A tripartite national committee comprising of experts from Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt have made a breakthrough during their latest meeting in Khartoum after months of impasse. The three countries have agreed on the selection of an international consultant which would be conducting two studies regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). A French company BRL Engineer has been selected as a lead consultant and Delta Raze, a Netherlands company, will be subcontracted. Another meeting is scheduled to take place in Addis Ababa later this month. Yohannes Anberbir of The Reporter has spoken to Tefera Beyene, advisor to the minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy on trans-boundary rivers affairs the negotiation process, points of difference between the countries and on the overall trans-boundary water resources of the country. Tefera has years of experience at various capacities within the ministry and the Nile Basin Initiative. He was also one of the negotiators during the drafting process of the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). Excerpts:
The Reporter: Can you tell us what the two studies – trans-boundary socio-environmental impact assessment and hydro simulation model - expected to be conducted soon mean?
Tefera Beyene: The studies were recommended by the international panel of experts (IPoE) after assessing the impact and/or benefits of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to the two downstream countries [Sudan and Egypt]. One of the studies – the hydro simulation model – focuses on the impact of GERD on water use within the Nile basin while the other is a study which would assess the social and environmental impact.On the basis of the recommendation, these studies are to be conducted by independent consultancies. A tripartite national committee, which comprises four experts each from the three countries, was set up. The committee has prepared the term of reference for the studies and the bid document to select an international consultancy. On the basis of that and after negotiations between the countries, a few companies were invited through limited international bidding. Five companies showed interest by submitting their bid documents, out of which one was selected to conduct the studies. The company selected was the one with the best technical proposal.But there were some challenges during the selection process. This process is also one mechanism of building trust and confidence between the three countries. So in April, it was agreed that one company would be the lead consultant [BRL Engineers] while another company [Delta Raze] will be subcontracted to do some works.
So,what would be the role of the lead consultant in this case?
Basically, the lead consultant will be the one responsible, legally as well as technically, for the studies to be conducted. It will, however, subcontract a portion of the job, not exceeding 30 percent, for the other company. Initially, there were some differences as to the role and responsibility of each of the companies and managemen tissues. But a consensus was reached during our latest meeting in Khartoum. Which means that all the three countries have agreed on one company [BRL Engineers] to assume full legal and technical responsibility. This will be the company which will assign its experts to undertake at least 70 percent of the job and the other company will do so for the remaining part. So, now the lead consultant is expected to present its bid document as amended in conformity with what has been agreed by the three countries to be reviewed by the committee. We can say we have taken a step forward after our meeting in Khartoum.
What is the source of the difference? Does it have anything to do with trustworthiness of the companies involved?
There could be several perceptions towards the companies. It may also have to do with having first-hand knowledge or otherwise about these companies. Confidence may also be attached to one company on the basis of the number of projects that the company conducted in one country. In any case, it is customary to see two companies selected to do a job as a lead consultant and subcontractor. But in many cases, it is the lead consultant which chooses a company it wants to subcontract. In our case, it is the countries that picked the company for the lead consultant.
The tripartite national committee will meet later this month. What should we expect from this meeting?
A new proposal with inputs from the two companies will be tabled before the committee. Each of the countries will review the proposal and consolidate their comments and prepare for negotiations with the consulting firm.
The construction of GERD has progressed over 40 percent while the study is yet to be conducted. What happens if the studies recommended changes in the construction?
The construction of the dam is under way in accordance with its design. The study will not affect the progress made in construction or the capacity of the dam. In our view, the dam benefits all and will not cause any significant harm to any country. If anything, the study could suggest ways to address or mitigate negative impacts, if any. First of all, this is a project on a trans-boundary river and the design and construction took into consideration these facts. And as such these studies have been conducted before. But a joint undertaking would build confidence among all.
When the consultancy begins conducting the studies, it would require data from all countries. How reliable would these data that countries provide be?
The countries are expected to provide reliable data. But the tripartite national committee has also set up a system to jointly validate the data made available. So all data made available should be validated first.
Will any recommendations of the studies be binding?
There are procedures laid out by the tripartite national committee as to how recommendations from these studies would be implemented. Nowhere does it say the studies will be binding. Everything is done through consensus. The consultants are not in a position to order that this or that be conducted. The countries jointly examine the findings of the studies and recommendations agreed upon by all parties will be implemented. It goes through various levels as well. The experts will examine it and then will forwar it to the ministers and, if no consensus is reached, independent bodies may step in.
You have been closely following the Nile politics for years. You were also one of the negotiators in the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). Are you satisfied with how things are at the moment? Are you optimistic about the upcoming tripartite national committee meeting?
From the negotiations and the process we have had, I am optimistic about the upcoming meeting. The process has taken a lot of efforts and time. We are at a good stage at the moment. When you talk about the CFA, we have agreed on so many of the issues. Of course, we still have a difference on one fundamental issue with the two downstream countries. What we have now, came, probably, as a result of Ethiopia’s capability to utilize its transboundary water resources, although the ambition has been there for long. I believe that has, to some extent, changed and expedited the cooperation between the countries. For example, an action plan under the joint multipurpose program within the Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office aspired to jointly build a huge multipurpose dam. But the process took a very long time which, probably, resulted in countries to take a unilateral path. Some fear the unilateral course would endanger the joint efforts. But in my view, it has expedited cooperation. Now we are seeing cooperation between the countries. In a way, we are now implementing the rights and duties stipulated under the CFA. Ethiopia has signed and ratified the CFA. Egypt and Sudan have not but they are implementing some provisions of the framework. I am not a pessimist. I believe circumstances will encourage more cooperation. Through cooperation, you will multiply the benefits each country may draw and minimize the impacts of projects on shared resources. That is happening now. In the past, projects were carried out unilaterally. Some of the projects were actually more damaging. Keeping the status quo at any cost is no longer possible.
In terms of cooperation, are we seeing a change of attitude in Egypt, particularly after change of regime in that country?
I believe so. The fact that we have maintained the dialogue for long and the several studies conducted which showed the benefits of working in cooperation might have contributed to the change of attitude. That is one. On the other hand, current circumstances also require a change of course. Because, it is no longer tenable to maintain the status quo. From Sudan’s perspective, when a country reaches a consensus on a certain issue it does so on the basis of its national interest. Cooperation is the best way to make the most out of the natural gift. For example, Ethiopia’s topography is best suited to build dams to generate hydroelectric power while the flat landscapes in Sudan and, to some extent, in Egypt would be ideal for irrigation development.
Recently, the three countries have signed what is called ‘Principles of Declaration’ on GERD. The deal states that the purpose of GERD would be power generation. Does this mean Ethiopia will not use the dam for irrigation purposes?
The main purpose of GERD is generating power. But the deal does not say generating power will be the only purpose. The nature of such project allows for other purposes as well.
As the minister’s advisor on trans-boundary rivers, what are the short - and long-term plan to develop Ethiopia’s trans-boundary water resources?
Our policy in water resources development is one. It does not depend on the basin. But priorities might be placed to certain basins due to the amount of resource in that basin. For example, the Nile basin in Ethiopia constitutes two-thirds of the country’s water resources. But the intention is to utilize all our water resources in a fair and reasonable manner. To do so, the country has embarked upon various undertakings, including preparing the water management policy and an assessment of the water resource potential in each basin. It is about knowing the amount of resources we have and how it can be developed. The first master plan studies were conducted on Abbay, Tekeze-Mereb and Baro-Akobo basins which are tributaries to the Nile. Successively similar studies were conducted on all trans-boundary river basins, including in the Rift Valley. Detailed studies are further conducted for an integrated development of our water resources. Then, on the basis of these studies, projects are planned and incorporated into our five-year plans. The projects will get under way in accordance with government priorities. There are many projects in the pipeline. And when you have many projects in the pipeline, it will be a matter of choosing in accordance with the government’s priority. That was not the case in the past.
What is the country’s potential in water resources?
Well, for example in hydroel-ectric potential, it is estimated to be not less than 45,000 MW. In irrigation, the figures depend on the kind of technology you plan to use. If you simply look at the available land, it is huge. But you would need to take into consideration the amount of water available and the technology at hand. For example, if you utilize irrigation schemes that rely on gravity, the irrigation potential will be limited. But with a more advanced technology, you can be able to irrigate high slope areas. And in that regard, the potential is estimated to be about three million hectares.
Are there plans to have framework agreements similar to the CFA for other trans-boundary rivers?
There are various initiatives and concerns regarding trans-boundary rivers. There are efforts under way within the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) and bilateral engagements with Kenya. But the principles we follow are the same for every trans-boundary river basins.
The CFA aspires to establish the Nile River Basin Commission. Do you think that can be achieved soon?
That is our hope and expectation. I was eager to see the commission established during my tenure at the Nile Basin Secretariat. But this is not something that can be done jointly. There is an element of sovereignty to it. As you know, three countries have ratified the CFA and others, we are told, are in the process of doing so. But it will be difficult to predict when that would be achieved. But my hope and expectation is that it will happen “soon”. You know, the CFA was tabled before parliament in two of the countries now in political turmoil [South Sudan and Burundi]. It is evident that the countries that have not signed the CFA would not want it ratified by other nations. In any case, ratifying the CFA serves the interest of their nations.