Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Stalemate over the dam?

Despite seemingly positive statements by the Sudanese foreign minister on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, there may be further differences between Cairo and Addis Ababa in 2016, writes Doaa El-Bey

Al-Ahram Weekly

Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour says that his country “will not allow” anything to threaten Egypt or Sudan’s water security, He was speaking during a visit to Cairo this week.

While the statement could be regarded as possible support for Egypt in its position on Ethiopia’s building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), experts are seeing it as only a political statement, rather than a sign that Sudan’s position on the dam has changed.

“Sudan has shown absolute support for building the dam. Its stand has been very clear and it will not change. On the contrary, Ghandour tried to point to the benefits of the dam to Khartoum and Cairo during his visit,” said Nader Noureddin, a professor of agricultural resources at Cairo University.

“Ghandour’s statement is a political statement meant as a political pleasantry rather than a change in his country’s stand,” said one diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.

During his meeting with Ghandour, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi stressed that the River Nile is the sole major source of water for Egypt. He pointed to the importance of reaching a solution regarding the Ethiopian dam and for serious and tangible steps to be taken in implementing the declaration of principles signed by Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in March 2015 in Khartoum.

Ghandour expressed his country’s commitment not to do anything to harm Egypt’s water rights and the common interests of the three countries. He also tried to emphasise that Sudan was not playing a “mediating role” between Egypt and Ethiopia.

During his meeting with a group of politicians at the Sudanese ambassador’s residency in Cairo, Ghandour said Sudan is “not an intermediary” between Egypt and Ethiopia on the issue of the dam. “Sudan’s interests are similar to Egypt’s, and we will not allow anything to threaten our and Egypt’s water security,” he said.

He said the dam will not harm Sudan or Egypt as it is being built by a company that has already built dozens of dams in Europe. He said at the press conference, held after his meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, that the dam is “an Ethiopian dam built on Ethiopian land.”

“I would not consider this to be an accurate statement. The Nile is an international river that is shared by Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia,” Noureddine said. By supporting Ethiopia, Sudan has broken the consensual stand it should have taken with Egypt to guarantee that the dam does not cause harm in the future, he added.

In another negative development on the dam, Ethiopia has rejected an Egyptian suggestion to increase the number of the GERD’s gates from two to four to allow more water to flow to downstream countries. Addis Ababa said that building two openings for the dam had come following “intensive studies” and that it could not redesign the project.

Noureddine said the rejection had been expected because it is unlikely that Addis Ababa will accept a change in the design when the dam is more than half built. “Negotiations started more than 18 months ago. Why didn’t Egypt ask for this at the beginning? There has been a clear delay in reaction and an absence of preplanning,” he said.

The dam has long been a cause of differences between Cairo and Addis Ababa. Egypt has repeatedly expressed concerns over the dam’s possible effect on Egypt’s water supply from the Nile, while Ethiopia insists the dam is mainly for generating electricity and will not negatively affect Egypt’s share of Nile water.

During a meeting late last year, the Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian foreign and irrigation ministers signed the Khartoum Agreement, described as “historic” by Sudan’s foreign minister. The document prevents Addis Ababa from starting to fill the dam’s reservoir until technical studies are finished next October, Hossam Moghazi, Egypt’s minister of irrigation, said after the signing.

The other advantage of the agreement, according to Moghazi, is that it allows field visits to the dam by Egyptian and Sudanese experts.

Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom said that Sudan and Egypt had been invited to visit the dam. “We have nothing to hide. They [Egypt and Sudan] should inspect the dam site, and this will promote partnerships and build trust. We also extend the invitation to the public diplomacy movements and the media [in Sudan and Egypt] to visit the dam,” he said.

The three countries also agreed to replace the Dutch consultancy firm that withdrew from the studies last September by the French firm Arterlia, which is supposed to conduct studies on the dam’s impact alongside another French firm, BRL.

A new round of talks, aimed at confidence-building measures between the three countries, is scheduled for the first week of February.

“It is obvious that the three countries are taking one confidence-building measure after another. However, these measures do not seem to be positively reflected on the ground, either by clearly proving that the dam will not harm Egypt and Sudan, or by stopping the building until this fact is proved,” the diplomat said.

Various technical meetings were held last year in the hope of resolving disagreements about the firm that was to conduct the studies on the dam’s impact. The last technical meeting was held in Khartoum in December.

A French and Dutch firm were chosen in April last year by the National Tripartite Committee (NTC) overseeing the dam, but the Dutch firm, which was assigned 30 per cent of the work, withdrew in September, saying the conditions imposed by the NTC and the French firm “did not guarantee” independent and good quality studies.

The NTC is composed of technical experts from the three states that are in charge of studying the possible impacts of the dam.

Conflict over the dam issue goes back to before the 25 January Revolution, with Egypt attempting several times to prevent its construction because of concerns over its effect on the amount of water reaching the country. Egypt depends on the Nile for 95 per cent of its water needs. Most of this water comes from the Blue Nile.

The differences took a sharp turn when Ethiopia diverted the course of the Blue Nile to start the building of the dam in May 2013. Negotiations failed to resolve the differences until the two countries decided to open a new page of cooperation after President Al-Sisi met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on the margins of the African Union Summit in Equatorial Guinea in June 2014.

The two leaders agreed that they would form a joint committee in the following three months to enhance bilateral relations between the two countries. The foreign ministers of both states issued a statement after that meeting in which they stressed that Ethiopia understood the importance of the Nile to Egypt and Egypt understood the Ethiopian plans and need for development. Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan then formed the NTC to look into the effects of the dam.

In another confidence-building measure in March last year, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met in Sudan and signed the declaration of principles on the dam that included cooperation between the three countries regarding their water needs with the aim of improving sustainable development and regional economic integration. The three countries also agreed not to cause harm or damage to any of the signatories.

After signing the declaration of principles, the three countries agreed to sign contracts with the French and Dutch consultancy firms to carry out studies of the dam’s possible effects on the accessing of water by downstream countries.

The studies are also expected to determine the time period it will take for the dam to be filled and possible environmental and social impacts on Egypt and Sudan.

Noureddine regards the Khartoum Document and the declaration of principles as confidence-building measures. “However, they fail to acknowledge and guarantee Egypt’s water,” he said.

The alternative, according to Noureddin, would be an agreement that would clearly guarantee an amount of water every day or every year and would not affect Egypt’s water quota. “That is the only way to guarantee that the dam will not affect the amount of water reaching Sudan and Egypt,” he said.

He also pointed to the fact that while the main dam is more than half built, the saddle dam, which is more likely to affect the water quota, is still in its initial stages. “It is definitely better for the negotiators to focus on the height of that dam. If it were reduced from 45 to 20 or 25 metre, that could solve most of the pending issues, including the water quota,” he added.

Egypt currently receives 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile’s water and Sudan gets 18 billion cubic metres, as stipulated by a 1959 treaty.

Noureddin said that resorting to international bodies was another option that would take time but could be the only option if negotiations fail. The diplomat pointed to that option, as he saw “no use” in the current negotiations.

“There is a possibility that the dam issue could be solved politically. The presidents of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia should sit together and try to sort things out, as the declaration of principles stipulates,” he said.

Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir’s planned visit to Egypt in the first quarter of 2016 could be the starting point of this process, he added.

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