Egypt & Ethiopia: Promoting mutual interests

Escalating rhetoric will not help resolve differences over the Renaissance Dam, writes Doaa El-Bey

“If water is a matter of life and death for both Egypt and Ethiopia there is ample motivation for them to agree to resolve their differences over the Renaissance Dam in a way that benefits both,” said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.

Former assistant to the foreign minister Mohamed Hegazi agrees.

“Yes, the dam is an important development project for Ethiopia, and the Nile is a lifeline for Egypt. The only wise course is to continue talking until a position is agreed that safeguards both countries’ interests,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Recent weeks have seen an escalation in rhetoric from both sides, a phenomenon unlikely to help resolve the ongoing differences between Cairo and Addis Ababa over the Grand Renaissance Dam which is being built on the Blue Nile. Yet when the situation is calm, says Rakha Hassan, a former assistant to Egypt’s foreign minister, Ethiopia has shown time and again that it has scant respect for previous agreements. 

“Egypt does not oppose building the dam,” insists Hassan. “It has helped Sudan build dams in the past. But international border agreements guarantee water rights among states.” 

Earlier this week Ethiopia’s Water, Irrigation and Electricity Minister Sileshi Bekele made clear construction work on the dam would continue despite Egypt’s concerns over the impact on the volume of water flowing north. The dam is already 63 per cent complete.

“We need to view the dam as an opportunity that will benefit all three countries — Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt,” said Bekele. “We have undertaken all necessary studies on our side and they show the dam will have no significant impact on downstream countries.”

Bekele’s statements were made two days after Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Meles Alem said the dam was crucial to Ethiopia’s development. For a country that has suffered so many droughts in the past the dam is a “matter of life or death”. 

His remarks echoed President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s insistence — during a televised speech delivered at the World Youth Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh earlier this month — that maintaining the flow of the Nile is “a matter of life or death” for Egypt. Al-Sisi repeated the same message a week later while inaugurating a major fish farm project in Kafr Al-Sheikh saying “no one can tamper with Egypt’s share of water… water is a matter of life or death.”

During his visit to Egypt’s Parliament on Monday, Ethiopia’s ambassador to Cairo Taye Atske-Selassie Amde met with members of the African Affairs Committee and discussed the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which he said would not harm Egypt’s interests, among other issues of mutual concern.

In a press statement Amde announced that the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will visit Cairo in mid-December, during which he will deliver a speech to Egypt’s Parliament. Amde also expressed his country’s keenness to continue negotiations with Egypt and Sudan, which have stalled due to differences over how the dam will affect Egypt’s share of Nile water as specified in a 1959 treaty.

In a related development, Sudan’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour accused Cairo of objecting to the dam because it will prevent Egypt from using Sudan’s own share of Nile water as agreed in the 1959 water treaty.

“It’s high time Egypt pays what it owes and for Sudan to receive its full share,” said the minister. 

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri described his Sudanese counterpart’s comments as misleading. Sudan’s capacity to use its own water share has long been inadequate, he explained, with the result that part of the surplus flows on into Egypt.

Shoukri questioned the timing of the latest round of hostile statements which were made following the failure of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to agree on the preliminary technical report submitted by the French consultants contracted to assess the likely impacts of the dam.

Egypt stated early in November that tripartite technical negotiations between Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa had failed after the 17th round of talks concluded in Cairo without agreement.

Cairo has repeatedly expressed its concerns the dam will cut the supply of Nile water reaching Egypt. 

Despite claiming to have conducted all necessary studies on the dam Ethiopia has refused to hand these over to the French consultants assessing the dam’s impact, says Hassan. The only plausible reason for the refusal, he says, is that the studies show the dam will restrict the flow of water to downstream countries and thus undermine the water quotas agreed in the two international agreements fixing Nile water shares signed in 1929 and 1959.

The 1929 agreement, signed by Egypt and the UK on behalf of Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania, allows Cairo to veto any project built upstream on the Nile. The 1959 agreement set Egypt’s Nile water quota at 55.5 billion cubic metres and Sudan’s at 18.5 billion cubic metres.

To move beyond the current impasse Hassan says political pressure will have to be applied. He also recommends Egypt act now to head off any future water crisis by exploring alternative sources such as desalination of sea water and instigating more efficient irrigation methods.

Hegazi believes there is still a possibility that progress will be made by pursuing diplomatic efforts and other high-level contacts though he concedes “a third-party role is probably required to ease the deadlock.” 

The $4 billion Renaissance Dam is being constructed on the Blue Nile close to Ethiopia’s border with Sudan. It is expected to generate up to 6,000 megawatts of electricity and create a reservoir of 74 billion cubic metres of water.

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed a Declaration of Principles over the dam in March 2015 which states the dam should not harm the interests of downstream states.

The three countries also signed the Khartoum Agreement in December 2015 which stipulates work on filling the reservoir can only begin after technical and impact studies are complete. Yet despite the absence of the required studies Ethiopia is expected to begin filling the reservoir and partially operating the dam by the middle of next year. 


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