Every time there is a grand occasion taking place, media personnel have to sharpen their nose for news. Reason? To avoid failing in their duty like a popular tale of a reporter who was assigned to attend a rally scheduled to be addressed by a head of state, coming back to the newsroom to declare: “There was no story. The president did not address the rally. He was shot dead.”
Indeed, sideline events matter a lot. How does one report about the last Madrid NATO Summit and miss the Joe Bidden-Recep Tayyip Erdogan meeting? The same fate would befall a coverage of the just-ended United Nations Climate Change Conference, more referred to as COP27, in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh, minus Joe Biden’s sideline meeting reiteration to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on US support for Egypt’s Nile River water security and rights.
The climax of the Biden-Sisi meeting ended in Egypt pleading with the US to play an “influential role” in resolving the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) issue as a key to regional cooperation in renewable energy. Sisi was optimistic that Biden can bring Sudan and Ethiopia back on the negotiation table for a binding agreement. Biden used this ‘sideline chance’ to invite Sudan and Ethiopia to join Egypt at the forthcoming US-Africa Summit scheduled to take place in Washington from 13-15 December. Hopefully, this time round, the GERD issue could also turn out to be a US-Africa Summit sideline event.
Within the tremors of the Biden-Sisi meeting emerged an occasion which could be called “a sideline of the sideline”. U.S. special envoy for biodiversity and water resources Monica Medina revealed her country’s role for which a special envoy had been appointed and was already reported working on a solution in the Horn of Africa. Monica, I hesitate to use her other name (Medina), sort of ran adrift with a stress on “the need to ensure adequate awareness about not wasting water, as well as providing low-cost technological solutions to improve efficiency” and recalling “a wide range of USAID programs to help famers in Africa manage water resources.”
A combination of what President Sisi had to say, what US wants from Africa, the state of regional cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the GERD issue from the African Union Commission (AU) perspective, paints a blurred picture. For obvious reasons, Biden wants a wider African leaders’ participation in the US-Africa Summit. His people already on the ground on the continent focus on “low-cost technological solutions” targeting improved water use efficiency.
All this plus USAID programs to help farmers in Africa manage water resources is not something that is enough to prompt Sudan and Ethiopia leaders go to Washington. While Sisi is more interested in GERD solution during the forthcoming Summit, suspecting Ethiopia could, in fact, see Egypt playing an ‘offside trick’ to pull a binding agreement over the River Nile water during a strategic US-Africa Summit sideline meeting. Sudan of course, though an interested party, would not mind sitting on the fence, watch and wait for the Egypt-Ethiopia GERD bout final verdict. Sudanese leaders have enough domestic problems to take care of on their sleeves.
Another reason why Ethiopia would not take the Summit seriously from the GERD perspective is that it prefers the home brokered agreement under the auspices of the African Union(AU) rather than a foreign one. Until now the stalled negotiations have had a foreign hand. What miracle can arise from the US-Africa Summit remains distant.
The GERD issue has more than what meets the eye. As many African countries set their foot on the multiparty politics road in the early 1990s, the World Bank’s (IBRD) organized a media workshop in Cape Town, South Africa on conflicts that could arise from problems of access to cross border resources. When the workshop ended, journalists from East, Central and Southern Africa singled out water as the most likely conflict area as opposed to trans-boundary national parks and other legally protected cross-border areas.
Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary General between 1997 and 2006, had chance to observe: “Fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future.” He was extremely right. Freshwater resources are not only finite. They are also distributed unevenly throughout the world and shared by many countries.
Many states are bent on using force to protect their rights over the water. Put very briefly, what we see happening has a long history behind it. Stories of the Holy Scriptures aside, this can be traced to the 1929 agreement signed by Egypt and colonizer United Kingdom (on behalf of Sudan) allocating minimum flows to the two countries, declaring what they called the two countries’ natural and historic rights to water from the Nile, and that upstream nations had to consult them over construction projects. What a one sided agreement!
Three decades later in 1959, following tension over the construction of the High Aswan Dam in Egypt, the two countries were given annual allocations that kept other riparian countries out. Four decades down the lane (1999), the Nile Basin Initiative came on board targeting equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile basin water resources.
Come 2010, upstream countries made up of Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda signed their own Cooperative Framework Agreement, automatically attracting strong opposition from Egypt and Sudan. Eighty per cent of Sudan’s electricity comes from structures on the Blue Nile, while Egypt depends on the Nile River for 95% of its water needs for drinking, agriculture and electricity generation.
It is on the heels of this upstream countries’ sort of retaliatory agreement that Ethiopia in April 2011 started the non-reversible controversial construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the largest hydropower project in Africa, to generate 6,450 MW of electricity power for home consumption and selling to neighbouring countries.
At an estimated cost of close to $5 billion, the project is seen by Ethiopia as a sine–qua-non for development. The GERD is also one of the projects under the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA) Priority Action Plan providing employment to about 12,000 workers. PIDA is an African Union Commission (AUC) initiative, in partnership with the NEPAD Planning and Coordinating Agency (NPCA), the African Development Bank and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.
This is why the AUC, in November 2018, organized a two-day workshop in Addis Ababa for 24 media practitioners from across Africa to sharpen their skills on the workings of PIDA, how to analyze the impact of its work, and where to find the right data and information for effectively programme coverage.
The event was part of the PIDA Capacity Building Project (CAP) whose main objective is to strengthen the capacity of the African Union Commission, the NEPAD Agency and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) for planning, facilitation and coordination of implementation of regional infrastructure programmes and projects necessary for enhancing Africa’s physical and economic integration and socio economic development.
In between, there have been Ethiopia and Egypt accusations and counter accusations bordering on the latter’s showing “no spirit for reaching an agreement” and the former’s “failure to prove it would take all necessary precautions to ensure the dam will not affect Egypt’s water supply especially in times of drought”.
The GERD solution does not need Washington, Sochi or Ankara equations. All these foreign government capitals harbor individual, not African, interests, varying from geopolitical influence to arms’ sales in the complex MENA region. While the use of force between Ethiopia and Egypt remains in the worst interests of the region, only negotiation can resolve the current deadlock. And the Africa option remains the best. The rest constitute just a “washout”, to borrow from the military range exercise jargon.