Egypt mulls its options after failure of Nile dam talks
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.”