Ethiopia: Red Lines, Green Banana Trees: Same Playbook Different Plays for Egypt

By Dr.Teshome Abebe

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March 22, 2014

If the worth of a project were in direct proportion to the support it received from the stakeholders, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) would be a huge success. But the GERD is much more than just a project. It is rather a reminder of what happens when you combine talent and vision wrapped around a good dose of national ambition. In this regard, the reward for work well done and a vision attained is an opportunity to do even more.

Much has been said and written about the GERD both from supporters as well as from those that oppose it. Yes, there are even some well-meaning Ethiopian nationals who believe the money spent on the project could be better utilized for other urgent needs of the country. I would never question the motive of such an assertion, as there is an enormous opportunity cost the country would incur by deploying scarce resources it could ill-afford. This sort of reasoning, however, is short sighted. There was robust opposition to the construction of the Hoover Dam in the United States at the time based purely on the financial cost alone. Today, the Dam has become the lifeline for many downstream, and generates hundreds of billions of dollars in yearly revenue. The construction of the GERD is estimated to cost around $5 billion in today’s dollars. If we take this same amount of money at the current bank rate of seven per cent and assume a period of 60 years from now—roughly the average life expectancy of an Ethiopian child born today—the value would cumulatively add up to $289,730,000,000. This explains, partly, why Ethiopians do not see the GERD as just another project. It would take approximately more than 13 years and a rate of growth of an unthinkable 36% per year at the level of Ethiopia’s GDP of 2012 to get to that number.

But of all the inexplicable opposition to the GERD, the voices being heard from Egypt are the most intractable. There is no hiding the fact that Egypt would as soon not see the progress of the GERD in line with its long opposition to the development of the Nile Basin countries, particularly Ethiopia. This opposition has been documented time and again, and it is not necessary to repeat them here. Suffice it to state as bizarre the most recent declaration by some within Egypt that they would plant the entire Sudanese and Egyptian deserts with green banana tress to create so much rainfall that it would render the GERD useless. In addition to this, there are now new claims, as absurd and inexplicable, as they are, that Egypt is entitled to a third of Ethiopian territory along with the entire territory of the country of Uganda! The declaration of Egypt’s Irrigation Minister Mr. Mahmoud Abdel-Muttalib that Egypt’s water share is a “redline” that Egypt won’t allow to be crossed is definitely a non-starter at best and jingoistic at worst. The old wisdom “hem your blessings with thankfulness so they don’t unravel” appears very timely and appropriate here.

I am not a law scholar and do not claim to represent any thorough understanding of all the agreements that Ethiopia has entered into regarding the Nile. There are essentially two—just two—agreements that Ethiopia has entered into: the 1902 agreement signed by Emperor Menilik II, and what I understand to be a Memorandum of Understanding the late Prime Minister Meles Zenzwi signed with Mubarak in 1993. Menilik’s concession was that Ethiopia will not attempt to stop the flow of the waters from Lake Tana, and Meles’ agreement with Mubarak was that the two countries will do no appreciable harm to one another, and that the Nile will be used in an equitable manner. I have not examined this latest agreement, but the interpretation I have provided above is essentially what the Egyptians are also repeating. All in all, Ethiopia’s past leaders have been very cautious in their vision of the future of the Nile, incredibly prescient in the agreements they entered into, but perhaps a bit too generous in their accommodation of the down stream countries, seemingly inviting some ridicule from time to time. At any rate, it is precisely because past generations of Ethiopians refused to give up their rights on such an important strategic resource that the current government has been dealt a very strong hand on the issue. And, I do not for one second contemplate that the current generation will be the first to renounce its nature-endowed rights. Let it be known now and henceforth that Ethiopia had not developed its rivers in the past due to the lack of resources and not because of some obligation under a treaty.

The current disagreement over the GERD is a technical one. Ethiopia does not have a political, military or border disagreement with Egypt. In fact, Ethiopia has continued to be generous both with its goodwill as well as its accommodation of Egypt’s understandable anxiety over the dam and the Nile. But what ought to be clear as well is that Ethiopia has no legal responsibility to Egyptians to provide them with plenty of water to use or even waste. Ethiopia, as a member of the human race, has only a humanitarian obligation. All other obligations, should they exist, must be obligations that it had entered into willingly and freely.

Water, Irrigation and Energy Minister of Ethiopia, Ato Alemayehu Tegenu has been very explicit in his representation of the Ethiopian position time and again. A very soft-spoken and highly focused man, he has had to deal with a number of representatives from the Egyptian side as the country kept changing governments risking having to negotiate with himself. In my view, Ato Alemayehu, along with others in the Ethiopian government, appears to be rendering the Egyptian attempt at a credible response on the subject a desperate, flailing heave when he recently said that they don’t even glance at what is coming out of Egypt. That is as it should be.

I am not at all dismissing all the possible responses that we might yet see from the Egyptian side. Their relatively myopic foreign policy framework regarding Ethiopia may have worked reasonably well in the past. But they are unlikely to work in a world environment where there is profound change taking place in regional integration, and ambitious plans for economic growth and accelerated development are the agenda. What is necessary instead, is both a behavioral and structural adaptation to the rapid changes taking place.

Continuous dilatory questions being raised by the Egyptians include: Is Ethiopia capable of funding the building of the dam? And, are the gains to be realized from the dam going to be sufficient enough to undertake the project? Obviously, only the Ethiopian government can respond to these questions. In any event, the question of whether the Ethiopians have the necessary funds to build the GERD is a question that should be asked of the Government of Ethiopia by its people. The government of Ethiopia is accountable to its people, and only the people of Ethiopia are entitled to ask that question. Furthermore, the question regarding the returns is one that should be asked by the Ethiopian people of their government as well. I do believe, however, that the Ethiopians must have been satisfied with their own calculations of the return assessments in connection with this particular project. Finally, there is the question of whether the dam will reduce the amount of water flowing to Egypt. From everything I have seen, the Ethiopian side has said that the dam will not significantly affect Egypt’s share. I believe that is also the conclusion of the international committee of experts that was set up by the three countries, and which Egypt has yet to accept. In Egypt itself, there are scientific voices, like that of Associate Professor of Engineering Haytham Mamdouh, who have concluded that the construction of GERD will have beneficial effects for both Egypt and Sudan, including an increased flow of water to Egypt itself.

It is understandable that there is some anxiety on the part of Egypt about the amount of water it needs. It is also understandable that the Ethiopians wish to develop their resources so as to be able to provide for a growing population. The forefathers died dreaming about how they could tame the Nile and put it to use. The new generation has found its own dreams, and it is based on the promise of technological progress that has trumped obstacles to economic growth and development. As a result, and assuming that all life is equal, a proposition which I am sure the Egyptian side will accept, the task at hand is to try and understand the aims and aspirations of each side so as to enable both sides to anticipate new and higher possibilities for their two peoples. That is what I think will happen at the end of the day for none of us can contemplate the alternative. As they say, the difference between an amateur and a professional is that a professional knows that he can make only one mistake!

The Way Forward

All of us have a responsibility to help build a bridge on the best ways to achieve real understanding between the peoples and governments of Ethiopia and Egypt.

I believe real understanding between people and governments is possible when you put aside suspicion and distrust and open your self up for new possibilities.

An environment in which one is contemptuous and the other disinterested narrows possibilities and options. As a result, both sides need to think about higher aspirations so as to begin unifying the two peoples. The Ethiopian people have a high respect for the people of Egypt– Egyptians have taught their children, Egyptians have even mentored some of their professors, engineers and doctors. Besides the umbilical cord that connects the two peoples—the Nile, our Umm Duunya—they also have both cultural and temperamental similarities. The fulfillment of Egypt’s ambitions with regard to its development and well-being is viewed as inspiring by the average Ethiopian. Perhaps it is time that Egyptians began to feel the same way about their brethren upstream as well. The people to people dialogues that began many months ago but have since been discontinued were a good beginning.

Teshome Abebe is Professor of Economics.


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