New Book on Ethiopia’s GERD: Historical Battle of the Nile-Colonialism vs Development

Published on 11th May 2023

Below are remarks by Lawrence Freeman at the book launch at Georgetown University, Washington, DC on April 29, 2023. The discussion centred around the contribution by author Dereje Tessema, in his new unique book: How This Happened:  Demystifying The Nile, History and Events Leading to the Realization of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) (amazon.com/HOW-this-HAPPENED-Demystifying-Realization)

In Freeman’s brief presentation (see below), as the lead presenter, he reviewed the history of the battle in the Nile Basin of colonialism versus economic development, and the positive role of the United States in identifying the GERD, sixty years ago.  Lawrence Freeman is a political-economic analyst for Africa with thirty years of experience on the continent. The remarks begin.

Greetings!

It is an honor to be here with all these distinguished panelists and for me to speak on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam–The GERD. Here we are, discussing this new fascinating book on the GERD, 12 years after the first brick was laid by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on April 11, 2011.

I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the GERD and get a tour by the deputy project manager in December of 2022 on my last visit to Ethiopia.

It was a magnificent sight. You have this huge scientific engineering marvel–a great infrastructure project built between two mountains over the Blue Nile-the Abbay River. The water has been flowing through this area into the White Nile from lake Tana for approximately 5 million years. And The Ethiopians, to their credit, realized that they can make this lazy river do some actual work. They understood that the Abby could be exploited for the benefit of humankind by making this unproductive river produce electricity for Africa. Electricity, in my view, as a physical economist, is the most vital category of hard infrastructure that Africa is lacking. Africans suffer every day from a gross deficiency in electricity. The Ethiopians by 2025, when all 11 turbines are projected to be functioning, will add 5,150 megawatts of electricity to their grid. This will be the biggest new injection of electricity on the African continent.

For me it was exceptionally exciting to visit the GERD. Because it confirmed to me: that humankind, through the exercise of our uniquely human creative imagination, intervenes upon the physical universe, to improve the conditions of life for us human beings. This understanding of human creativity is the underpinning of my philosophy about the universe and the foundation of my economic thinking.

The Ethiopian people and successive Ethiopian governments should be congratulated for self-funding and constructing the GERD. It does not just benefit Ethiopia, but the GERD enhances the entire Nile Basin, including Egypt and Sudan.

One of the most interesting features in this book, among many, is the several hundred-year history of the White and Blue Nile River Basins. The key issue which I believe characterizes this 300-year conflict is: the right to utilize the resource of the Blue Nile for the development of the Ethiopian nation and its people. This history is relevant to the efforts today, by some, to prevent the dam from reaching its full productivity; though I am convinced the anti-GERD campaign will not be successful.

Colonial Mentality Over the Nile

As part of their imperialist policy, the British were obsessed with the Nile River Basin, as part of their plans to control indirectly or directly the entire eastern spine of Africa from Egypt to South Africa. Through their control of Egypt, nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, first through Pasha Muhammad Ali and then later his nephew, Khedive Ismail, and finally the outright conquering of Egypt militarily at the end of the 1800s, the British believed that they owned the Nile. Though several battles were waged by the Egyptians against Ethiopia, the Egyptians like the Italians years later at Adwa, were unable to militarily defeat and conquer Ethiopia. The British in their attempt to be the overlord of the entire Nile River Basin, were intent not to allow Ethiopia to develop its own productive capabilities, which most definitely would involve utilizing the water from Lake Tana.

There were over two dozen treaties and official diplomatic exchanges from 1891 to 2015 concerning the Nile that affected Ethiopia. I will highlight only a few.

As early as the 1891 protocol between the United Kingdom and Italy, Britain made very clear that it would recognize Italy’s control of the northern part of Ethiopia, which is now Eritrea, in return, the Italian government would agree not to obstruct the flow of water from the Atbara River that is one of the three main tributaries, that supply 85% of the water into the White Nile. In 1899 the British with the Egyptians created the Anglo Egyptian Condominium, which effectively allowed the British through Egypt to govern Sudan. This was another step in the process of the British attempt to have control over the entire Nile River system. It is interesting to note that it was also in 1899 that the British began the construction of the Aswan Low Dam that was completed in 1902. This of course was replaced several decades later by the larger High Aswan Dam.

In the 1902 Anglo Ethiopia Treaty to delineate the borders between Sudan and Ethiopia, the British included a demand that Emperor Menelik II, could not obstruct the flow of any water into the Nile by building anything across the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, or the Sobat River. The British intended never to allow Ethiopia to utilize the Blue Nile for the benefit of its people. The British did not want an independent, developing nation disrupting their plans for the Nile Basin. Rather, they envisioned, utilizing Lake Tana to as a large rain fed storage area, releasing water during the dry season for the agriculture-irrigation schemes in the downstream nations of Egypt and Sudan.

In the 1920s, prior to Mussolini’s invasion in 1935, Britain made clear to the Italians that it would be happy to have Lake Tana controlled-protected from Ethiopia’s utilization by a nation friendly to Britain.

The 1929 Water Agreement between the British, Egypt and Sudan, codified Egypt’s so called natural and historical rights to the Nile. The agreement allocated 48 billion cubic meters of Nile water to Egypt and 4 billion to Sudan–less than 1% of the total 52bcm. The agreement also gave Egypt the right to prevent construction of any project on the Nile that would reduce the flow of the Nile water to Egypt. Ethiopia was not part of this agreement and was not in attendance even though it was an independent sovereign nation that provided the majority of Nile water joining the White Nile under the Khartoum- Omdurman bridge.

The 1959 Water Agreement between the Republics of Sudan and Egypt increased the water allocations for both countries. Egypt would now receive 55.5 billion cubic meters of water, and Sudan would receive 18.5 bcm. The agreement also allowed Egypt to construct the Aswan High Dam and for Sudan to construct the Rosaries dam, on the Blue Nile, which I visited many years ago. This new water agreement also stipulated again that no other construction could be built on the Nile, implicitly the Blue Nile as well. Essentially this agreement gave Egypt and Sudan veto power against the right of Ethiopia to erect its own dam on its own sovereign territory. Again, Ethiopia was not a participant to this agreement. To my knowledge, Ethiopia has not been a party to any official water agreement with Sudan and Egypt regarding the rights to develop the Blue Nile Basin, even during the negotiations in the Trump administration.

Potential of Blue Nile Basin  

Two years before the 1959 Egypt-Sudan Water agreement, Ethiopia officially severed itself from the colonial mentality regarding the Nile, by informing Egypt, on September 23, 1957, that Ethiopia will utilize it water resources for irrigation and hydropower. Quoting the diplomatic note (Part I, Chapter 3, page 50):

 Ethiopia has the right and obligation to exploit its water resources for the benefit of its present and future generations of its citizens and must, therefore reassert and reserve now and for the future, the right to take all the measures in respect of its water resources.

Reflecting the better period of United States, when our foreign policy reflected our commitment for development in Africa, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Department of the Interior, signed an agreement with the Ethiopian government to investigate the land and water resources of the Blue Nile River Basin. The project began in 1958, was completed in 1963, and its findings were published in 1964. The report was seven volumes and referred to as the Nile Report. Quoting Dereje (page 54 of the same chapter of his book):

The purpose of this program was to:  a) investigate the land and water resources of the Blue Nile River Basin; b) assist in the establishment of an appropriate administrative and engineering organization within the Imperial Ethiopian Government; and c) train Ethiopian personnel in the various disciplines as appropriate.

The other major study of the Blue Nile Basin, was The Abbay River Basin Integrated Development Master Plan, initiated in 1994 and completed in 1998. Dereje documents that in the twentieth century there have been more than 18 feasibility studies of the Nile and Blue Nile River Basin, investigating potential projects for irrigation and hydropower.

The 1957-1964 Nile Report examined the potential of 32 irrigation and energy projects in the Blue Nile River Basin, which are listed in this book on pages 259-260. Four potential dam sites were proposed that could provide sufficient electrical power to satisfy domestic consumption and export to other nations in East Africa. The study identified four potential hydropower projects described on pages 262-266. One of the four hydro-power sites, that the Nile Report called the Border Dam, is today, known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

In Conclusion

As we are assembled here today discussing the contribution of this new treatise on the GERD by Dereje , we should remember what Emperor Haile Selassie  said in the 1960s, when he was unable to secure funding for the various irrigation and hydropower projects identified in the 1957-1964 Nile Report. (Quoting from Part V, Chapter 17, page 334): Emperor Selassie said:

 We don’t have the capacity to build a dam on the Abbay at this time. Friendly countries will not support this endeavor for fear of antagonizing Egypt. However, the future generations will build it using its own resources. Keep the study safe.

We are less than two years away from celebrating the completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam with GERD DAY, my proposal for a new national Ethiopian holiday.

First published on the Africa and The World Website by Lawrence Freeman


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