Egypt mulls its options after failure of Nile dam talks

December 03, 2017
Limited options. The Grand Renaissance Dam under construction near the Sudanese-Ethiopia border. (AFP)

Cairo- After a breakdown in talks over Ethiopia’s construction of a multi­billion-dollar hydro­electric dam that Egypt says would severely restrict its share of Nile waters, Cairo is mull­ing its options.
Representatives of the govern­ments of Egypt, Ethiopia and Su­dan, after a meeting in November in Cairo, said they were unable to reach an agreement on the prelimi­nary results of technical studies on the effects the dam would have on Egypt and Sudan.
The French firm that conducted the studies said the Grand Ethio­pian Renaissance Dam would have adverse effects on both countries. Ethiopia, however, rejected the results. Egyptian officials, fear­ing Addis Ababa could unilater­ally start filling the dam reservoir, voiced stronger opposition to the dam’s construction.
Ethiopia rejected Cairo’s objec­tions and said it had no intention to halt construction. “Construc­tion has never stopped and will never stop until the project is com­pleted,” Ethiopian Minister of Irri­gation Seleshi Bekele Awulachew said.
Ethiopian Ambassador to Egypt Taye Atske-Selassie Amde met with members of Egypt’s African Affairs parliamentary committee to reassure Egyptian MPs about the construction. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is to visit Cairo in December.
While Cairo has publicly ruled out military action and pledged to increase attempts to persuade the Ethiopians to return to nego­tiations and accept the technical studies, analysts were not optimis­tic.
“Ethiopia wants to fill the reser­voir in three years,” said Hossam al-Imam, spokesman for Egypt’s Ministry of Irrigation, “but this would significantly reduce the amount of water coming to Egypt.”

The Grand Renaissance dam has a storage capacity of 75 billion cubic metres. Egyptian special­ists said that is more than needed for Ethiopia’s electricity genera­tion. Ethiopia wants to become a power generation hub in the Horn of Africa and plans to sell electric­ity generated by the dam to other countries.
To meet its timetable, Ethiopia would need to store 25 billion cu­bic metres of water in its reservoir every year for three years. This would have grave implications for Egypt, Cairo said.
Egypt receives 55.5 billion cu­bic metres of water from the Nile every year. With a population of 96 million, however, Egypt faces a water deficit of more than 30 bil­lion cubic metres. A reduction of its Nile water share would exacer­bate Egypt’s woes.
Egyptian President Abdel Fat­tah al-Sisi ramped up his rhetoric on the dam. “No one can touch Egypt’s share of water,” he said in televised comments in mid-No­vember. “We are capable of pro­tecting our national security and water to us is a question of national security. Full stop.”
“The issue of the Nile River is a life-or-death matter for Ethio­pians, too,” responded Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman Meles Alem.
Egyptian officials said the coun­try could suffer far-reaching socio-economic problems if there is no solution to the water rights issue.
A drop of 10 billion cubic me­tres of water would cost Egypt $8 billion every year in lost farmland output and fish wealth, a study conducted by former Irrigation Minister Mahmud Abu Zeid said.
Apart from this, water shortages would mean that Egypt’s High Dam, the hydroelectric power generation facility in Aswan, could go offline. Although the dam contributes less than 10% of Egypt’s electricity ca­pacity of 32,000 megawatts a year, the shortfall would cause daily brownouts and blackouts.
For every loss of 1 billion cubic metres of water of Egypt’s annual Nile river share, there would be a 2% drop in the High Dam’s elec­tricity output, said Abdel Nabi Ab­del Ghani, the former head of the dam’s electricity plant.
To avoid these repercussions, Cairo must convince Ethiopia to fill its dam reservoir over a 10-year pe­riod, rather than three.
“Even this will have an impact but the effect, in this case, would be far less than if the reservoir is filled in three years,” said Ministry of Irrigation spokesman Hossam al- Imam.
In March 2015, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed a declaration of principles in which they pledged to cause no significant harm to the others in the use of the Nile. The declaration saw the three countries agree to contract an independ­ent study of the dam’s effects and abide by it. Cairo says Ethiopia has violated the declaration. Some offi­cials argued that this was a stalling tactic by Addis Ababa as it sought to complete construction of the dam.
There have been calls in Egyp­tian media for Addis Ababa to be taken to international court over alleged breach of the declaration. However, legal experts said this was unlikely to succeed and that what is needed was a political, not legal solution.
“The 2015 declaration of princi­ples only allows the three countries to settle disputes over the dam through negotiation,” said Ayman Salama, an international law pro­fessor at Cairo University. “This is why demanding arbitration is not a viable option.”
The loss of farmland would exac­erbate Egypt’s food insecurity and possibly turn millions of farmers jobless and stifle agricultural ex­pansion plans.
For Sisi, who has repeatedly de­scribed Egypt’s share of Nile wa­ters as a matter of “national securi­ty,” the question is: What happens next?
With fears in Cairo regarding wa­ter security already high, there are calls for no options to be excluded if Ethiopia refuses to negotiate over the filling of the dam reser­voir.
“Military action should not be excluded as an option in case ne­gotiations reach a dead end,” said retired army General Mohamed al- Shahawi. “We know that by acting militarily to resolve the dam issue, Egypt risks angering its African brothers as well as the internation­al community but we have to de­fend our country’s right to exist.”