Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Square one on Renaissance Dam

Egypt’s vital interests connected to the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have not been taken into account, which places President Al-Sisi in a difficult position, writes Hani Raslan

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt would never oppose a developmental project in the Nile basin. It does its best to help and has a record of lending a helping hand. Its only condition is that the project in question will not harm Egypt, which depends on the Nile for about 95 per cent of its water resources.

Unfortunately, Egypt has fallen below the water poverty level and does not have the luxury to put its people’s right to life in any more jeopardy than it already is.

The Egyptian position on Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam project has passed through three main phases. In the first, which took place during the first post-revolutionary interim period, Egypt was preoccupied with the struggle to build a new political system.

In that phase, Egypt agreed to the creation of a tripartite committee so that it could obtain essential information on the dam and assess the situation, potential risks and dangers, and determine how to respond.

The second phase occurred when Mohamed Morsi was president. The Muslim Brotherhood handling of the Renaissance Dam crisis was characterised by ineptitude, confusion and an attempt to greatly underplay the severity of the problem and the magnitude of the looming threat.

When Ethiopia diverted the course of the Nile on 28 May 2013, Egyptian alarm intensified and public opinion sensed that the Muslim Brotherhood government, by virtue of its ideology, was not giving the matter the attention it merited.

Under the pressure of mounting public anxiety and scepticism over its role and efficacy, the Muslim Brotherhood switched tack, as evidenced in Morsi’s sudden and dramatic shift of position. That was when he convened the infamous consultative meeting with a collection of his allies that was broadcast live, unbeknownst to the participants.

The unguarded gaffs and risky proposals that were aired were naturally exploited by Addis Ababa which, leaping at the opportunity to buy more time, had the broadcast translated, distributed the text widely and declared it constituted proof that Egypt opposed Ethiopian development and harboured hostile intentions.

That bid to alter the substance of the crisis had a lasting effect. It paved the way for the failure of the next three negotiating round, held between November 2013 and January 2014, during which Addis Ababa used its charges against Egypt as a pretext to harden its positions.

The third and last phase, which began following the election of Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi as president with an overwhelming majority, began by drawing up a new strategy that essentially sought to sustain a cooperative framework and seek compromise solutions on the basis of international principles governing hydraulic projects on international watercourses.

While this had been the general Egyptian approach all along, Al-Sisi translated it into practical and speedy action aimed at breaking the stagnation that had characterised the mishandling of this crisis until then and that brought it to a dead end in the manner described above. Al-Sisi’s efforts resulted in the Malabo Declaration, issued on the sidelines of the African Summit in Equatorial Guinea at the end of June 2014.


THE MALABO DECLARATION: Issued on 28 June 2014, in the form of a joint statement following a lengthy meeting between Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, the Malabo Declaration called for the creation of a higher committee under the direct supervision of these heads of states to oversee all aspects of their bilateral relations.

Both sides stressed the centrality of the Nile as a fundamental source of life for the Egyptian people and their existence and, simultaneously, expressed their realisation of the Ethiopian people’s developmental needs.

With regard to water management in the eastern Nile basin, the declaration provide seven mutually complimentary principles, the most important of which are respect for the principles of dialogue and cooperation, the avoidance of damage, and the principles of international law; prioritisation of regional projects for the development of water resources; and commitment on the part of the Ethiopian government to avoid any potential harm from the Renaissance Dam to Egypt’s water uses, and Egypt’s commitment to respect Ethiopia’s developmental needs.

The importance attributed to this declaration at the time resided in the fact that it brought the crisis back from the brink of conflict and enabled the return to negotiations and the search for mutual understandings. Ethiopia could be assured of its freedom to pursue developmental needs while, at the same time, committing itself to averting any potential harm to Egypt or limiting it to an acceptable level, and to sustaining cooperative relations in the interests of the peoples of the Nile basin.

At the time, the statement was also regarded as equitable. It struck a balance between the Egyptian and Ethiopian views, although the Egyptians did express some reservations. For example, Ethiopia does not recognise what Egypt regards as its historic right to its current quota of 55.5 billion cubic metres of Nile waters, which is why the term “water uses” was used instead of any reference to this quota or to quantities in the provision regarding avoidance of harm.

The joint statement also made reference to the resumption of the work of the tripartite committee and completion of the required feasibility studies, which begged the question as to what the point was in continuing discussions and studies when work on the dam was continuing at full pace.

In all events, Addis soon wriggled out of the statement, claiming that it was unsigned. This would become apparent in subsequent meetings in Khartoum.


THE KHARTOUM MEETINGS, AUGUST 2014: Following a series of consultations, meetings on the Grand Renaissance Dam resumed in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on 25 August 2014. With the understanding that the talks would proceed in the framework of the Malabo principles, which constituted a new cornerstone for action, Egypt announced that it would propose new ideas and visions.

These included a proposal for a smaller dam that would produce the same quantity of electricity as the Renaissance Dam, the creation of a joint economic entity, and a mechanism to attract new investment to the region. Egypt was also keen to discuss such issues as the safety of the Renaissance Dam in light of its given size and reservoir capacity.

Ethiopia, for its part, opened with objections to the agenda of the meetings. Effectively, it sought to void the Malabo Declaration of its substance by insisting that the talks begin from where the previous rounds had left off  namely the creation of a committee to complete the Renaissance Dam feasibility studies.

Egypt yielded to this and the participants soon announced the creation of a tripartite committee consisting of four members from each state. The committee, which was to begin work in September 2014 and complete it by March the following year, was tasked with supervising two technical studies for the dam.

The first was a hydraulic study that focused on the potential impact of the dam on Sudan and Egypt’s revenues of Nile waters, and on the electricity generating capacities of Sudanese dams and the Egyptian High Dam. The second study focussed on the environmental, economic and social impact of the Renaissance Dam on Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.

Participants in Khartoum also agreed on mechanisms to resolve any disputes that might arise. This involved recourse to international experts who would be nominated and selected by mutual agreement. They also agreed to select an international consultative firm to perform the necessary studies. The closing statement, however, made no reference as to whether the findings of those studies would be binding.


PERSISTENT ETHIOPIAN EVASION: In spite of the foregoing  the Ethiopian drive to void Malabo of its substance and integrative nature, and Ethiopia’s tactic of restricting meetings to time-consuming discussions of studies and other time-buying ruses as it presses ahead with construction of the dam  the Egyptian minister of irrigation tried to maintain a spirit of optimism and confidence-building.

He issued repeated statements intended to assure the Egyptian public that a solution was at hand and that the level of construction so far posed no threat to Egypt. He thus conveyed an implicit approval of the ongoing construction and an understanding of the Ethiopian arguments and positions.

But soon there emerged other questions regarding the value of the studies. Would Ethiopia agree to make changes to the design or specifications of the dam if the studies proved that the current specifications would be harmful to Egypt? More troublesome, in this regard, is that Egypt and Ethiopia have not even agreed on a definition of the term “harm”.

To Egypt, a reduction of its Nile quota from 55.5 billion cubic metres constitutes harm, while Addis maintains that some reduction is inevitable and “normal”. In addition, Ethiopia insists that it is not bound by the results of the feasibility studies and is only compelled to “respect” them, which is to say it will not feel obliged to halt construction regardless of what the studies say.

Clearly this implicitly circumvents the original problem regarding the excessive size of the dam and its reservoir capacity, which is Egypt’s core concern as it is effectively an attempt to shift the focus of talks to negotiations aimed at reaching an understanding on a policy or coordinating mechanism for the operations of the dam after it becomes a de facto reality.

For Egypt, this was a huge concession, although this was not directly expressed until much later. Moreover, in spite of this, Ethiopia has shown no flexibility whatsoever, even as it continued to pay lip service to “cooperation” and “avoiding harm.”


DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES ON THE RENAISSANCE DAM: Against this backdrop, which offers little hope for practical progress, and in order to break the vicious cycle, President Al-Sisi took two more courses of action. The first was to sign a declaration of principles on the Renaissance Dam project on 23 March 2015 in Khartoum.

The second was to visit Ethiopia shortly afterwards and deliver an address to the Ethiopian parliament in which he stressed the importance of sustaining cooperation in the interests of the mutual benefit of the peoples of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.

The declaration of principles offered no solutions to the outstanding differences between Egypt and Ethiopia. But it did lay the foundations for efforts to resolve those differences. Egypt took the additional step of establishing the principle of the right to fair and equitable use of water and the need to agree on criteria for that principle.

It set a deadline of 15 months for the completion of the feasibility studies (from the date of contract with the consultative firm engaged to perform the studies). The declaration nevertheless remained silent on the questions of the reservoir capacity of the dam and other specifications, while Ethiopia, for its part, kept building.

Unfortunately, from March to the present the feasibility study process has not moved a single step forward. Repeated meetings to agree on and contract consultative firms have continually run up against Ethiopian evasiveness and deception. Eventually, the Dutch company hired to conduct studies  one of two firms that had been agreed on  withdrew from the process, sending the process back to square one 13 months after the agreement that had been struck in Khartoum in August 2014.

The foregoing sums up the dilemma of the Renaissance Dam negotiations. It is a process that has been doomed to spinning in place due to Ethiopian intransigence and its constant attempts to use meetings merely in order to buy time as it forges ahead with construction.

Clearly, Ethiopia does not feel that it needs to reach understandings over compromise solutions, or that it should offer any concessions to Egypt now that its stratagems have yielded tangible inroads on the ground, and all the more since it enjoys the backing of numerous regional and international parties at a time when Egypt is struggling with numerous challenges.

It also appears clear that all of Al-Sisi’s efforts to sustain cooperation and the principle of mutual benefit have been in vain, which places him in a difficult position before domestic public opinion which senses danger, and which believes that Egypt has shown the fullest flexibility and offered all possible concessions without gaining anything in return, because Ethiopia simply has not felt the pressure to compromise.

The writer is an expert in African affairs.

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