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

Ahram Weekly

No agreement in sight

Impact studies of the Renaissance Dam are being held up while construction continues at full steam. It is a back to front sequence, writes Doaa El-Bey


Abdel-Ati, centre, at last week’s tripartite meeting in Cairo
Abdel-Ati, centre, at last week’s tripartite meeting in Cairo

Seventeen rounds of tripartite meetings have been held between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia on the Renaissance Dam without any signs of agreement. In the meantime 62 per cent of the dam has been built, according to Ethiopian officials, in the absence of any impact studies.

During the World Youth Forum in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh earlier this month President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi directly addressed the growing tensions between Addis Ababa and Cairo over the dam. “We view positively the development needs of our friends and brothers in Ethiopia,” he said, before adding that “we are capable of protecting our national security, and water to us is a question of national security.”

It was a message Al-Sisi underlined this week while inaugurating a major fish farm project in Kafr Al-Sheikh. “No one can touch Egypt’s share of water,” said the president. “Water is a matter of life or death.”

The most recent tripartite meeting, held in Cairo last week, ended with Cairo acknowledging that the three countries had failed to approve the preliminary study on the dam’s impacts on Egypt and Sudan compiled by French consultants.

“Constant delays have raised concerns in Cairo over the ability of the three states to work together to ensure Egypt’s water security,” said Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Ati.

Abdel-Ati had attended the tripartite meeting alongside his Ethiopian and Sudanese counterparts.

For the first time since the start of technical negotiations Egypt is voicing unambiguous concerns that negotiations are heading nowhere, said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Parallel tracks are urgently needed to break the deadlock. Improving ties and widening cooperation with African countries in general, and Nile Basin countries in particular, could help pressure Ethiopia into showing some flexibility in the negotiations,” he said.

Raising the issue in regional or international meetings is one option being considered, revealed the diplomat.

“Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri already brought the issue up during a phone call this week with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.”

During the call Shoukri told Tillerson the deadlock in technical negotiations was “a matter of great concern given Egypt’s complete dependence on Nile water”, according to a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry.

To move beyond the current impasse will require persistence and determination on the part of Egypt, says former assistant to the foreign minister Mohamed Hegazi.

“Egypt’s leaders need to map out a new direction for the technical team within the framework of the Declaration of Principles which should always form the guidelines for negotiations,” said Hegazi.

The government should also explain Egypt’s position in foreign capitals.

“Cairo needs to be ready with all the technical and legal files necessary to back up its position towards the dam.” Hegazi also argued wider cooperation — including linking Egypt and Ethiopia via roads, railway and power grids — could help harmonise relations, reduce tensions and boost political understanding.

The deadlock on the technical track prompted Abbas Sharaki, a professor at Cairo University’s Institute for African Research and Studies, to argue the focus should be expanded to pressing matters such as the timetable for filling the dam’s reservoir and its operational protocols alongside construction. The Declaration of Principles stipulates these are issues on which all signatories must reach agreement.

“If these issues are resolved in tandem with the technical track we can keep the negative impacts of the dam to a minimum,” says Sharaki.

Ethiopia wants to fill the reservoir in three years whereas Cairo wants a seven-to-10 year timetable in order to minimise disruption to the flow of Nile water reaching Egypt.

The $4 billion Grand Renaissance Dam is being constructed on the Blue Nile close to Ethiopia’s border with Sudan. It is expected to generate up to 6,000 megawatts of electricity and create a reservoir of 74 billion cubic metres of water.

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed a Declaration of Principles over the dam in March 2015. It states that the dam should not harm the interests of downstream states.

The three countries also signed the Khartoum Agreement in December 2015 which stipulates that work on filling the reservoir can only begin after technical and impact studies are complete. Yet despite the absence of the required impact studies Ethiopia is expected to start filling the reservoir and partially operating the dam by the middle of next year.

Studies on the impact of the dam were scheduled to begin in August 2016, with preliminary reports issued every three months and a final report after 11 months. Yet more than a year later a single preliminary report has been issued the findings of which are being disputed and there is no agreement on the next step.

All three countries agreed not to disclose details of the preliminary report though leaks suggest it underlined negative impacts of the dam.

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