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Egypt embarks on new project in Congo amid faltering Nile dam talks

Congolese media announced that Egypt’s Armed Forces Engineering Authority is in the process of implementing a project to make the Congo River navigable, while the negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam falter.
A man drives a canoe on the Congo River near Makotimpoko, Republic of Congo, on January 25, 2019. - In Makotimpoko, nearly 16,000 people found refuge as they fled the ethnically motivated mass killings across the river in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Between December 16 and 17, 2018, at least 535 people were killed in Yumbi Territory, according to the United Nations Joint Office for Human Rights. (Photo by ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP)        (Photo credit should read ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP via Getty Images)

CAIRO — Congolese website Zoom Eco reported Sept. 30 that a delegation from the Egyptian Armed Forces Engineering Authority, headed by Maj. Gen. Mahmoud Shahin, is conducting feasibility studies for a project to make the Congo River navigable in the low-lying sewers in the area between Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the city of Boma.

On Sept. 29, Zoom Eco tweeted a clip of the delegation in which Shahin said, “The Egyptian Armed Forces Engineering Authority has carried out aerial reconnaissance of the project area, in addition to field visits that are scheduled to be carried out until there is a positive, accurate study of the Congo River project.”

This project brought to mind the one about linking the Congo River with the Nile River in Egypt, which was proposed by Sarco, a private company specialized in the investment and mining fields, to the Egyptian government in 2013 to compensate for the water scarcity that Egypt suffers from, and develop Egypt's water resources. The project was based on the idea of transferring 110 billion cubic meters of water annually from the Congo River Basin to the Nile Basin by connecting the two rivers, doubling Egypt's current share of the Nile water.

However, on May 19, the Egyptian government announced its formal rejection of the project due to technical, engineering and political difficulties and obstacles that prevent its implementation, in addition to its high cost and the fact that the proposed waterway would need to pass through some insecure areas ravaged by civil wars.

While the Congolese media delineates the current project to improve navigation in the Congo River, the negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan under the auspices of the African Union have faltered. The negotiating teams confirmed following the latest negotiation session on Aug. 28 that they have failed to reach a binding legal agreement for operating and filling the GERD.

Egypt, which is already suffering from water scarcity, is concerned the GERD will affect its share of the Nile water, which amounts to about 55.5 billion cubic meters. Ethiopia, the upstream country, began construction of the dam in 2011 on the Blue Nile in an area located on the Ethiopian-Sudanese border, at an estimated cost of about $4.6 billion with a maximum absorptive capacity of 74 billion cubic meters.

The GERD is believed to also affect natural agriculture in Sudan by retaining sediment, and the decrease in the water level affects the fish wealth, while Ethiopia insists that it is crucial for its economic development, by providing it and some neighboring countries large amounts of electricity.

Abbas Sharaky, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor over the phone that there is no connection between the project to improve navigation in the Congo River and the project to connect the Nile and Congo rivers. He said implementing the latter project is just a fantasy given all the natural obstacles that prevent implementation, such as mountain ranges that reach 600 kilometers (373 miles) in width and 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) in height, in addition to international law prohibiting the transfer of water from one river to another.

“Within the project to improve navigation in the Congo River, Egypt is providing the expertise of the [army’s] Engineering Authority, in addition to the drilling equipment it used in digging the new Suez Canal. The project aims to support cooperation between the two countries and strengthen Egypt’s presence in the region,” Sharaky noted.

Egypt and the DRC have a good relationship; on the political level, they share the same views regarding many regional and international issues, the most important of which is the GERD. The DRC has expressed its support for Egypt in the GERD talks through a written letter from Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Sept. 19. Economically, Egyptian imports from the DRC increased to $110.62 million in 2018, compared to $2.7 million in 2017, an increase of $107.9 million, according to Egypt’s State Information Service (SIS).

Sharaky pointed out, “Egypt could benefit from this project by building dams on the Congo River, which is what Cairo is currently seeking with the Inga Dam. These dams will allow Egypt to exploit the quantities of water flowing from the river to generate sufficient energy for the entire continent of Africa, while water surplus can be exported to Europe.”

Egypt is considering cooperation with the DRC in the Inga Dam project on the Congo River, which was confirmed by the Egyptian minister of electricity and renewable energy, Mohamed Shaker, during his meeting Sept. 21 with Jean-Claude Kabongo, special investment adviser to Tshisekedi. This was agreed upon through a political announcement between the two countries during a 2016 visit by then-Congolese Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo to Egypt, according to SIS.

Hani Raslan, head of the Nile Basin Studies Unit at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “Concerning the navigation project in the Congo River, some obstacles prevent the use of the riverbed for navigation, including waterfalls. Egypt is trying to help remove these obstacles in order to allow the DRC to use the river as an alternative to road transport, whose development is costly, while river transport is much cheaper and helps connect more places together.”

Raslan added, “Through this project, Egypt would be supporting an African country with which it has good ties, in addition to boosting its presence in this region and improving its African ties, allowing it to have greater influence, which contributes to strengthening Egypt's plan to focus on Africa.”

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