How and Why has the Ethiopian Strategy on the Renaissance Dam Succeeded?

By: Aisha Braima

KHARTOUM (SUDANOW)-- As we have mentioned in the previous article "Limelight on the Declaration of Principles on the Renaissance Dam " on March 25, 2015, the three member states of the Eastern Nile Basin, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, signed on Monday, March 23,2015, an agreement on the Renaissance Dam. The agreement was signed by the leaders- Haile Meriam Desalegn, Omar al-Bashir, Abdul Fattah Sisi- themselves, nor by the Water or Foreign Ministers, emphasizing the importance the three countries attach to the deal. In the previous article we have discussed the 10 points the agreement contained which mainly reflected full acceptance by Egypt and Sudan of construction of the Renaissance Dam after four years of sharp disputes and altercation.
As we have promised in that article, we will try here to answer the question: How and why has the Ethiopian strategy on the Renaissance Dam succeeded?
Ethiopia has relied in its strategy on the fairness of its cause as it is the source of 86% of the Nile water while it uses only 1% of that Nile water. Yet it continued undergoing successive famines, especially those of 1983-85 which claimed about a million lives, in addition to the crushing poverty the Ethiopian people are suffering from.
Ethiopia also relied on the international law principles which include the fair and reasonable use of the common Basin water. Ethiopia repeatedly made reference to the 1959 Nile Water Agreement and to opposition by Egypt and Sudan to its participation in the negotiations and to division of the Nile water between them (Egypt and Sudan), leaving not a single drop of that water to any one of the other Nile Basin member states. That agreement included a provision obligating any other member state which intends to use any quantity of the water to submit a request to Egypt and Sudan which would either approve or reject the request, Ethiopia remembered. In case they approve the request, Egypt and Sudan would determine the quantity to be used by the applicant state and their Joint Technical Commission would see to it that the granted quantity would not exceeded. Ethiopia repeatedly complained in international conferences and workshops against the exclusiveness and arrogance of this provision which contradicted the international law and logic and the simplest rules of justice. Ethiopia continuously repeated that its use of the Nile water was not for consumption but only for generation of electricity, bearing in mind that after the generation process, the water returns to the river course and continues flowing to the Sudan and Egypt, causing no harm to these two countries. This Ethiopian explanation was highly acceptable and acknowledged by the international forums but justifiability alone would not win the cause. The Ethiopian strategy therefore included other elements.
One of the significant elements which helped Ethiopia was the political stability that prevailed in comparison with the past regimes as a result of the end of wars with Eritrea and Somalia and within Ethiopia. It embarked on an ambitious economic programme which raised the rate of growth to approximately 10%. This programme included generation of hydro-electric power from Omo River (which is not part of the Nile Basin). Ethiopia succeeded in building four electricity generation projects on that river and began exporting power to Djibouti and Sudan. Then it concluded contracts with Kenya and South Sudan for selling the electricity. Thus the star of the Plateau began to rise politically and economically, ending years of famine, aridity and drought which characterized Ethiopia's international image.
Then Ethiopia relied in its Renaissance Dam strategy on the element of surprise and on determining the suitable time. It began preparations for building the Dam quietly and on an early date (the beginning of 2010), then it surprised the world by declaring the start of construction of the Dam at a time when Egypt entirely busy with the January 2011 Revolution, then it announced the start of the actual construction by the end of March 2011, a few weeks after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak and before formation of Isam Sharaf's government which succeeded Mubarak's government. Ethiopia declared the start of work on the Dam only three days afterwards and before Egypt and Sudan recover from the surprise.
The work on construction of the Dam began without hesitancy or slowness, engaging since the start about 8,000 engineers, technicians, employees and workers. The surprise and timing caused a great confusion within the Egyptian and Sudanese circles, with the new Egyptian government still undergoing the process of establishment and the Sudanese one split from the start to supporters and opponents to the Dam, creating a state of confusion in Sudan similar to the one experienced by the brothers north of the Valley.
The third element of the strategy was the time during which Ethiopia benefitted from the instability that prevailed in Egypt by working round the clock on the Dam to make of it an undisputed de facto to Egypt, Sudan and the world. The work went on rapidly and incessantly and in accordance with the timetable that was set by government from the outset. Then Ethiopia diverted the course of the Blue Nile on May 28, 2013, i.e., three days ahead of submission of the report of the committee of experts, declaring to the entire world that the Dam and the decision of its construction became an undisputed fact that could not be reversed. The state of confusion in Egypt was obvious in discussion at a meeting called by former President Mohamed Morsy which was broadcast live to the world without awareness by the participants. The talk during that meeting about the use of military force against Ethiopia and the Renaissance Dam which was viewed and heard by the whole world resulted in an enormous sympathy with Ethiopia as the world of today calls for cooperation and negotiation on disputes over international water and other issues and nobody would like to see a war over dams in the Nile Basin.
The fourth element of Ethiopia's strategy was reliance of the country's own resources and contributions by the Ethiopian people to the cost of the Dam which is close to 5 billion dollars. Ethiopia has succeeded in making it an issue of national pride just like what Egypt has done in connection with the High Dam in the 1950s-60s. The Ethiopian media incessantly transmitted national songs presenting the Dam as a leap from poverty, famine and backwardness by using the Nile water the major portion of which flows from Ethiopia. Donations poured and bonds were purchased for financing the Dam by the Ethiopians at home and in the Diaspora, both rights and leftists, Muslims and Christians, civilians and military, government and opposition and the numerous Ethiopian nationalities of diverse ethnicities, cultures, religions and languages, even a number of non-Ethiopians. Egypt betted on failure by Ethiopia to secure the huge funds required for the project from its own sources and expected the work on the Dam would stop at any time due to lack of the needed funds. Egypt in the past used its diplomatic muscles and its ties with the West to block financing projects of dams in anyone of the member states of the Nile Basin, including Sudan. It was obvious that Ethiopia has properly absorbed this lesson of the history of the Nile Basin and, from the outset, decided not to explore foreign assistance and to depend on its own resources which Egypt doubted would be sufficient to meet the tremendous cost of the Dam. But over time, Egypt lost the bet and the Ethiopian self-reliance policy proved a success.
The fifth element of the Ethiopian strategy was presentation of the Dam issue in the international forums, conferences and workshops as a fair cause based on the fair and reasonable use of water in accordance with the international law and depends of cooperation with Egypt and Sudan. During the first months of the construction, Ethiopia offered partnership with Egypt and Sudan in the financing, ownership and administration of the Dam, but Egypt and Sudan ignored this generous offer which gave Ethiopia an appearance of a cooperative state and strengthened its arguments in the international forums. Ethiopia continued presenting in those forums its offers which were based on cooperation and selling electricity to Egypt and Sudan at the cost price in addition to storing the water for the interest of the Sudan. It continued repeating the other benefits which Egypt and Sudan would gain from the Renaissance Dam and from the tripartite cooperation. Both Egypt and Sudan were noticeably and continuously absent from the international forums, something which weakened their arguments in those forums.
The Ethiopian presentation and the Egyptian-Sudan absence earned the Ethiopian position a tremendous international sympathy which, in turn, resulted in failure by Egypt to get support by any state to its position of opposing construction of the Renaissance Dam and even the Arab states kept silent towards this dispute. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia dismissed its Deputy Defense Minister Emir Khalid bin Sultan from his office for criticizing the construction of Renaissance Dam at a meeting of the Arab water council in November 2013 because Saudi Arabia did not want to be party to this dispute. European nations and China continued offering their contributions to building the Renaissance Dam while the Italian Salini company is engaged in building the Dam, Swiss, French and British firms competed in selling to Ethiopia the mechanical equipment of the Dam and China commenced stretching power supply lines across Ethiopia. Thus, a world-wide acceptance of the Renaissance Dam and Ethiopia's right to development by using the Nile water were obvious to Egypt and Sudan and so was the world-wide non-acceptance of the Egyptian-Sudanese position which was opposed to the Dam.
The Ethiopian strategy created a remarkable state of confusion within both Egypt and Sudan and instead of responding to an argument with a counter-argument by technicians and experts who are conscious of what they say and write, the discussion was characterized by bellowing and buffoonery and a number of Egyptian journalists turned into international experts of water, irrigation and law and even earthquakes, while the technicians vanished and most of the wise people and experts maintained silence.
As we have indicated, the Sudan and Egypt absented themselves from the international forums which discussed and were discussing issues of the Nile water and Renaissance Dam. "The neo-international experts" in Egypt and Sudan thought articles and television interviews in Cairo and Khartoum would stop construction of the Renaissance Dam. In the meantime, Ethiopian and international experts published articles, in three international periodicals specialized in water and development issues, supporting and explaining Ethiopia's right to constructing the Renaissance Dam and the benefits Egypt and Sudan would gain from this Dam.
Meanwhile, not a single article was published by an Egyptian or a Sudanese expert or any expert of another nationality criticizing the Renaissance Dam and not a single Egyptian or a Sudanese person turned up in the international forums to explain and defend the Egyptian-Sudanese position in opposition to the Dam. And while the Ethiopian experts continued presenting research papers in international conferences, publishing articles in international academic periodicals on water issues and analyzing the fairness of their cause in those international conferences, the neo international experts in Egypt and Sudan continued delivering noisy statements within Egypt and Sudan. One of those statements predicted that the Renaissance Dam would cause an earthquake which would split the Kaaba asunder.
While Egypt was threatening to launch a military attack against the Dam, Ethiopia was talking about cooperation and offering to sell electricity to Egypt and Sudan at a cost price.
Concurrently, two important international reports on the Nile Basin were completed and published. The first report was made by a group of international experts on request by the Water ministers of the eastern Nile Basin countries themselves in 2008. It emphasized the importance of cooperation among the three states, making use of the tremendous hydro-electric power in Ethiopia, irrigation in Sudan and the food industry potential in Egypt. The second report was issued by the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) in November 2014, stressing Ethiopia's right to utilizing the Nile water for development purposes and calling for cooperation and benefitting from the hydro-electric power generated at the Renaissance Dam by coordination of operation of the Renaissance Dam and High Dam and remedying the deficiency in the dam auxiliary to the Renaissance Dam. This latter report was prepared by competent and unbiased international water resources experts, including experts in the Nile water. The two reports were treated with a great measure of confusion in Khartoum and Cairo while Addis Ababa was very happy with their contents and recommendations. These two reports, alongside the Egyptian-Sudanese confusion, supported and fortified the Ethiopian strategy very much.
The Egyptian-Sudanese confusion towards the Renaissance Dam and the Ethiopian strategy was conspicuous from the outset and amplified during the seven tripartite water ministerial meetings starting from November 2011 until March 2015. Egypt and Sudan declared their unequivocal and decisive objection to the Dam in 2011. The two countries then asked Ethiopia to supply them with technical and environmental studies for assessment of the effects of the Dam on them. Then they consented to taking part in the international committee of experts whose mandate was limited to considering the negative effects of the Dam on the Sudan and Egypt, signaling an implicit acceptance of the Dam by Egypt and Sudan. Then they demanded in November 2013 suspension of construction of the Dam pending completion of the studies which were recommended by the committee of experts. At that time, the Ethiopian electric current reached Sudan for the first time, underscoring the benefits of the Dam to the Sudan and persuading the latter to reverse its position and support the construction of the Renaissance Dam as announced by the President of the Republic himself on December 4, 2013, invalidating statements by the "neo international experts" who were opposed to the Dam. The Ethiopian strategy thus succeeded in making a sharp fracture in the Egyptian-Sudanese water alliance which dated back to 1959 upon conclusion of the Nile Water Agreement. This crack in the Egyptian-Sudanese alliance was a remarkable accomplishment of the Ethiopian strategy. Egypt then changed its mind and drew back its demand of suspension of construction of the Dam pending completion of the studies at a meeting of President Sisi and Desalegn in Malabo, capital of Equatorial Guinea, on the sidelines of the African summit of June 2014. The construction of the Dam continued despite the Egyptian bet on Ethiopia's failure to secure the required funding and more than 40% of the work was finished. It has now become obvious that the Renaissance Dam has become a de facto that cannot be denied or disputed, while Egypt's isolation began to increase each day. These facts and backdrops (which have demonstrated the success of the Ethiopian strategy) paved the way for the March 23, 2015 agreement.
Cooperation proved to be the basic and sole condition for benefitting from the water of any common source. This truth was repeatedly proven throughout history. The four nations of the Senegal River (Senegal, Mauretania, Mali and Guinea) built two dams (Maka-Diama and Manantaly) on the Senegal River. Those four nations share the benefits of electricity and irrigation and potable water in addition to putting an end to the floods. Brazil and Paraguay built Itaipu Dam on Parana River to generate hydro-electric power for the two countries for consumption and selling the surplus to Argentina. The 10 states of Niger River jointly administer the River through the joint commission and that River earns them a lot of benefits, particularly navigation, besides averting floods. As we have repeatedly mentioned, the word "cooperation" was mentioned 15 times in the UN Convention on International Water-Courses, which came into effect on August 17, 2014 and which 36 nations have so far signed, is based on the principle of cooperation.
With a considerable measure of cooperation, the Renaissance Dam could have been a substitute to both the High Dam and Er-Rossairis Dam and could have spared the Sudan the catastrophes caused by construction of the High Dam which sank Wadi Halfa city, 27 villages, 200,000 feddans (acres) of fertile lands, other lands of the same acreage which could have reclaimed and over a million fruit-bearing date palm and citrus trees in addition to relocation of more than 50,000 Sudanese Nubians. It could have also spared Egypt similar disasters which included coercive relocation of more than 70,000 Egyptian Nubians and inundating vast fertile lands of which Egypt is in need of any span. If it was built in 1959, the Renaissance Dam could have brought about what has been achieved by the High Dam and Er-Rossairis Dam in terms of electricity, irrigation water and aversion of floods, not to mention the social and environmental catastrophes and the high cost of the two dams, but this could not be achieved due to the absence of cooperation. The Renaissance Dam could have been a joint venture by the three countries in terms of ownership, administration and benefits, as was generously proposed by Ethiopia in 2011 but Egypt and Sudan ignored this offer which has now become outdated.
The Ethiopian strategy, which was skillfully handled by competent experts, has succeeded in underlining the importance of cooperation which the strategy has turned into a status quo policy. Ethiopia, through an integrated strategy and programme, has succeeded in making the Renaissance Dam a de facto frankly accepted by Egypt and Sudan in a document that was signed by the leaders of the two countries on March 23, 2015. The two countries took a further step by agreeing in the same document to purchase the electricity which will be generated by the Dam. However, this newborn cooperation should cover all the eleven member states of the Nile Basin and should emphasized and consolidated by the Sudanese and Egyptian acceptance of the Nile Basin Entebbe Agreement which is based on cooperation and joint benefits and which does not provide for division of the Nile water as disseminated by some people. This cooperation constitutes the sole way for ridding the peoples of Nile Basin, who exceed 250 million in number, from backwardness, poverty, hunger, darkness and thirst which prevail in many parts of the Basin and which multiply each day in proportion to the increase of the population of the Nile Basin.


Sudanow is the longest serving English speaking magazine in the Sudan. It is chartarized by its high quality professional journalism, focusing on political, social, economic, cultural and sport developments in the Sudan. Sudanow provides in depth analysis of these developments by academia, highly ...


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