Egypt wakes up to Nile dam fait accompli

Friday 08/04/2016
Playing for time

CAIRO - Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are to sign an agreement allowing two French con­sulting firms to study the impact of a multibillion-dollar hydroelectric dam being built by Ethiopia on the Nile.
It took the three countries al­most two years to reach consensus on which firms should conduct the studies and the methodology and the time the firms will take to final­ise them.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia is speed­ing up work on the dam, which is about 60% complete. Filling of the first phase of the reservoir is ex­pected to begin in July.
Filling the reservoir will signifi­cantly reduce the amount of water reaching Egypt from the Nile, the country’s main source of water.
Egyptians claim Ethiopia is de­laying negotiations on the project so that, by the time any conclu­sion is reached, construction is so far advanced that no substantial changes can be made.
“Ethiopia has succeeded in stall­ing and buying time to construct the dam and make it a reality,” said Mohamed el-Shazly, a former diplomat and a veteran of African politics. “The fact is simply that Egypt has already given up its wa­ter rights by allowing Ethiopia to waste its time in useless negotia­tions.”
Egypt has moved from denying the presence of the dam, to shock at the pace of construction and then to last-ditch attempts to re­tain its water rights, which stem from a 1929 agreement that makes the construction of dams by Nile basin countries conditional on the approval of Egypt and Sudan.
Egyptian President Abdel Fat­tah al-Sisi has tried to move away from the language of force used by his predecessors, to diplomacy and cooperation.
He signed a declaration of prin­ciples with Ethiopia in March 2015, a document that recognises Ethiopia’s right to economic de­velopment and, consequently, the construction of the dam, provided that it would not negatively affect Egypt’s Nile water share. The doc­ument is, however, not binding, experts said.
Egypt receives 1.6 billion cu­bic metres of water from the Nile every year. However, the country needs 2 billion cubic metres of water to meet domestic and agri­cultural needs every year. Egypt is expected to be deprived of 280 million-425 million cubic metres of water as Ethiopia fills its dam reservoir.
“This will be devastating to our country,” said Meghawry Shehata, an Egyptian water expert. “We are talking here about a catastrophic project that Egypt will pay very dearly for.”
Other experts said that, by the time the studies by the French consulting firms are finalised with Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, the dam will have been completed.
“Ethiopia needs to halt the construction now. Otherwise the studies, when completed, will be useless and no changes could be introduced if the French firms prove that the dam design as it is will harm both Egypt and Sudan,” Shehata said.
This is not how Egyptian deci­sion makers see the matter. Cairo seems to have realised that the dam has become a reality and is trying to figure out how it can compensate for the loss of water because of it.
On August 5th, 2014, Sisi almost acknowledged that. He said he could only negotiate with the Ethi­opians over the time they need to fill the dam reservoir.
“We can only negotiate on whether this dam reservoir will be filled in three, five, seven or 12 years,” Sisi said.
He accused his predecessors of “swimming against the tide [by re­jecting construction of the dam]… because they did not know the re­alities”.
“We will sign binding agree­ments with our brothers in Ethio­pia [on the dam],” Sisi said. “So, we must have thorough calculations on how we will compensate the water we will lose as they fill the dam reservoir.”
Building water desalination and sewage treatment plants as well as introducing modern water-saving irrigation systems are among Sisi’s alternative plans.