Egypt for having constructed the High Dam and sharing the water in its reservoirs with Sudan.
Ethiopia apparently believes that the Mediterranean Sea is more deserving of the water of the Nile than the Egyptian people, as though an arid country at the end of the river does not have the right to retain the relatively small amounts of water that reach it in a manner that harms no one and wins UN praise.
Meanwhile, Al-Mahdi does not bother to ask Ethiopia how it is hurt by the High Dam. He does not wonder why Ethiopia, which insists on absolute sovereignty when it comes to itself and on the principle of common sovereignty when it comes to others, would not partner with Egypt and Sudan in constructing the Egyptian dam at the end of the river.
Is this because Ethiopia thinks it owns the Nile? Or does it think that it has the power to make the clouds pour forth rain? Does it think that Egypt dug the river’s bed from the borders of Ethiopia to the Mediterranean and that the Nile is not a natural resource that God has provided for all and not for the sovereign control of one country to use for itself or to sell to others? If this is how Ethiopia thinks, then surely it should compensate Egypt and Sudan for all the damage done and the lives that have been lost due to the uncontrollable floods before dams were built and for the lives lost and the misery caused by years of drought.
Fifth, Al-Mahdi claims that what the geologically and geographically separate countries at the Nile’s source (the Equatorial Great Lakes and the Ethiopian Highlands) have in common is their opposition to the 1959 agreement. This is also untrue. In fact, the opposition is to the whole collection of agreements, starting from the 1902 agreement, which was signed and later revoked by Ethiopia, and including the 1929 agreement between Egypt and the countries at the source of the White Nile.
Egypt had no problem with cancelling this latter agreement since any dams constructed there would actually benefit it. As the countries along the rivers that flow into Lake Victoria enjoy the agricultural, industrial, domestic and fishing resources of those rivers, they would be the first to be harmed by any dams. As for the Semliki River that flows into Lake Albert, which is shared by Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and which emerges from there to head into South Sudan, the purpose of any dams there would be to draw water from Lakes Victoria or Albert to power electricity generating turbines before moving on towards Sudan and Egypt.
Any dams there would be small, and they would not hold back or store water. They would allow the customary flow of the water, neither altering the nature of the Nile, stopping the annual floods, or changing the times that the water reached the countries downstream.
Sixth, it is not true that the division of resources that took place between North and South Sudan ignored water resources or that the revival of the Jonglei Canal Project to tap the water lost through the Sudd Wetlands would make 20 billion m3 a year available to the White Nile. The first phase of this project should provide no more than four billion m3, the second phase should bring it up to seven billion, and the third phase might possibly yield 17 billion m3. Moreover, Uganda and South Sudan have yet to even agree to the project.
In these Wetlands, ranked the largest swamp in the world, some 30 billion m3 of water is lost due to evaporation. But the South Sudanese value them because of their huge fish resources and the pastures they provide for animals. They can see no benefit in draining the Wetlands and transporting the water resources northwards with no compensation in sight in exchange for the development prospects offered to Egypt and North Sudan. There are also questions of ecological equilibrium and biodiversity, not to mention the fact that Al-Mahdi also overlooks the fact that Egypt would have to sustain the costs of the project, after which it would divide additions to the Nile water with North Sudan.
Seventh, it may indeed be true that countries such as Israel, China and Italy have been working to strengthen their relations with the countries at the sources of the Nile, in the absence of Egypt and the Arabs. But all countries have the right to conduct their international relations in the way that they believe best serves their national interests. They know that Arab aid to the countries of the sources of the Nile comes linked with conditions stipulating the right to proselytise and to build mosques, which is a condition these countries refuse.
Israeli and Chinese assistance is unconditional, and the Israelis have relaxed their previous convictions concerning their relations with these countries, whereas certain other countries apply extremist religious strictures when dealing with poorer countries and set all beliefs aside when dealing with the rich.
Eighth, in his proposals for a solution Al-Mahdi writes that only 4.5 per cent of Nile Basin water resources actually reach the Nile and that properly channelling the water that is dissipated in wetlands and swamps would increase this amount. This is an admission that Egypt and Sudan benefit from only 4.5 per cent of the river’s water resources and that 95.5 per cent is available to the source countries. Nevertheless, the upstream nations reject this division and refuse to factor in rainfall and the subterranean water resources regular replaced by rainfall in calculations of total water resources, insisting instead that quotas be worked out solely on the basis of the amount of water that flows between the Nile’s banks and reaches Sudan and Egypt.
This overlooks the sources of the river in such lakes as Lakes Victoria, Kyoga, Albert, Edward and Tana, and the fact that neither Egypt nor Sudan has a share in these waters or their abundant sources of wealth. Oil has also been found beneath Lake Albert, triggering disputes between Congo and Uganda and possibly jeopardising the safety of the water of the Nile in the future.
When voicing his proposals, Al-Mahdi apparently forgets that the Entebbe Agreement on the Nile explicitly states that the water in the wetlands is exclusively the property of the countries in which they are located and that these countries are responsible for preserving the ecological balance and diversity there. Clearly, the purpose of this provision was to block any possibility for Egypt and Sudan to tap the waters of the Sudd and Mashar Wetlands in South Sudan, or the marshes around Lakes Kyoga, Albert and Edward, or the marshes in the Bahr Al-Arab and Bahr Al-Ghazal in Sudan.
FURTHER POINTS: Ninth, Al-Mahdi in his article does not miss the opportunity to promote agricultural investment in Sudan to the exclusion of all other Nile Basin countries.
Sudan, both North and South, contains two-thirds of the cultivatable land in the Nile Basin countries, he says. This is not true. Tanzania alone has 90 million acres of cultivable land. Kenya has the second-largest amount, and North and South Sudan come next. In addition, agricultural investment requires water, energy, and land. Sudan is poor in water and in energy.
Tenth, Al-Mahdi writes that voting among the Nile Basin group of countries on constructing dams and hydraulic projects on the river is based on population ratios, with a vote for every 10 million people. This is very misleading. The Congo, for example, which contributes only the Semliki River with its four to six billion m3 of water per year, is densely populated. It also has the abundant Congo River which pours some 1,284 billion m3 a year of water into the Atlantic, which is 15 times more than the Nile (not 10, as Al-Mahdi says).
Congo’s 70 million people make up four per cent of the total number of inhabitants of the Nile Basin nations, but only about 2.6 per cent of them live in the Nile Basin itself. Ethiopia has a population of 94 million, but only 34 per cent live in the Nile Basin and make up 40 per cent of the total population of the river basin. Egypt has a population of 92 million people, 96 per cent of whom live in the Nile Basin. Surely logic dictates that voting should not be based on countries’ total populations, but on the number of inhabitants that actually live in the Nile Basin. But would this be acceptable to certain countries such as Ethiopia whose rivers contribute 85 per cent of the water of the Nile?
Eleventh, the constant blaming of Egypt for trying to take advantage of a farcical conference through a negotiating team from a regime that has since been deposed and was condemned at the time is a cheap and timeworn ploy to deceive and keep the country on the defensive. It does not alter the fact that international law and the requirements of national security give Egypt the right to avail itself of all the means necessary to safeguard its national water security, as long as others are deliberately intent on inflicting harm on it without moral or humanitarian compunction.
Twelfth, Al-Mahdi claims that storing water behind the GERD is better than storing it behind the Aswan High Dam. Here he is merely parroting Ethiopia’s scientifically dubious claim that 10 billion m3 of water is lost to evaporation in Lake Nasser, as opposed to no more than two billion m3 in the Ethiopian Highlands. But the GERD is being built near the border with Sudan, far away from any highlands and in fact in an area ranked as one of the hottest parts of Africa with summer temperatures climbing to over 55 C.
Wittingly or not, Al-Mahdi appears to have fallen for the Ethiopian ruse of claiming that this area is part of the Ethiopian Highlands rather than the lowlands. In addition, comparing evaporation rates behind the High Dam with those behind the GERD fails to factor in the dimensions, surface areas, and quantities of water in the two reservoirs. The comparison is unfair and invalid.
Thirteenth, Al-Mahdi admits in his article that Ethiopia could use the GERD in the future to withhold water from Egypt and Sudan in order to punish them for political disputes or as some kind of weapon. This is exactly why the UN has adopted laws to regulate international rivers and prevent upstream nations from building mammoth dams, such as the GERD which will be the largest dam in Africa and one of the 10 largest in the world.
Al-Mahdi had no words of condemnation for the Ethiopian breach of international law in order to secure control over the Nile. Evidently, he has not read the Ethiopian statements containing Addis Ababa’s three “no’s”: “no discussion on sharing water”; “no discussion on the reservoir capacity, height or other specifications of the dam”; and “no discussion on suspending work on the dam” until agreements can be reached on specifications.
Ethiopia has refused, both in the course of the negotiations and to the wider public, to pledge in writing that it will maintain the flow of the Blue Nile at the same rate as before the construction of the GERD (about 50 billion m3 of water a year). It is to be hoped that Al-Mahdi will take advantage of his role as the defender of Ethiopia to encourage it to sign such a written pledge, just as Egypt and Sudan signed the Declaration of Principles on the GERD, thereby officially recognising it. They did this before ensuring their quotas of water from an international river with regard to which Ethiopia deserves no credit for being situated at its source and Egypt deserves no blame for being situated at its estuary. Will Ethiopia now reciprocate this Egyptian trust?
Lastly, the idea of introducing water from the Congo River into the Nile has much in common with the Jonglei Canal Project. Egypt would have to bear all the financial costs of this and do all the negotiating, while Sudan would reap the benefits, as occurred with the High Dam when Sudan’s share increased by 14.5 billion m3 and Egypt’s share rose by only seven billion m3. This has not prevented Sudan from reverting to the habitual gripe that Egypt takes more than it gives, even though it was Egypt that introduced cotton and other strategic crops to Sudan and it was Egyptian irrigation engineers living in Sudan who designed the Jazira Project and built the network of canals that continue to serve our sister nation today.
OLD IDEAS: In the end, it should be pointed out that Al-Mahdi has published the ideas in his article many times before. He even brought them to the attention of the Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies last year, at which point there was an opportunity to discuss them with him face-to-face.
It was explained then that Ethiopia was building a huge dam to serve Ethiopian interests alone, and that neither Sudan nor any other country had anything to gain from it. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian tactic has been to inveigle Sudan by dangling before it not the GERD’s actual purpose, but its side effects such as holding back silt and preventing floods, which are things that all dams do.
Then there is the question of the repercussions of blocking the annual Nile floods that irrigate the land in the eastern Sudanese states of Kassala and Blue Nile and which serve to sustain non-irrigated agriculture for six months of the year. There are the repercussions of having to replace these with irrigation and drainage canals at the cost of billions, and the need to convert to irrigation agriculture, fertilisers, and insecticides, all of which will exact environmental and human health costs.
However, it seems that our brothers in Sudan have closed their ears to all such arguments. They are intent on promoting the Ethiopian Dam, more apparently to spite Egypt than to curry favour with South Sudan, even if at some level they are aware that as soon as Ethiopia feels strong enough its next inevitable step will be to occupy land in east Sudan and the Blue Nile and Kassala states, adding to Gedaref which Ethiopia already occupies even if the Sudanese have forgiven it for doing so.
The future of Sudan lies with Egypt, and with Egypt alone. We should think of Egyptian-Sudanese rights as inseparable and stop considering what might work for one side to the exclusion of the other.
The writer is a professor of soil and water sciences at Cairo University’s Faculty of Agriculture.