Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)
Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt’s red lines on water

Early next month, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn are scheduled to meet in Cairo to discuss the deadlock over Egypt’s legitimate fears of the extremely negative impacts of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD) on its share of Nile River water.

Earlier this week, Al-Sisi provided a message of reassurance that Egypt’s 100 million people needed to hear. “Rest assured that no one can touch Egypt’s share of [Nile] water,” he said during the opening of the Middle East’s largest fish farm in Kafr El-Sheikh on Saturday. “Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water is a matter of life or death for the nation,” he added.

The timing of this message was important because it came after negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia had broken down over how to conduct the technical studies of the GERD’s potential impact on downstream countries.

Since President Al-Sisi took office nearly four years ago he has sought to carry out a genuine change in Egypt’s relations with its African neighbours, especially the Nile Basin countries. He has admitted that Egypt committed a major mistake when it ignored these ties under the former Mubarak regime, and he has sought to open a new page.

Al-Sisi has been keen to attend African Union summits in person, has travelled to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa several times for meetings with top officials, and was the first Egyptian president to address the Ethiopian parliament, confirming that Cairo wanted nothing other than to improve its historic ties with the African countries.

However, while taking such steps, Egypt’s red lines have also been clear from day one. “We’ve talked to our brothers in Sudan and Ethiopia from the beginning about three points, including not touching Egypt’s share of the [Nile’s] water,” Al-Sisi said on Saturday. The president added that he understood the development goals behind the GERD, but that development for Ethiopia in this case was also a “matter of life and death” for Egypt.

Egyptian officials have expressed concern over repeated delays in finalising the technical studies on how to avoid the GERD’s negative impacts on Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water, especially given that the construction of the Dam is already well underway. The failure of the talks has confirmed Egypt’s fears that Ethiopia has been using the technical studies to waste time until its plans for the construction of the dam, and the levels of the Nile’s water, are a reality that cannot be altered.

Even before the announcement that the technical talks on the dam had been stalled, president Al-Sisi was firm in expressing Egypt’s stand when asked on the progress made in talks with Ethiopia during the recent World Youth Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh. “We view positively the development needs of our friends and brothers in Ethiopia,” Al-Sisi reaffirmed. However, “we are capable of protecting our national security, and water to us is a question of national security. Full stop,” he added. 

Ethiopia’s delay of the technical studies by refusing to provide needed information to the French firm carrying them out is a clear violation of the Declaration of Principles signed by Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in Khartoum on 23 March 2015. Addis Ababa is mistaken if it believes that it can impose the status quo. During the signing of the declaration, Desalegn assured fellow leaders in Cairo and Khartoum that the GERD would “not cause any harm to downstream countries.”

It is true that Egypt receives the largest share of the Nile’s water at more than 55 billion cubic metres of the approximately 88 billion that flow down the river each year. But this is mainly because Egypt has no other sources of water, unlike Ethiopia which receives plenty of rain and has other rivers. 

The Nile provides over 90 per cent of Egypt’s water supply, at a time when the country has been hardly getting by with the little water it has. Egypt also has one of the lowest per capita shares of water in the world at some 660 cubic metres per person. With the country’s population expected to double in 50 years, shortages are predicted to become severe by 2025.

The Egyptian people are not ready to accept any more verbal promises when it comes to their only source of water. When the leaders of Egypt and Ethiopia meet in less than two weeks’ time, they expect that Cairo’s good intentions will be met with tangible steps that fulfill Ethiopian pledges that no harm will be done to the Nile Basin countries by its construction of the GERD.

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