Friday,16 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)
Friday,16 November, 2018
Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

No water under the bridge

President Anwar Al-Sadat’s 1978 prediction that the region’s next wars will be over water resources looks increasingly prescient, writes Nader Noureddin

No water under the bridge
No water under the bridge

In 1978 Ethiopia’s communist leaning government led by president Mengistu Haile Mariam vowed to build a series of dams on the Blue Nile. President Anwar Al-Sadat’s response was: “We’re not going to wait to die of thirst in Egypt. We’ll go to Ethiopia and die there.” Sadat also made a significant prediction. “The next wars in the region will not be political, they will be wars over water,” he said.

Ethiopian-Egyptian tensions eventually subsided and after Haile Mariam’s step-down relations gradually improved.

The ambition of former prime minister Meles Zenawito to build mega-dams that give Ethiopia complete control on the largest source of the Blue Nile in contravention of the 1997 UN Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses rekindled tensions. The convention explicitly states that upstream countries should not construct large dams or hydraulic facilities that alter the flow of rivers in ways that are detrimental to downstream countries.

Zenawi asked president Hosni Mubarak to approve the construction of a dam with a reservoir capacity of 14.5 billion m3. Mubarak refused. He reminded Zenawi that Ethiopia has several other trans-boundary rivers with Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti and asked why the prime minister was focussing on the Blue Nile which supplies 64 per cent of the water that reaches Egypt. Mubarak added that when Ethiopia had built dams on its other rivers Egypt would consider whether it needed to build more dams on the Blue Nile, one of the least suitable rivers for damming given the huge amount of silt estimated at 136.5 million tons a year. This huge weight of the sediments is sufficient to render redundant the largest existing dams in the world in less than 50 years, meaning any major dam on the Blue Nile would require another number of new dams to retain some of the silt, which means that the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will be a series of large dams.

Following Mubarak’s resignation in February 2011, Ethiopia seized the opportunity to build a mega-dam on the Blue Nile by putting the cornerstone of GERD on 2 April, 40 days after Mubarak resigned. Addis Ababa used Egypt’s preoccupation with security and economic problems, with drafting a new constitution and holding parliamentary elections, to impose a new de facto reality by building the bulk of the damn and canvassing the support of Arab and African states for the project.

Talks between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam have from the outset been political, not technical, and subject to the authorities of the heads-of-state.

In 2011, following a meeting between Zenawi and then Egyptian prime minister Essam Sharaf, the two sides agreed to form an international experts panel to survey the site of the dam, examine the proposed technical specifications and consider its environmental, socio-economic and hydraulic impact on Egypt. The Ethiopian prime minister stated that he was prepared to make any modifications recommended by the panel of experts which was to complete its work within six months. Egypt, for its part, should accept the Ethiopian condition, to approve that the dam is “under construction” even though work on it had not begun at the time.

A committee of scientists from Germany, the UK, France and South Africa was formed but as soon as it began work Addis Ababa refused to cooperate. Ethiopia provided no access to the environmental, hydraulic and socio-economic impact of the dam on Egypt, a matter which should have been done before the construction of this huge dam. It not only refused to allow the international committee to retain any maps or architectural designs of the dam but made these available to the committee for extremely limited amounts of time. As a result the committee was only able to complete its work after 18 months — three times the amount of time originally allocated. Twice during this period the committee officially complained of Ethiopian procrastination and obstruction.

The panel of experts released its recommendations on 31 May 2013. Significantly, it noted the absence of necessary feasibility studies. Ethiopia had effectively reversed standards universally applied in dam construction. Capitalising on conditions in Egypt it started building the dam before any feasibility studies had been undertaken.

As the owner of the company carrying out the project observed Addis Ababa’s only concern was to build the largest possible dam. He said he received only two words from Zinawe about the purpose and dimension of the suggested dam: Huge and Great. It showed no interest in maximising the amount of electricity that could be generated in ratio with the dam size but instead was determined to withhold the largest possible quantity of water. It already had potential customers for this water in the Gulf and Israel and displayed zero concern for the damage that would be inflicted on Egypt.

The international committee’s report made it clear the dam had not been properly studied and construction was going ahead regardless of the damage it would inflict on downstream countries. Talks between Egypt and Ethiopia, including experts from both states and from Sudan, ground to a halt. 

In June 2014, during a meeting on the fringes of the African Union summit in Equatorial Guinea between newly elected Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Desalegn said Ethiopia had completed the studies that customarily should have been undertaken ahead of construction work and was now ready to resume negotiations with Egypt and Sudan. The two heads-of-state issued a joint statement announcing that negotiations would resume without any preconditions and in good faith.

Although talks resumed, Addis refused to allow the first international committee, which had criticised the lack of feasibility studies, to continue its work and withheld the feasibility studies it claimed to have completed. It insisted talks should be restricted to the three countries concerned and, aware any international committee would withhold approval for such a huge dam constructed against all international standards, Addis Ababa vetoed further international involvement including the resumption of work of the panel of experts.

Unfortunately Cairo agreed to the Ethiopian new condition and also agreed to proceed with negotiations while work on the dam was in progress. This meant the talks would be practically restricted to the impact of the dam on Egypt, minimising the amount of harm it would cause and assessing compensation to be paid to Egypt given the inevitable damage. Ethiopia stipulated another condition which is that the recommendations of the study would not be bound but should only be respected.

Unfortunately, even the term “significant damage” is subject to dispute. Egypt, with 104 million people requiring 1,000 m3 of water a year per person to subsist above the level of water scarcity needs 104 billion m3 of water a year, has an annual water deficit of 42 billion m3. Withholding a single cubic metre of water that Egypt has received for thousands of years constitutes damage, yet Ethiopia seems to think that withholding billions of cubic metres of water does not poses neither “concrete damage or significant harm” nor a “substantial threat”.

As negotiations between Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum continued the parties had to turn to French consultants to conduct impact studies. The studies were to cover such factors as the number of years it will take to fill the projected 74.5 billion m3 reservoir and the amounts of water lost by evaporation from the surface of the lake and from the deep seepage from the button of the lake. The consultants were expected to conclude their work after 11 months, by July 2017, and in the meantime were contracted to produce two preliminary reports issued at three-month intervals. By November 2017 the work was still not complete due to Ethiopia’s procrastination and refusal to cooperate.

The first of the two preliminary reports was submitted in October, a year late. Both Ethiopia and Sudan rejected the consultants’ conclusions and worked to void the report of any substance, seeking to remove findings about the potential damage to Egypt including the impact on the Delta climate change, the damage to agricultural land wreaked by water shortages and consequent salinisation, the detrimental impact on the aqua river environmental system, the economic and food supply impact of the decline in fish in addition to the socio-economic impacts etc. Ethiopia and Sudan in effect colluded to undermine the work of the consultants, with Khartoum arguing that Cairo’s recognition of Ethiopia’s right to build the dam negated any need for feasibility studies and consultants.

But things are not so simple. Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt signed a contract with the consultants. So why cancel it now?

And why did Ethiopia and Sudan raise no objections during the two and a half years of talks?

The answer to the second question now appears obvious. Addis Ababa and Khartoum were conniving to waste time, engaged in the age-old ruse of prolonging negotiations while creating a de facto reality on the ground.

While the announcement by the Egyptian minister of water resources and irrigation in early November that technical negotiations had collapsed shocked a public desperate to know their water resources will remain secure it should not have come as a surprise given Ethiopia’s continued refusal to pledge officially, and in contractual form, that the average flow of the Blue Nile will remain unchanged. Ethiopia has repeatedly refused to put honeyed promises that it will never harm the Egyptian people into writing through new signed agreement for the simple reason that it does intend to harm Egypt, and with malice aforethought. That damage will occur is now abundantly clear. Even Ethiopia and Sudan admit it. Two billion m3 will be lost due to the water sprayed by the dam’s electricity turbines, another five billion m3 will be lost through surface evaporation. Another 10 billion m3 will be lost due to deep seepage into the basin of the reservoir. In Sudan’s Blue Nile and Kassala states irrigation relies mostly on the annual Nile floods (basin agriculture) but will come to a halt requiring a massive and costly shift to other forms of irrigated agriculture.

Two centuries ago, Mohamed Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt, went to battle to stem Ethiopian greed for Sudanese land. Then Egypt forgave Ethiopia for sheltering the man who killed Mohamed Ali’s son. But not only did Ethiopia refuse to turn him over to Egypt, it arranged for him to marry one of the king’s daughters, exacerbating tensions. Today’s dispute over water is of an entirely different order. Egypt must expose to the international community the Ethiopian government’s intransigence, its brutish insistence on applying the principle of absolute sovereignty over a shared resource and its refusal to abide by international law governing trans-boundary rivers. Sadly, Ethiopia appears intent on leaving Egypt with no choice but to go to war to defend its right to water and to life, just as Sadat predicted four decades ago.


The writer is professor of soil and water sciences at Cairo University’s Faculty of Agriculture.

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