Ethiopian Dam Project Raises Fears Of Water Deficit in Egypt

As construction progresses on the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Addis Ababa has made the decision to divert the Blue Nile’s waters as part of the construction process, raising fears of water shortages among Egyptians.

al-monitor People standing on rock look out at the Blue Nile falls (Tis Abay in Amharic), 30km (19 miles) from Bahir Dar, April 19, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/Flora Bagenal.

Topics covered

water management, water, ethiopia

May 30, 2013

Ethiopia's decision to begin diverting the course of the Blue Nile (the largest of the Nile river’s branches), as a prelude to the construction of the Renaissance Dam, put Egyptian diplomacy in a difficult position and stirred fears over Cairo’s declining share in the Nile waters, but the Egyptian presidency managed to tame these fears.

Egyptians were surprised by the decision to divert the course of the Blue Nile — which pumps half of the Nile’s water — issued hours following President Mohammed Morsi’s visit to Addis Ababa, during which he met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on the sidelines of the African Summit. While Egyptian officials played down the Ethiopian move, opposition forces held the ruling Muslim Brotherhood responsible for its failure in managing the water issue.

The spokesman for the Egyptian presidency, Omar Amer, confirmed that the quantities of Nile water received by Egypt “will not be adversely affected by the Ethiopian government’s statement announcing the beginning of construction of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the diversion of the Blue Nile’s course.” This contradicts analyses by experts, notably that of former minister of irrigation Nasreddin Allam, who demanded “swift action and a unified vision with Sudan in order to preserve historical water quotas.”

In a news conference [May 28], the presidential spokesman indicated that “a Tripartite Commission [composed of experts from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia] is currently examining engineering studies conducted by the Ethiopian government and will issue its decision. Egypt is awaiting this decision to determine its position regarding the project.” It is worth mentioning that the commission concludes its sixth and final meeting in Addis Ababa [May 29].

Yet sources close to the issue confirmed to Al-Hayat that there are “differences and divisions within the Egyptian delegation as to the usefulness of remaining in the Tripartite Commission. While the commission is still discussing the matter, Ethiopia is setting a new situation on the ground. This implies that these studies are useless.” The sources pointed out that “Differences arose as soon as the Tripartite Commission was formed. Some of the parties felt there was no need for Egypt to join this commission, or that — at the very least — Ethiopia must be required to halt any procedures for the construction of the dam until the studies are completed.”

The crisis concerning the construction of the Ethiopian dam dates back to mid-2010, when six upstream countries — namely Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi — agreed upon and signed a new treaty to share the dam’s resources in a meeting in Uganda. This was fiercely rejected by the two downstream countries (Egypt and Sudan) because of its impact on their historical quotas, estimated at 55.5 billion cubic meters per year for Egypt and 18.5 billion for Sudan. Yet the states which were party to this treaty disregarded the downstream countries’ protests and Ethiopia launched the Renaissance Dam project in April 2012, which is expected to hold about 63 billion cubic meters of water.

It seems that Cairo will rely on negotiations to address this crisis. A military official confirmed to Al-Hayat that a military intervention to prevent the construction of the dam — as some had called for yesterday — has been “completely ruled out.” He explained that “The military option was raised during discussions held at the beginning of the crisis under the former regime, but officials fiercely rejected it and we maintain this approach.”

Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Bahaa al-Din asserted that “the decision to start procedures to divert the river, which have been going on for a while now, does not mean that Egypt approves of the construction of the Renaissance Dam.” The minister continued, “We are still awaiting the outcome of the Tripartite Commission’s work,” adding in a statement that "The diversion of the river at the dam’s construction site is simply an engineering procedure to prepare the site for the start of the construction process.”

Bahaa al-Din stressed that “The diversion process does not mean the water flow is prevented from eventually coming back to its main course. Our initial position is not to accept any project that would negatively affect our current water flow.” The irrigation minister asserted that “The water distribution and management crises Egypt is currently facing, as well complaints by farmers of water shortages, confirm that we cannot spare a single drop of water from the Nile.”

On the other hand, he explained that Egypt’s position not to oppose any development project in any of the Nile basin countries remains unchanged, as long as it does not harm the two downstream countries. He pointed out that “There are plans in place to deal with the expected results, which are based on the technical report to be submitted by the Tripartite Commission.”

On a different note, Ramses El-Najjar, a lawyer for the Coptic Church, revealed that the presidency delegated Coptic Patriarch Pope Tawadros II to mediate in the crisis with Ethiopia. He explained that the pope received calls from the presidency urging the Egyptian church to intervene with the Ethiopian church — which was historically affiliated with the former — in order to reach a consensual solution to the crisis. El-Najjar said that the pope will make his contacts within hours.

The Middle East News Agency quoted Egypt’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Mohamed Idris, as saying that the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is “an accomplished fact and is currently under execution. The ongoing dialogue between Egypt and Ethiopia aims to make the project beneficial to both countries, and not to stop the dam-construction project.”

The ambassador added that the Tripartite Commission formed to draft a report on the effects of the construction of the dam visited the dam site [May 27]. He said that no decision may be rendered before the issuance of the commission’s report. He explained that even if the commission’s decisions are not binding, it is a commission of experts and it plays an important political role; its decisions may not be disregarded. Moreover, its report is of scientific and technical value and will be taken into consideration.

The ambassador indicated that “Following the completion of the Tripartite Commission’s report, this report will be examined at the political level in order to issue the relevant decision. The challenge lies in the political approach to be retained toward it.” Moreover, Ambassador Idris asserted that Egypt will promote development in Ethiopia, as long as this will not cause Egypt any harm, and said that Egypt was willing to partner with Addis Ababa on development projects.

The ambassador pointed out that the Ethiopian prime minister confirmed during his meeting with President Morsi, on the sidelines of the African Union summit three days ago, that Ethiopia does not want to cause any damage to Egypt and that he hopes the dam project will be a regional project beneficial to Egypt and Sudan. Ambassador Idris indicated that an agreement was reached during the meeting on holding presidential meetings and technical-commission meetings to discuss the matter in detail.

He confirmed that “The circumstances surrounding the dam issue have changed, since in the past this matter was tackled in the light of tense political relations and negative interactions between the two parties, given the rupture between the two heads of state after the attempted assassination of former president Hosni Mubarak in 1995. These circumstances have changed after the January 25 Revolution. Official and popular interactions have resumed, mutual visits are exchanged between the two countries and relations are now promising and positive rather than negative and tense. However, we currently lack coordination and planning in order for these initiatives to be permanent rather than transitional.”

On the other hand, Hani Raslan, the head of the Sudan and Nile Basin Unit at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said that Ethiopia's decision to announce that it would divert the course of the Blue Nile following Morsi's visit was "evidence that [Ethiopia] was following a policy of strategic deception against public opinion and the government in Egypt." He blamed Egyptian officials for "harming the interests of the country."

Raslan called for the dismissal of the minister of irrigation, saying that "his remarks that Egypt would not prevent the construction of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a form of submission, and neglects all of the strategic implications." He called for "taking a firm stance and acting immediately against this danger." He said that "The president and his government's delay in addressing this crisis, which affects national security, requires a popular trial."

Amr Moussa, the former secretary-general of the Arab League and a leader in the opposition National Salvation Front, said that the Ethiopian project was a "historic shift in the path of the waters of the Nile river." He stressed the "need for downstream countries not to be affected, particularly Egypt, and to avoid anything that leads to strained relations in the Horn of Africa region. This requires Ethiopia to keep Egypt's interests in mind, and at the same time for Egypt to consider Ethiopia's interests."

Moussa called for the government to "immediately enter into bilateral negotiations with Ethiopia to develop, identify and ensure their common interests. These negotiations must include various political, legal and economic parties involved in the water issue, and Egypt must actively and effectively participate in gathering the Nile states, but with a clearly defined plan that includes give and take."

The Reform and Development Party held Morsi fully responsible for the "expected water deficit in Egypt." In a statement [May 28], the party said: "The construction of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will have a negative impact on Egypt's share of the Nile waters and its arrival to Lake Nasser [the High Dam Lake]. This would render nearly two million feddan [two million acres] of agricultural land unusable, and also cause problems with drinking water and industry, as a result of reduced water levels along the Nile … By all measures, we are on the verge of a disaster if Egypt does not take swift and direct action." He said that "the fact that this decision was made only one day after President Morsi left [Ethiopia] means that Egypt's affairs are in the hands of a group of amateurs who cannot manage their files externally and internally."

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