They say ‘Once is a mistake. But twice is a decision to fail.’ Two years ago, on March 23, 2021, due to a sudden sandstorm, the super tanker Ever Given was diagonally caught across the Suez Canal.
The incident has blocked the waterway for six days, disrupting billions of dollars’ worth of global trade.
The March 23th EVER GIVEN incident has clearly demonstrated the need for an alternative passage way other than the Suez Canal. The second anniversary of the incident is in a few days. However, the world failed to learn from the incident. Just last month, a ship carrying grain from Ukraine to China suddenly lost propulsion due to a leak caused by the cooling component that resulted in 20 ships bounding southward stopping for hours.
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Since its opening in 1859, Egypt’s Suez Canal has always been a vital trade artery for international trade. The canal is the shortest water way between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Hence, currently, some 12 percent of the global trade passes through it.
According to Egypt’s Canal Authority, even during the COVID-19 related international economic slowdown, the annual revenue of the canal has surpassed 5.6 billion US dollars. Hence, the post COVID outlook of the canal will indeed be very bright as international trade between the east and the west will continue to sour for many decades to come.
The canal not only became a major foreign currency earner for Egypt but also strong leverage on international trade and politics. In 1956, shortly after Egypt nationalized the canal, for nearly two decades, it was blocked by the then arc enemy Israel.
The blockage was a major concern for Jerusalem that, according to declassified CIA documents, it had secretly held several rounds of negotiation with the US to dig an alternative canal through the heart of Israel ,though the plan never came to fruition.
It is also in our recent memory that following the Arab Israeli war, Cairo has totally shut down the Suez Canal for all international travel. The closure remained for nearly a decade, which was arguably as a reprisal against the rest of the world as it failed to adequately stand against Israel.
The lesson painfully learned was that Egypt could at any given time close the canal against any country if it deemed it necessary. Any country wants to avoid that kind of economic reprisal, as Cairo proudly owns the shortest passage way between the two major seas and the two major oceans as well.
Over the years, several shipping companies have complained that Cairo keeps exponentially increasing the toll rate and relevant docking charges for passing through ships over the canal. The price hike is arguably perceived as a result of Egypt’s total monopoly over the canal, among other things. The world doesn’t have any other option, except to pay whatever the Egyptian Canal authority demands.
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However, according to some reports, talks of reviving cold war era alternative plans for a new canal are resurfacing. Among them is the long forgotten Ben Gurion canal, which was an Israeli –American plan to open another canal through the Southern port of Eilat. Through the Negev Desert it can connect to the Mediterranean Sea. There is a rumor indicating that the United Arab Emirates is currently in secret talks with Israel to develop that canal.
My argument is that, in many ways, more than any other country except Israel itself, the canal would serve Ethiopia’s best interest than any other internal mega projects. The benefits span many fronts, including economic, Geo-politics, security and international relations.
Therefore, Addis Ababa shouldn’t be ideal on this matter, rather needs to quickly join Israel and any other party who is keen to jointly develop the canal. Yes, it would be a very expensive proposal that might easily surpass 9 billion USD, roughly equal to the cost of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
However, the economic gain from the new canal would undoubtedly far outweigh the expense as the project in a short time will turn profitable. When the co-developers share the expense for the construction of the canal, it would be minimal and affordable.
In my humble opinion efficiently designed 21 century new canal in Israel could easily collect somewhere between 3-6 billion a year in the near future, as international trade between the east and the west is continuing to soar.
If Israel revives the Ben Gurion canal project, it will add significant revenue to its economy. It will help it to even more diversify the economy. It will also create thousands of new jobs and will help it to develop new strategically important cities around it. More than anything else, it improves Israel’s stance on the international stage, thereby revamps its national security; it would become its anchor of peace.
Regarding Ethiopia, co-developing the Ben Gurion canal with Israel could help it earn more revenue, minimize its dire foreign currency shortage, enable it to finance many other hydro power and irrigation projects back home over the Nile, thereby insuring universal access to electricity and food security.
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It will also put it right at the center of international trade, where Egypt is! Hence, it will give it a more powerful international leverage to pursue its long sought water resource development agendas and, at the same time, minimizes Egypt’s leverage on the international community as Cairo customarily puts its weight to pressure Ethiopia at the international stage to force Addis Ababa to abandon its water resource development schemes.
Even if the project doesn’t profit much, it will offer Addis Ababa a strong leverage to correct historical injustice by mainly Egypt against Ethiopia’s inalienable right to use its share of the Nile water.
Regarded as the water tower of Africa, Ethiopia contributes 86 percent of the Nile water that reaches Egypt. However, Cairo and Khartoum have long been denying Addis Abbas right to use its share of the Nile water resource no matter how hard Ethiopia pushes the equitable utilization agenda.
For decades, Egypt’s successive lobbying campaign at international fora has successfully hampered Ethiopia’s endeavor to fetch development finance. Egypt’s success in pressuring the international community and international financial institutions mainly emanates from two basic reasons. 1. Its long perceived leadership role in the Middle East. Now this role is increasingly weaning as new powerful countries are emerging in the Middle East. 2. is the Suez Canal’s importance to global trade. This remains.
Since the Suez Canal is the shortest passage way between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, any country that antagonizes Egypt could fear losing its right to access the Suez Canal. So far, this Egyptian power over Ethiopia means, in the eyes of the international community, Egypt’s saying is always more important than Ethiopia’s no matter how unjust and incorrect it is. The result is, over the last five decades, no matter how lucrative Ethiopia’s projects are on the Nile, western or even some eastern financial institutions have always kept shying away from financing them.
The lack of finance to develop the Nile River in Ethiopia has always been a source of food insecurity in Addis. The great famines of Ethiopia in the 70’s and the 80’s have reportedly killed more than 1.5 million people. Irrigation projects like that of in Egypt and Sudan would have saved at least a million lives.
Even at this stage, Egypt’s stance on clinging onto its perceived and deeply flawed historic water right narrative coupled with the vagaries of climate change could at any given time make biblical proportion famines highly likely in Ethiopia but not Sudan and Egypt as the river continues to flow. It seems for Cairo and Khartoum, Addis Ababa is the only party destined to face the brunt of nature, including famine, while Addis Ababa is expected not to touch a drop of the water under any circumstances.
After several unfruitful trials to get finance from international financial institutions to develop its share of the Nile water for irrigation or at least for hydro power, the leadership of Addis Ababa has learned that it has to develop its water resources from its own meager resources. The result was the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is currently a massively public supported project anywhere in the world. Even though the dam is nearing fait accompli, Cairo’s propaganda bull horns keep loudly blowing war trumpets.
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Some westerners fear that an all-out Ethio-Egypt war over the Nile resource would kill many people. However, in the streets of Addis, many people think that Egypt’s war of lobbying against Ethiopia’s planned irrigation projects over the Nile has already killed millions of Ethiopians by way of famine. Real conventional all-out war with Egypt would undoubtedly kill far less people than the biblical proportion of hunger. In my opinion, that is the reason why many Ethiopians are not that scared of Cairo’s drum beat of war.
Anyway, co-developing the Ben Gurion canal with Israel and other parties will definitely be a multi-pronged approach to check mate Cairo and minimize its strong lobbying power against Ethiopia’s water resource development aspirations. For Ethiopia, that canal would be much more than any current internal economic project. It would be a master key to freedom.
In light of the current Arab pivot to Israel, most Middle Eastern countries, especially Saudi Arabia, would also benefit highly from the Ben Gurion Canal as it undoubtedly places Neom, Riyadh’s new ultra-modern business and technological city, at the very center of international trade.
Therefore, Ethiopia should think out of the box. Run a full swing to join the talks with Israel and if need be, behave well at the UN summit regarding the issues of Israel.