Egypt pressures Ethiopia on effects of Nile dam project
Cairo - Underlying Egypt’s growing ties with Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, South Sudan and Uganda is its desire to hem in Ethiopia politically, economically and militarily, experts said.
The moves were prompted by Ethiopia’s constructing a multibillion-dollar hydroelectric dam on the Nile River, Egypt’s only source of water.
“Egypt can do nothing but put pressure on Ethiopia to make it think twice before it starts harming Egyptian national interests,” said Attia Essawi, an African affairs specialist. “This can only be done by cementing ties with Ethiopia’s neighbouring countries.”
Before the dam construction, Egypt, which receives 55.5 billion cubic metres of water from the Nile annually, suffered a water deficit of almost 20%. The deficit is expected to spike dramatically after the dam becomes operational in a few months.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said nobody should be allowed to tamper with the flow of the Nile. “This is a matter of life and death,” he said January 27th during a conference about Egyptian young people in the southern province of Aswan.
Nonetheless, Ethiopia said its Grand Renaissance Dam, which will turn the country into an electrical power hub in Africa, is indispensable for its economic development.
The project has reached the point of no return and the most Cairo can hope for is to convince Ethiopia to fill in the dam reservoir over a longer period that would prevent harm to Egypt, experts said. The dam reservoir will hold 603 billion cubic metres of water and Ethiopia plans to fill it over a 5-year period, during which Egypt expects to suffer its biggest water shortage.
Egyptian water experts, pointing out that the dam’s height and storage capacity indicate that Addis Ababa aims for more than just generating electricity, suggest Ethiopia may be trying to limit water available to Egypt.
“You do not need a dam 170 metres high to generate electricity,” said Alaa al-Zawahri, a professor of hydraulic engineering at Cairo University and a member of the panel studying possible effects of the dam.
Having failed to curtail Ethiopia’s dam project, Cairo is trying economic and political pressure on Addis Ababa.
“Egypt can cut Addis Ababa off its immediate surroundings if it wants through its close ties with the countries neighbouring Ethiopia,” said Hosni Sadek, a researcher in African affairs.
Egypt is an important market for meat and agricultural crops for neighbouring countries. The Egyptian Partnership Agency for Development, a Foreign Ministry division whose job is to cement ties with African states, allocates tens of millions of dollars every year in assistance to them and Egypt’s powerful army offers support to the fragile militaries of nearby countries as they try to keep militant groups at bay.
During a December visit to Cairo, Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh oversaw the signing of several cooperation agreements and there was talk that Egypt would establish a military base in Djibouti, the first outside its border. Sisi had been in Uganda earlier to discuss economic and trade issues and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir visited Cairo on January 9th to discuss similar deals with Sisi.
By winning Ethiopia’s neighbours’ support, analysts said, Egypt can secure a strong position against Ethiopia for future negotiations about Nile water shares.
“Now, Egypt is using the economic and political pressure cards it has in its hands to commit Addis Ababa to think well before it starts making Egyptians thirsty,” political analyst Abdel Monem Halawa said. “Egypt cannot stay silent while real work is being done to cut its lifeline, namely the Nile.”