Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1391, (26 April - 2 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

More than water

Disagreements over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam involve more than Egypt’s water share, writes Dina Ezzat  

 

MPs voted this week to impose custodial sentences on farmers who plant water-intensive rice crops without first securing prior approval from the Ministry of Agriculture.  Egypt suffers from an annual water deficit of more than 50 billion cubic metres and needs at least 114 billion cubic metres of water a year to cover the needs of its 95 million citizens, according to recent statements by the Ministry of Irrigation.  With 80 per cent of Egypt’s water coming from the Nile — the remainder is sourc
MPs voted this week to impose custodial sentences on farmers who plant water-intensive rice crops without first securing prior approval from the Ministry of Agriculture. Egypt suffers from an annual water deficit of more than 50 billion cubic metres and needs at least 114 billion cubic metres of water a year to cover the needs of its 95 million citizens, according to recent statements by the Ministry of Irrigation. With 80 per cent of Egypt’s water coming from the Nile — the remainder is sourced from non-renewable subterranean reserves in the desert — upstream projects such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam pose a great threat. (photo: AP)

Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia are discussing a possible meeting between the three countries’ ministers of foreign affairs and water resources and heads of intelligence. According to informed sources, no final decision has been taken yet though 15 May has been proposed as a date, with the venue likely to be the Ethiopian capital.

A meeting proposed by Egypt between the nine senior officials, penciled in for 19 April in Cairo, failed to convene. Sudanese and Ethiopian sources say neither the timing nor venue had been agreed in advance. They also argued more time was needed to work out how to move forward given the failure of last month’s meeting in Khartoum to make any progress.

Sudan and Ethiopia both blame Egypt for the stalemate. They claim the Egyptian delegation to the Khartoum meeting was uncompromising and unwilling to constructively manage disagreements whereas Egypt’s take on the situation is that the Ethiopian and Sudanese delegations were unwilling to move forward on basic issues related to the construction and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Addis Ababa began the construction of GERD without prior consultation with Egypt or Sudan.  The dam will have a reservoir of 74 billion cubic metres and is planned, says Addis Ababa, to generate the electricity necessary for development schemes. But while some of the spin-offs are likely to be helpful to Sudan — it will aid in the management of annual flooding, could kick-start Sudanese agricultural development and will allow Sudan to purchase electricity cheaply from Ethiopia — its impact on Egypt is far from positive.

Eighty per cent of Egypt’s already inadequate 56 billion cubic metre share of Nile water comes through the Blue Nile on which Ethiopia is building the dam.

In 2015 Egypt agreed to a Sudanese proposal that all three states sign the Khartoum Declaration of Principles, a document intended to lead to a negotiated settlement agreeable to all parties. The signing of the agreement, says a government official who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity, allowed the partial block on international funding for the dam, which Cairo had managed to secure, to be lifted. Yet according to another government official who spoke to the Weekly earlier this year, the goodwill Egypt showed at the time has not been reciprocated by Ethiopia.

Three years later Ethiopia says 70 per cent of the construction of GERD has been completed, and the process of filling the reservoir will begin by the end of this year with or without an agreement with Egypt.

Sudanese and Ethiopian sources claim Cairo is refusing proposals put forward by Addis Ababa and Khartoum for the management of the filling and operation of GERD in a way that will not “cause Egypt great or significant harm”. Cairo has said the proposals are “technically unrealistic”.

Egypt has consistently argued that before any agreement can be reached on the filling and operation of the dam a consensus had to be found to a host of technical issues. They include questions about the structure of the dam, as well as what a former Egyptian minister of environment qualified as “very serious ecological concerns” related to the quality of the silt carried by the river, the long-term impact of the dam on the Nile in Egypt and on the Delta, the quality of the water and the impact on Egypt’s own agricultural plans.

“The quantity of water is one issue but ecological problems also need to be seriously considered. Their impact may not be immediate but will grow in significance down the line,” the former minister said.

Egypt is becoming more and more aware of the need to consider its legal options should Ethiopia unilaterally begin filling and operating GERD.

Cairo had hoped for a more cooperative Sudanese position in the wake of the most recent meeting in Cairo between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and his Sudanese counterpart Omar Al-Bashir. During the meeting Egypt promised security and intelligence cooperation to help Khartoum manage the situation in Darfour and along its border with Libya. Egypt also acted to dispel Khartoum’s worries over relations, particularly on the military front, between Cairo and Juba and expressed willingness to engage in joint security and economic ventures in the Halayeb and Shalatin triangle which Khartoum claims is Sudanese Territory.

Less than three months since the meeting and Cairo is far from impressed by the positions Sudan is taking on the Nile file and on the Halayeb and Shalatin front. Khartoum has been levelling complaints against Cairo in the UN, the last of which came late last month when Sudan objected to poll stations operating in Halayeb and Shalatin during Egypt’s March presidential election.

Cairo officials say they have tried hard to contain Sudanese scepticism over security and have pursued third party mediation through both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They also speak of Egypt’s willingness to enter into greater economic cooperation with Sudan. Yet there are no positive results to show. Part of the blame, they say, lies with the Islamist affiliations of the regime in Khartoum which has never been happy with the post-Brotherhood political dispensation in Cairo, and with the “far from constructive” influence of Qatar and Turkey in Sudan.

Failure to progress on the GERD file will ratchet up tensions in Cairo’s relationship with Khartoum. It will also see further deterioration in Egypt’s relationship with Ethiopia at a time when the influence of Turkey and Qatar in the strategic Horn of Africa is expanding in both Djibouti and Somalia and the influence of Egypt’s ally the UAE is waning.

For decision-makers in Cairo the situation is getting tougher by the day and the impact of good offices, including ones offered by Europe, the US and, for that matter, Israel, is failing to gain momentum.

“Time is increasingly of consequence. We have legal options to consider on how best to deal with Ethiopia though any final decision cannot be exclusively legalistic. We need to take into consideration not just the very crucial water issue but also the wider strategic and political context,” said an Egyptian official who asked not to be identified. He added that for now Egypt would give another chance for talks in the hope that the next meeting in Addis Ababa will deliver some results.

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