The Counter Hydro-Hegemonic Strategy and GERD – Under Threat


By- YUSUF ALI MOHAMMED                                                                                             


The world is endowed with so much more trans-boundary water river. Among those, the east Africa’s Nile River, which stretches 6,825 km across 11 riparian states all the way to Mediterranean sea, is not only considered the longest river on [earth], but also one of the most contentious one. Throughout the centuries, it was in recent memory that because of the failed most contentious US brokered negotiation over a particular Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), among the most key player of Nile river basin – Ethiopia, Egypt & Sudan –, issue has reached its pick and become the regional security crises. Again, Egypt’s recent move in taking the matter to the US, Arab league, UN Security Council adds a fuel to the existing already burning Nile Basin dispute. Having the latter move, the author tried to analyze the matter from the wider perspective of the Nile Hydro hegemony and its counter Hydro-hegemonic movement in general, and the motive behind the GERD construction alongside it’s threat over counter Hydro-Hegemonic strategy will be scrutinized in the following sections.

Downstream’s Hydro-Hegemony

Surprisingly, the very country which has zero percent contribution to the flow of the Nile River, were utilizing the river exclusively for decades and centuries simply by carrying the Greek historian Herodotus slogan – Egypt the ‘gift of the Nile, while those upstream countries, especially the 85% contributor Ethiopia, that are considered – the ‘mother’ of Nile water, have been disregarded in whatsoever case not to use a single drop of it for whatsoever purpose. 

It is not dubious to say the life and death of Egypt majorly rely on the Nile River. It is also the unquestionable right to share a Nile natural water resource among all Nile riparian states in equitable and reasonable manner is very essential. However, Egypt’s exclusive utilization of Nile River, for centuries, without considering the right of other riparian states with self-centered mentality was observed.

In the history of trans-boundary watercourse relation, Egypt is considered, surprisingly, the only down-stream positioned country which exercises hydro-hegemonic power over the upstream states. Though the scenario is changing now, Egypt used to, and still is using, its self-centered hydro-hegemonic power over the other Nile riparian states – as it possess ‘exploitation potential’ and ‘power’.

Hydro-Hegemony Tactics 1 – Exploitation Potential

When we take a look at the exploitation potential of downstream riparian states, it is quite obvious down riparian states were in no way comparable to Egypt as the later state was so capable with respect to human power and financial resources. Accordingly, Egypt have been utilizing the Nile River in its high level of capacity so as to meet its own social, economic & political need by [to mention some] building a number huge dam like Aswan High Dam (AHD), produce a huge amount of electric city, engage in a high teach agricultural programs, transform in to a tourist attraction industry on Nile valley.

For obvious reason, it was a sad coincidence for the upper riparian Nile Basin states as they had no necessary know-how and financial ability to utilize the Nile water resource within their respective boundary. Now these days, however, these upstream countries are about to change this reality as they are under pulling and pushing factor so that no option but to share the Nile water resource in equitable and reasonable with downstream countries.

Hydro-Hegemony Tactics 2 – Power

It is quite clear in every aspect that power has a vital role in international law and relation. This is also a fact for our Nile case at hand as the down riparian states, mainly Egypt, use power driven strategies like – ‘covert action’, ‘coercion pressure’, ‘international support and financial mobilization’ and ‘tactic-full treaties’ to maintain its hydro-hegemonic power over Nile.

Accordingly, with the aim of controlling and annexing the Nile from its origin “Egypt invaded Ethiopia in the [early] 18th and 19th centuries”, but instead “…suffered successive defeats by Ethiopia”. Even in this 20th century of diplomacy, where war is a destructive obsolete tactic, a number Egyptian leader threaten to wage war on the other riparian states, mainly targeting Ethiopia.

In relation to financial mobilization by the upstream countries, we can perceive Egypt’s influence via key United Nation Agencies like World Bank, African Development Bank and other International Organization on the upper Nile riparian States, not to be funded for the projects that they intend to implement alongside Nile River.

Upstream’s Counter Hydro-Hegemony

To change the then Great British colonial narration and Egypt-Sudan monopolization over Nile water resource, by using their geographical power “the upper Nile riparian states… resort to a number of counter-hegemony strategies” to neutralize the negative impact of down riparian states hydro-hegemony. In this vein, the prominent one that deserves an attention is the Cooperative Framework Agreement. The construction of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam [GERD] is also another major breakthrough that is extremely challenging the hydro-hegemonic status quo of the down riparian states, mainly that of Egypt.

Counter Hydro-Hegemony Tactics 1 – CFA

Unlike all those previous Nile Treaties, the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) is the only attempted inclusive legal framework agreement that brings all the upper-stream and down-stream Nile Basin countries under the same negotiation table in good faith.

During the decade long negotiations over CFA, the then colonial treaties and its annexed 1959 Agreement was a major difference. The Nile upper riparian countries intended to nullify colonial Treaties as well as the 1959 agreement and opted for the more inclusive CFA while the down riparian countries intention was the exact opposite. This was clearly reflected when the later call for reservation on a particular provision of Article 14 (b)  that deal with “water security” of Nile water which in a plain language requests the binding effect of the 1959 Agreement, which “allocated the bulk of 84 BCM total Nile’s waters flow [only] for the two downstream countries, in which 55.5 BCM [66% of the total water flow] to Egypt, 18.5 BCM [22% of the total water flow] to Sudan and left the remaining 10 BCM [12% of the total water flow] for evaporation”, by claiming as ‘established right’ of the down riparian states.

Accordingly, the upper riparian countries were in no way to accept this proposal and proceed for the opening of the CFA “for signature on May 14, 2010”

As provided in the CFA, “…six countries have [to] ratified or acceded to the document and deposited with the African Union”. Even though 6 countries – Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, Kenya and Burundi signed the Agreement, but until today only four countries – Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda – have ratified it.

Therefore, though the CFA neither binds the lower riparian States nor reallocates the shared-waters of the Nile, it had led a strong foundation in changing a decade long narration over Nile River and boosts the action of counter Hydro-hegemonic strategy of the upper riparian states.

Counter Hydro-Hegemony Tactics 2 – GERD

A major shifting strategy, which has shaken Egypt’s hydro-hegemony, has been under taken by Ethiopia in starting construction of Grand Ethiopian Renascence Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile nearby Ethio-Sudan border in April 2011. This dam is said to be by far Africa’s largest Electric power producer with its capacity to generate 6,000 megawatts per year.

When the GERD is completed, it will not only meet the electric power demand of Ethiopia, but also be exported to its neighboring Nile Basin countries with the aim of fertilizing the regional cooperation over Nile water resource. The dam has also another multi-dimensional benefit in reducing the risk of flooding, evaporation, drought & the like.

Though Egypt has serious concerns over GERD as it seriously challenged its hydro-hegemonic power over Nile, finally the three countries – Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan – came to a negotiating table & brokered an Agreement on Declarations of Principles (DoPs) on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam [GERD] and signed on March 23, 2015.

Let alone another issues revolving around, and focus, for our case, on the most contentious which need immediate attention – rules concerning the first filling and operation of the GERD. The rules of first filling and operation of the GERD, as provided in the later declaration, be based on “the recommendation of an International Panel of Experts”.

Despite a number of attempts made in forming international panel of expert, the path toward an agreement over the rules of first filling and operation of the GERD was full of a deadlock. As the dam continues to be constructed, the time for starting its first filling the reservoir is arriving albeit no agreement that govern how to fill and govern the reservoir & its disposable flow toward down riparian states.

Challenging GERD First Filling and Operation

As stiff Controversy over the filling and operation of the GERD has sparked new tensions between the two key Nile Basin opposing players, “Egypt called for international interventions” in November 2019. Up on the invitation by the USA on November 6 and after holding more than a “dozen negotiation”, Ethiopia back off from the negotiating table – as the negotiation shifts its direction toward undesirable direction – as the so called the U.S. and the World Bank as observers turned out to be not only mediator but also crafter of the draft agreement that technically increase a life span status quo of the 1959 Egypt-Sudan Agreement which is too advantageous for Egypt, against the interest of Ethiopia.

Egypt via US, Arab League, United Nation Security Council and international community is pressuring Ethiopia to come back to the US round table talk and signed the already defined deal, before the letter starts its first filling & testing of GERD in whatsoever circumstance. Sudan, though hesitate to join Egypt and pressure the letter alongside Ethiopia to come conduct an independent three party alone negotiation, later on, however, indirectly endorsed US crafted draft. Sudan not only consider the letter draft a three party made deal providing that agreement have been reached over most part of the draft agreement, but also request Ethiopia to continue the talk over the drafted agreement, which indirectly take back to US round table. It is quite obvious that these are a new tactic of challenging – counter Hydro-hegemony of upper riparian states in general and – GERD first filling and operation in particular.

Challenging GERD – Threat over Counter Hydro-Hegemony

The very intention behind challenging the first filling and operation of GERD is to neutralize the counter hydro-hegemony of upper riparian states in general and Ethiopia in particular.

Ethiopia’s move in challenging the hydro-hegemonic power of down riparian states by starting GERD construction was a major big step, which was warmly welcomed by not only upper riparian states but also down riparian state, Sudan. This reality seems changing when DoPs was signed by Egypt, Sudan & Ethiopia states. Though Ethiopia signed the declaration to show its level of diplomatic commitment to resolve the GERD issues, however, deviate from its first stand of creating inclusive agreement, like CFA, which created discomfort among upper riparian states. Besides, the ultimate goal of DoPs could not be achieved as the down riparian states misuse it to defuse the counter hydro-hegemonic tactic of Ethiopia and elongate their status quo of hydro-hegemonic power over Nile water, which ultimately create even more source of controversy and diplomatic crises among the three parties.

As side from the above, almost all negotiations that took place among technical team and higher States representative of the three countries failed for these aforementioned very reasons. Let alone the previous talk, it is very vital to see the failed US brokered negotiation that gave birth to a contentious draft agreement. In this draft agreement, the most contentious part was mechanisms that provide a quantified water flow from GERD toward down riparian states during drought and extreme drought. Though the substantiation of when & how drought and extreme drought is so argumentative by itself, the down riparian states intended to keep the flow of Nile water without interruption even during drought and extreme drought cases, which would ultimately guarantees the quantified water share quantity of the 1959 agreement.

Even if Ethiopia negotiated over these quantification scenarios in good faith, it will have an adverse effect over the rest of the upper Nile riparian states and the letter’s probability of accepting the three countries deal will be a dream.

Aside from the above, the counter hydro hegemonic strategy is under threat by the very upper riparian states itself as some riparian countries are still – hesitating to sign and – take CFA to the level of ratification in accordance with the law of their respective countries. According to the CFA, among all riparian countries six of them shall ratify to put the CFA in to action, however, though six countries signed the agreement, only four of them have ratified it. It is in my opinion that the CFA was a major mile stone in establishing the foundation for the counter-hydro hegemonic movement and all of upper riparian countries should have took it as a golden opportunity and ratified it. However, this scenario is not the case and their counter hydro-hegemonic movement is under threat.

All in all, all upper of upper riparian states are not doing their collective responsibility in achieving their very objective of counter hydro-hegemonic goal, at least by ratifying the CFA. Besides, Egypt is challenging the counter hydro-hegemonic exercise of upper riparian states, mainly Ethiopia’s construction of GERD, and doing its best to reset the counter hydro-hegemonic clock.

Way Forward

  1. Ethiopia shall engage proactively toward creating awareness among all upper riparian states that challenging GERD is a threat to counter hydro-hegemony over the Nile river basin, which will have an adverse effect over all Nile basin narrative.
  2. Instead of shouldering the burden of the Nile basin dispute in general and GERD crises in particular, Ethiopia shall create a mechanism that could shift from tripartite negotiation to all Nile riparian parties’ negotiation, which was already in place under Nile Basin Initiative (NBI).
  3. The upper riparian states, including Ethiopia, instead of opting for tripartite treaty like DoPs, they shall work on the way in which the CFA could be put in to operation by getting the necessary ratification as it helps a lot in resolving the GERD crises at hand and potential future dispute as well in more win-win strategic way.
  4. Ethiopia and other upper riparian countries be proactively and collectively work tirelessly to continue the ticking of counter hydro-hegemonic clock, because if the clock is reset by down riparian states, it may take longer than before to take back control of the clock itself.
  5. The upper riparian states shall learn from the down riparian states and stand together for one another in the spirit of – all for one – one for all, to resolve disputes over the use and share of Nile water resource amicably.