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The Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam and its Dilemma: Yesterday and Today

by addisinsight

By Getachew

The Blue Nile River streaming from Ethiopia takes up 85 percent of the total amount of the Nile River. For centuries, the Blue Nile River erodes the Ethiopian fertile high and low lands and flows from its beginning to the Mediterranean Sea.

Neither the Ethiopian community living alongside the Blue Nile nor the government collected benefit from it. That being the fact, Ethiopians praise the Blue Nile and sing for its greatness, but in return, the river goes silent and useless and in the worst case, it even kills them. Henceforth, it is an everyday aspiration of the Ethiopian people to see one day that this legendary river could be used and provides them with food, electricity and ultimately serves them as a leeway for a glooming life.

Most importantly, since the announcement of the construction of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam in 2011, the Dam is considered to be a big shift forward and a hope for Ethiopian food and energy security.

Attempts in the past to build a dam at the Blue Nile by the former Ethiopian regimes had failed for so many reasons. On the one hand, treaties concluded among the downstream countries, between Sudan and Egypt in 1929 and 1959 to the exclusion of Ethiopia had restricted Ethiopia from pushing a measure and a strict agenda to utilize the Blue Nile River.  The 1902 treaty on Blue Nile River which was concluded between the British colonial administration in Sudan and Egypt and Emperor Menelik of Ethiopia was a perplexing impediment for Ethiopia.

One argument in the debate regarding the Dam was that the former two treaties cannot bind Ethiopia without Ethiopia’s willingness and its participation to be bounded by it. The second treaty, which was signed in 1902, cannot be enforced for the reason that, it has the discrepancy of meaning in its English and the Ethiopian Amharic (Ethiopia’s official language) versions. The Amharic phrase of the treaty does not affect Ethiopia’s interest to utilize the Blue Nile. The other argument speaks against the unbalanced/unjust power relationship between the two parties meaning the colonial power England and Ethiopia to make a free and fair contractual bargain. Therefore, both treaties do not reflect a consensual deal.

Particularly, even after Egypt’s independence in 1922, historically there were hard and threatening rhetoric against Ethiopia by the presidents of Egypt in case Ethiopia attempts to reduce a single drop of Blue Nile water. The Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) was known for his support to oppositions in Somalia who were fighting for irredentist reasons against Ethiopia. In the following times in 1979, President Anwar Sadat (1918-1981) proclaimed that “the only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water”. Pursuantly, an attempt to reduce a single amount of the river would mean a threat to national security for Egypt and historical use rights and hence, it justifies a military measure. President Mohammed Morsi, who took power immediately after the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak through Arab revolution, proclaimed in 2013 that“ all options are open” against any threat on the Nile river. The current Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on his part considers water as a matter of „life and death” but he seems to follow more of a diplomatic kind of relationship, unlike his predecessors.

Throughout the past centuries, Egypt’s rulers had attempted to control the upper Nile basin forcefully, however, in no time had they succeed to prevail over Ethiopians. Therefore, the pharaohs had to give the Ethiopian kings endowments for Ethiopia not to curve the Nile River. Currently, Egypt expands its military gradually to Ethiopia’s neighboring countries Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea to make pressure on Ethiopia.

The other point that can be traced as a reason for Ethiopia’s failure to utilize the Blue Nile river, was Ethiopia’s internal political instability as well as economic and defense incapability. Indeed, until now the political unrest in Ethiopia continues to unfold and shrink the fresh booming and few ruling elites controlled economy.

Irrespective of this escalated tension between the two nations, it is worth to mention the tripartite agreement between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt for a fair utilization of Nile basin in 2015. The Nile River is transboundary and therefore subject to international law. International law prescribes for a fair utilization of transboundary River by upper stream countries without affecting the legitimate interest of the downstream countries. Ethiopia purports in this context that the Dam will not affect the downstream countries adversely.

Irrespective of all the controversies, the good news is that there is today a great national project on Nile River in Ethiopia, which requires more than 4 Billion Dollars. Besides loan agreements with donors, Ethiopians from all corners of the country and the world are contributing heavily to the final realization of the Dam be it voluntarily or involuntarily. For many Ethiopians, the Renaissance Dam is a matter of national pride.

The uncertainty attached to the Dam, albeit, is a question who legitimately can claim the ownership of the Dam, especially, given the current form of ethnic federalism and the unconditional nations, nationalities and people’s right to self-determination up to succession as provided under Article 39 (1) of the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Republic Constitution. Ethiopia has nine federal regional states. The state in which the Dam is being constructed is Benishangul Gumuz. Similarly, well knowing clearly the fact that this regional state may use its constitutional separation right after fulfilling the conditions prescribed by the constitution, it is questionable how it makes sense for the rest of Ethiopians to have a full sense of ownership and confidence on the Dam.

Ethiopia is considered to be one of the few countries in the world to abode the external succession right in its constitutional framework.  The constitution says, the succession can take place after a formal application is made and a referendum is prepared in the regional state under question. Afterwards, a transfer of power will be made to the regional council and finally, the divisions of properties come into place.

Differently, under international law the external succession right was applied as the right to self-determination in the sense of internal self-determination and the right to separation as a defense for internal mal-administration does not have an acceptance. In this regard, the 1966 civil and social pacts confer people to have the rights to internal self-administration. The external self-determination has been considered within large category of political affairs and has been largely left to the respective domestic legal landscape of countries.

At this point, the current constitutional construct of Ethiopia created a fertile political ground for a potential legitimate disintegration quest based on the right to self-determination up to succession. Leaving such a concrete threat aside, at the same time, the Ethiopian constitution wants to create a common countrywide economy. Such a paradox reduces people’s trust in the constitution and its promises. Therefore, I often ask myself about the sense of ownership of the Ethiopian people on the Grand Renaissance Dam, though the answer remains blurred.

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