Egypt fears Nile backlash from Ethiopia’s turmoil

Political change in Ethiopia could have negative repercussions on Egypt.
Sunday 25/02/2018
A view of the Nile River in Cairo.  (AFP)
Sharing concerns. A view of the Nile River in Cairo. (AFP)

CAIRO - The resignation of Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn alarmed Egyptian officials concerned about Nile water sharing issues stemming from Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam.

Desalegn, who stepped down because of anti-government protests, said his resignation was necessary “to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy.”

Protracted unrest and political change in Ethiopia could have negative repercussions on stalled negotiations over the dam, analysts said.

“There is not a shred of doubt that the outcome of what is happening in Ethiopia now will leave its mark on dam talks with Egypt,” said water expert Dia al-Din al-Qosy. “Egypt is full of hope that a change of course in these negotiations will not happen.”

Egypt’s main fear is that radical political change in Ethiopia could allow Addis Ababa to change its negotiating position on the dam project, which it said would bring in billions of dollars in revenues each year.

Ethiopia is nearing completion of the hydroelectric dam but questions remain over the filling of the dam. Cairo, which is battling water scarcity and depends on the Nile for more than 55 billion cubic metres of water per year, warned that Ethiopia’s 3-year time frame to fill the dam reservoir would greatly reduce its water supply. Egypt’s annual water deficit is already nearly 20 billion cubic metres.

Years of negotiations over the technical and environment effects the dam will have on Egypt and Sudan have not delivered solutions all sides agree on and Egyptians are increasingly concerned about the dam’s long-term effects.

Things seemed to take a turn for the better on January 29 when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with Desalegn and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in Addis Ababa on the sidelines of African Union meetings.

The three leaders emerged from their meeting together, hands clasped, and said issues over the dam had been resolved.

“Be absolutely reassured. There is no crisis. We are all one and there is no harm to any party,” Sisi said. The trio announced a 1-month time frame for positing a solution to the deadlock.

Desalegn’s resignation, however, returned concerns that the impasse on the issue could remain.

“The worry here is that we can have a new government in Ethiopia that demands a start of negotiations on the Nile dam from the very beginning,” said Hussein Haridi, a former Egyptian assistant foreign minister. “This will be catastrophic.”

Construction of the dam has continued unabated.

“This means that Egypt will end up facing an irreversible situation on the ground,” Haridi said.

The leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed a declaration of principles in March 2015, pledging not to cause harm to each other and to turn the Nile into a source of cooperation, not conflict.

While a proposed solution had not been officially announced, there were leaked reports of a potential deal to end the standoff ahead of the 1-month deadline, set to expire at the end of February.

The deal, Egyptian media reports said, would have seen Egypt attempt to temporarily reduce its use of water by avoiding water-consuming crops, such as rice, and would increase imports while Ethiopia filled the reservoir.

The World Bank, details of the leaked deal indicated, would initially make up for Egypt’s increase in imports with Ethiopia ultimately bearing the cost through future revenue generated from the hydroelectric dam.

Ethiopia has requested to postpone a tripartite ministerial-level meeting on the dam with Egypt and Sudan at the end of February in Khartoum, the Sudanese government said.

It is unknown whether Ethiopia’s next government will follow the negotiating line pursued by Desalegn’s administration. Some observers said they were hopeful that the Ethiopian and Egyptian water ministries will ensure parity.

“The governments in Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have managed to develop real understanding of the concerns of each other, especially when it comes to the dam project,” said Hatem Bashat, a member of the Egyptian parliament’s African Affairs Committee. “We are full of confidence that nothing will change because this is not about persons but about countries talking to each other.”