International Legal Perspectives on the Utilization of Trans-Boundary Rivers – The Case of the Ethiopian Renaissance (Nile) Dam


International Legal Perspectives on the Utilization of Trans-Boundary Rivers – The Case of the Ethiopian Renaissance (Nile) Dam

By Habtamu Alebachew,
Mekelle University,
College of Law and Governance

Paper Presented to the Ninth IUCN Colloquium, North West University of South Africa, Eastern Cape, July 2011


The Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia is the second bitterest test to the political integrity of modern-day Egypt probably next to the birth and survival of the state of Israel since 1948 (though I am not a fan of either side.) Egyptian nationalist leaders and the populace of the time could never swallow the truth of Israeli’s coming into being at the edges of their noses as near as a kitchen for a household. Driven by its influence in the Arab world, Egypt spearheaded the grand project of militarily eliminating Israel in three major interstate wars—1956, 1967, and finally 1973. In all these wars, Egypt caused injuries at the battles on Israel but conclusively lost the war. Egyptian leaders had to put an official end to this embarrassment by accepting Israeli terms of peace, official recognition, and cooperation in exchange for $2.3 billion United States’ assistance annually to the uproar of the entire Arab world and nationalist Egyptians.

For many Egyptians, the ex-president Anwar Sadat put his signature at the Camp David Accord in 1979 in naked betrayal of Egypt and the Arab cause. As a pacifist expert in Political Science and International Relations, I realize how it was painful and challenging for Sadat to agree and approve this Accord. He did it boldly thanks to American influence and his authoritarian rule, partly. At the conclusion of the signature ceremony, Sadat tried to quell the Egyptian broken melancholy of the historical shame by promising that his country hereafter would fight only for water reasons. However, Sadat paid his life for this by a disgruntled soldier from within.

Now, Egyptians stand in face of the second historical challenge, the Renaissance Dam of Ethiopia, which has begun actually disturbing their political maturity, rationality, integrity, and wisdom. Open policy dilemma and inconsistency among government leaders and opinion intoxication and sensationalism among some leading elites out of government circles have surfaced themselves since the news of Ethiopia’s diverting some meters of the Nile flow for only technical reasons. It is a blessing for Egyptians that they have some most knowledgeable and insightful elites like Elbaradi, who are demanding for civility, rationality, and sobriety to reign in the conservative minds of maddened elites and advisors.

So far, these elites had to swallow the first round of shame by their ‘childlike conspiracy’ against Ethiopia in both publicity and substance. The conspiracy sufficiently demonstrated that these Egyptian elites have no any clear understanding of their environment and world, politics and science, history and psychology. They have no an iota of knowledge about the logic and grammar of interstate war in the 21st century. However, the greatest Egyptian shame will happen if the government, as some advisors are saying, will officially ask Ethiopia to halt the construction of the dam. Logically speaking, this future question will breed the greatest shame simply because it has no any inherent mechanism to enforce the next measure when Ethiopia will definitely say ‘No!!’.

The following research paper, which I presented at an international conference in South Africa in 2011, depicts the legal, moral, and political distances and contradictions between Ethiopia and Egyptian elites. The paper strongly advises by its implications that Egyptians will have to pay the smallest cost of the Camp David Accord by agreeing to come to dialogues on the Nile issue with Ethiopia. I appreciate that Egyptians ended the crisis with Israel through an informally negotiated ‘face saving solution’; they should however replace this diplomatic tradition now with Ethiopia by adopting a principled win-win exchange of nationa advantages.

International Legal Perspectives on the Utilization of Trans-Boundary Rivers The Case of the Ethiopian Renaissance (Nile) Dam


Ethiopia’s recent venture to construct the biggest dam in the country’s history over the Nile River in Benshangul-Gumuz Region has precipitated a renewed international legal squabble among the major riparian states of the Nile Basin-Ethiopia and Egypt. The governments and professionals of the two states have repeatedly expressed their positions on rights and duties to International Law in the utilization of International Rivers for development goals. Egyptians strongly stick to the “International Duty” of Ethiopia as an upper riparian state to present prior notification documents about the technical details of the Dam. The purpose is to verify the technical soundness of the project against the international principles of “No-Diversion of International Rivers and “No Harm to a Lower Riparian State/s.” Ethiopia, on its part, argues for having immunity from such sectional demands for obligations as per terms of the Nile Initiative Framework Agreement, 2010, singed among most upper riparian states. Ethiopians prefer and advance the international principles of “Collective State Interests, the Overriding Place of Interstate Treaties and State Responsibility” as the corner stone of their foreign policy over the use of Nile River as part of a broad international river system. The question is, however: where are the ultimate legal and technical places of these two strands of arguments in the international legal regime? Why have the two states strongly banked on differing policy orientations in the applications of International Law? What are the legal and historical roots of the major international legal perspectives explaining the divergent policy orientations of Ethiopia and Egypt? The purpose of this paper is to explain existing axioms of international law that address these questions of serious contemporary interest

Key Terms: International Law, the Great Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam, International Conventions and Principles, Principles of no-diversion, no-harm, equitable utilization of international river…

1. Introduction

“The Renaissance Dam”1 is a new hydrological event in Africa in, general, and in Ethiopia, in particular. It is at present under construction at the very course of the Blue Nile that contributes about 86% of the total Nile waters. The specific site of the project is some 42 kilometers away from the eastern border of the Sudan. The Blue Nile Dam under construction is reportedly one of the largest Dams in Africa, two times larger than the inland Lake Tana in Northern Ethiopia. The Dam will estimably hold about 63 billion cubic liters of water at completion. The Ethiopian government designed to generate about 6000 megawatts of hydroelectric power. The hydropower planned to be generated from the dam is expected to raise the national power supply three times more than Ethiopia has now had so far. The project is estimated to cost about $5 billion or about 80 billion Ethiopian birr up to its completion after five or less years.2 A renewed academic discussion is currently high on the air in many places but more articulate and serious in Ethiopia and Egypt, to a lesser degree, in Sudan. This discourse is a significant point more for scholars of International Law for three main reasons. A. The construction of the Dam was made official …

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International Legal Perspectives on the Utilization of Trans-Boundary Rivers – The Case of the Ethiopian Renaissance (Nile) Dam