Egyptian leader draws ‘red line’, says Nile water ‘untouchable’

“No one can take a single drop of water from Egypt, and whoever wants to try it, let him try,” warned the Egyptian president.
Wednesday 31/03/2021
A file picture shows Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Sisi at a press conference. (AP)
A file picture shows Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Sisi at a press conference. (AP)

ISMAILIA, Egypt--Egypt’s president said his country’s share of the Nile River’s waters are “untouchable” in a stark warning apparently to Ethiopia, which is building a giant dam on the Nile’s main tributary.

The comment from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi comes amid a deadlock in the years-long talks over the dam between the Nile Basin countries, which also includes Sudan.

In a news conference, Tuesday, Sisi warned of “instability that no one can imagine” in the region if the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is filled and operated without a legally-binding agreement.

“No one can take a single drop of water from Egypt, and whoever wants to try it, let him try,” he said. “No one imagines that it will be far from our capabilities.”

Sisi did not name Ethiopia in his remarks, the strongest on the dam’s dispute by an Egyptian official in years.

The Egyptian leader was firm while discussing the dam dispute at a news conference in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia. He was visiting the crucial, east-west waterway following its reopening Monday. It had been closed for six days after a huge container ship became stuck in the waterway.

“I repeat that the waters of Egypt are untouchable, and touching them is a red line,” he said.

However, Sisi said his country prioritises negotiations to resolve the drawn-out dispute before Ethiopia continues filling the dam’s giant reservoir during this year’s rainy season. Addis Ababa started to fil the reservoir last July, a move that was strongly criticised by both Egypt and Sudan.

“Any act of hostility is detestable… but our reaction in the event that we are affected” by a reduction in Egypt’s own water supply “will affect the stability of the entire region,” Sisi insisted.

“Our battle is a battle of negotiations,” the Egyptian leader said, adding that Cairo seeks a legally-binding agreement based on international laws and norms that govern cross-border rivers.

Ethiopia Nile Dam (map)

“We are serious about achieving a win-win (deal) for everyone. No one is going to get everything alone,” he said.

Sisi said a new round of negotiations is expected in the coming weeks. He did not elaborate further on whether international players would mediate the talks as Khartoum and Cairo have demanded.

Ethiopia has rejected an Egyptian-backed Sudanese proposal to internationalise the dispute by including the US, UN and European Union as mediators in talks that have involved the African Union.

The dispute centres on the speed at which the planned reservoir is filled behind the dam, the method of its annual replenishment and how much water Ethiopia will release downstream if a multi-year drought occurs. Another point of difference is how the three countries would settle any future disputes.

Egypt and Sudan are calling for a legally-binding agreement on the dam’s filling and operation, while Ethiopia insists on guidelines.

Egypt is a mostly desert country that depends on the Nile for almost all of its water needs. It fears that a quick fill would drastically reduce the Nile’s flow, with potentially severe effects on its agriculture and other sectors.

Ethiopia says the $5 billion dam is essential, arguing the vast majority of its population lacks electricity. The dam will generate over 6,400 megawatts of electricity, a massive boost to the country’s current production of 4,000 megawatts.

Sudan wants Ethiopia to coordinate and share data on the dam’s operation to avoid flooding and protect its own power-generating dams on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile River. The Blue Nile meets with the White Nile in central Sudan. From there the river winds northward through Egypt and flows into the Mediterranean Sea.