Issue No.1179, 9 January, 2014      08-01-2014 04:14PM ET

No water deal

River Nile trilateral negotiations regarding the construction of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance dam reached a dead end, reports Reem Leila

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The Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopi’/an water ministers during the press conference in Khartoum (photos: AFP)
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The Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopi’/an water ministers during the press conference in Khartoum (photos: AFP)
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The third round of the two-day trilateral meeting between the water ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, that took place in Khartoum this week, ended without reaching a clear deal about any of the issues present on the meeting’s agenda. Egyptian Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Abdel-Mottaleb, Sudan’s Minister of Water Resources and Electricity Moataz Moussa and Ethiopia’s Minister of Water and Energy Alemayehu Tegenu met three times since November to discuss the implementation of the recommendations made by the trilateral commission including experts from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.

The failure of the third round of talks which took place on 4-5 January may not be irretrievable. As the second round brought agreement on issues that were disagreed on in the first round, the next round might break the deadlock of the third round of talks. No further meetings are expected to be held unless new proposals are presented.

Immediately after the meeting, Abdel-Mottaleb announced in a press conference held by the three water ministries that two controversial key points were discussed during the meeting, but that the Ethiopian stance was still unchanged. The first controversial point was about Egypt’s demand to form an expert panel with representatives from Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa to monitor the building of the dam to ensure that the recommendations of the international expert panel are implemented. The second issue concerned Egypt’s request to establish certain principles guaranteeing the rights of affected states. “Both demands were rejected,” said Abdel-Mottaleb.

According to Abdel-Mottaleb, Ethiopia refused to discuss the term “confidence-building measures” which Egypt asked to be changed in order to avoid reduction of Egypt’s share of the waters of the Nile.

During the conference, Tegenu refused claims by Abdel-Mottaleb. “Ethiopia has taken all sorts of confidence-building measures. Moreover, Ethiopia can’t accept the Egyptian proposal to jointly monitor the project. Egypt is misinformed about some issues regarding the dam and the amount of water that would reach Egypt. We respect Egypt’s need in using waters of the Nile.”

Tegenu pointed out “while implementing our project, we are aware of the Egyptian Nile too... We want to develop this resource with mutual benefit. It is known that Ethiopia does not have any cultivatable lands between the dam and Sudan, where the water continues its journey upstream. There is nothing that interrupts the water flow to those upstream. It is used to generate electrical power. After that we have no use for it. The dam will also help in regulating the water for upstream countries. Egyptians need to know this information,” he said.

The construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam will be completed in three years, and 30 per cent of the construction work will be completed within the next few months. The Grand Renaissance Dam will produce hydro-electricity estimated at $4.2 billion. It is considered the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa.

According to Ethiopia, the dam will stop the annual floods in Sudan and will help in preventing the accumulation of silt at dams in Sudan and Egypt. “It will also prevent water evaporation from downstream countries, and would provide opportunities for Ethiopia to export electricity to neighbouring countries,” added Tegenu.

Diaa Al-Qousi, an international water expert, rejected Tegenu’s statement. “Preventing the accumulation of mud along Egypt’s High Dam will seriously affect the fertility of Egypt’s soil. Egypt has already lost a percentage of this mud after building its High Dam in Aswan and we are not willing to lose the remaining amount,” said Al-Qousi.

Al-Qousi pointed out that governmental officials have “at last woke up from their dream that Egypt is not facing a serious problem regarding the potential loss of its share of the River Nile waters. Our only way out of this dilemma is to continue with our talks, negotiations and peaceful attempts to end the crisis. If these solutions do not solve the problem, then Egypt must resort to international courts to end it,” said Diaa.

“Soon Egypt will be losing 20 per cent of its 5.5 billion cubic metres of water annually. This will happen as soon as the Ethiopian dam is built,” Diaa said.

The Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be 250 metres high, the width will be 128km, and is expected to store at least 72 billion cubic metres of Nile water. “Ethiopia is expected to cultivate millions of feddans by this water. It has already sold one million feddans to the Saudi company Savola to cultivate the sunflower necessary for producing its famous product of oil. Another American company has bought 1.6 million more feddans for cultivation purpose,” said Diaa.

“All waters which will be used and stored in the lake of the Ethiopian dam will be cut from Egypt’s and Sudan’s share of the Nile water,” he added.

Former minister of water resources and irrigation Mohamed Nasreddin Allam said, “all of the source countries have unanimously rejected Egypt’s conditions. Accordingly Egypt did not sign the convention,” added Allam. He pointed out that some of the source countries suffer from periodic drought. They are anxious to utilise the Nile for irrigation and, in some cases producing hydroelectricity. “The Nile Basin Initiative was launched in 1998 to establish regional cooperation among the countries who share the Nile, especially after the agricultural changes witnessed by this area,” he said.

According to Allam, Egypt has no problem in supporting any of the Nile Basin countries which want to build dams for producing electricity “as these types of dams do not affect Egypt’s quota of the water”. Dams built for storing water to be used in agriculture forms a huge threat to Egypt’s share of the Nile water. “Accordingly Egypt can never agree on such practices,” added Allam.

Despite Egypt’s disapproval of the Ethiopia dam project, Addis Ababa is going ahead with it as part of its energy needs. According to Al-Qousi, Ethiopia will increase its efforts to push forward on the construction of the large dam project that has left both Egypt and Sudan frustrated.

The construction of a new dam in Ethiopia will not affect the supply of water flowing to Egypt, said Ibrahim Nasreddin of Cairo University’s African Institute Studies. “Needlessly, the dam has caused some friction in relations between the three River Nile countries over fears that the dam will have a detrimental effect on the water share of the downstream countries.” Ethiopia began diverting water from the Blue Nile, a tributary of the Nile, as part of the construction of the dam.

“The effect of the dam has been already studied,” said Nasreddin, and has been presented by the Ethiopian government as part of one of the projects included in the eastern Nile Basin Initiative, an initiative that all Nile Basin countries agreed upon.

Nasreddin added that studies of the dam conducted by Egypt demonstrated that it would not have an effect on the volume of water flowing to Lake Nasser, south of the Aswan High Dam. “Thorough discussions have been conducted regarding sources of potential threat and how to deal with them in order to preserve vital Egyptian interests and safeguard the national security of the country,” said Nasreddin.

“A further study on the effects of the Ethiopian dam will be completed between six months to one year, and will be referenced heavily throughout upcoming discussions,” said Nasreddin.

Sudan’s stance began to change after it became clear that the dam is to be completed soon. Sudan has shown a different stance than that of Egypt, as it has been supporting the construction of the Ethiopian dam. Sudanese Minister Moussa expressed his optimism regarding the meeting, saying that cooperation in constructing the Grand Renaissance Dam would be the “beginning of the road for a better future for the peoples of the Nile Basin countries”.

Sudan is strongly supporting the construction of the Ethiopian dam as Moussa described it as “a model of development for the region”. Moussa noted that Egypt’s resistance to the dam is due to political issues and a technical point. “Some Egyptian politicians have used the issue as a political instrument to pressure their opponents. Otherwise it is known that the building of the dam is beneficiary for downstream countries as it enables them to receive regulated free water.”

The minister suggested that the dam’s construction should be executed “with a sense of cooperation and mutual benefit to Sudan and Egypt which badly need the Nile water for agricultural development and on the other hand, Ethiopia needs it to generate electric power. “Otherwise, nobody will benefit from individual utilisation of the waters.”

Historically, only Egypt and Sudan have shares in the Nile. The other Nile Basin countries did not have any need for the water; they receive enough rainfall every year to cover agricultural needs. Egypt gained a historical right to the Nile, a right confirmed by many international agreements. Earlier agreements were signed by Britain and Italy and the Upper Nile countries, the last being signed in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan. “We stress that these historical rights are protected by international law,” stated Al-Qousi. Until 1959 Egypt received 48 billion cubic metres of water.

After the 1959 agreement, Egypt’s total share of the Nile waters was increased to 55.5 billion cubic metres while Sudan received 14.5 billion cubic metres. This amount only includes six to eight per cent of total rainfall over the Nile Basin. Much of the rest is lost. Some through evapotranspiration — the consumption of plants — while yet more seeps into the ground creating ground water. “What we use, then, is very little when compared to the potential. Yet to tap this potential there must be management of the water in some areas, such as the equatorial lakes where the water losses are huge. The weeds consume more than is lost through natural evaporation,” said Al-Qousi.

The Nile Basin countries began to develop and many want to expand in their cultivated lands. However, decisions such as these cannot be made by one country. “From now on there must be consultations and mutual agreement,” emphasised Al-Qousi. Egypt will, though, eventually need to increase its quota as this is a legal right. Due to the fact that Egypt’s population has reached over 90 million, “the individual’s share of potable water decreased to 750 cubic metres per year when compared to 2,000, which is the person’s share at any of the source countries. Officials must start talking and the details will come later. They should focus on joint projects similar to that of Gongli. The most important principal, though, is that the Nile is for all countries. This understanding relieves the Upper Nile countries and definitely today there is a new attitude emerging,” stated Al-Qousi.

Despite the failure to reach any agreement, Egypt has made it absolutely clear that it supports and will continue supporting any development and that it will help as long as they do not harm Egypt’s quota of the water. Much of the concern about the equitable distribution of Nile waters seems to stem from the fear that there will be limited resources to share in the very near future due to the high population growth rates in the Basin region. “For the time being we do not have a real problem with our water as we use our quota two fold and a half via recycling. We benefit from at least 75 per cent of our share,” confirmed Al-Qousi.

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