Few options for Egypt after deadlocked Nile dam talks

While more talks are set to take place in May, the mood in Egypt is of anger and disappointment.
Sunday 15/04/2018
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri attends talks in Khartoum, on April 5. (AFP)
Anger in Cairo. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri attends talks in Khartoum, on April 5. (AFP)

CAIRO - Egypt has been left with limited options following the failure of technical talks regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Cairo said would greatly hinder the country’s future access to Nile waters.

Following 17 hours of negotiations with his Ethiopian and Sudanese counterparts in Khartoum, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said the negotiations, which aimed to end the deadlock over the dam, had failed to produce results.

The failure of the talks, which included intelligence chiefs and ministers of irrigation from the three countries, opens the door for many possibilities, experts said, particularly as the dam nears completion.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said Egypt would not accept any violation of the legal framework that regulated Nile water sharing with Ethiopia and Sudan.

“Relations between the three states are governed by a legal document,” Abu Zeid said. “We will not allow any violation of this document.”

In March 2015, the three countries signed a declaration of principles that explicitly called for cooperation over Nile waters. The countries agreed to “avoid causing significant damage” to each other in the use of Nile waters and established a dialogue process.

While more talks are set to take place in May, the mood in Egypt is of anger and disappointment, with analysts saying that Ethiopia has used the talks to move ahead with construction of the dam.

“Ethiopia only wanted to waste time until it reached the point of no-return as far as dam construction is concerned,” said Ramadan Qurani, a specialist in African affairs. “Egypt is now up against the wall with almost no options.”

In Egypt’s intellectual and decision-making circles, the multibillion-dollar hydroelectric dam is viewed as a major national security threat. The dam, which will store close to 70 billion cubic metres of water, will deprive water-poor Egypt of a sizeable portion of its annual water reserves from the Nile.

This could devastate millions of acres of farmland, push Cairo to move forward with building expensive water desalination and sewage treatment plants and sabotage aspiring food security schemes drawn up by Egypt’s Agricultural Ministry.

The foreign ministers, intelligence chiefs and irrigation ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met with the objective of agreeing to Ethiopia’s plan to fill the dam reservoir.

Egypt wants the reservoir to be filled over a period of ten years to mitigate the harm to Egypt’s share of Nile waters as much as possible. Addis Ababa has called for the reservoir to be filled over three years.

Shoukry said the issue would be referred to the countries’ leaders.

Abu Zeid cast doubt on the value of further meetings on the dam. “Time is running out and this does not serve the interests of anybody,” he said.

The failure of the Nile dam talks coincides with the appointment of a new prime minister in Ethiopia, following a period of domestic unrest and violence. Abiy Ahmed, who was sworn in as Ethiopian Prime Minister on April 2, said the Grand Renaissance Dam would unite Ethiopians. A day later, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi talked with Ahmed over the phone and underscored his country’s desire for cooperation over the Nile.

Many expect relations between Cairo and Addis Ababa to deteriorate significantly if Ethiopia fills the dam reservoir without an agreement. The filling could start in June with the annual Nile flooding.

Shoukry said Cairo was open to all efforts to solve the issue until June 5. He did not specify what course of action Egypt could take if an agreement is not reached by the summer.

There are calls inside Egypt for serious action against Ethiopia before it starts filling the dam reservoir.

“Egypt needs to stop this fruitless negotiation course and start taking measures to ensure that Ethiopia will not harm its water interests,” said Amani al-Tawil, an African affairs specialist at Egyptian think-tank Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

One of the measures Tawil recommended is for Egypt to take the issue to the UN Security Council.

“This would ensure that Ethiopia would suspend work on the dam until a settlement is reached,” Tawil said.

Egypt has suggested involving the World Bank in dam negotiations with Ethiopia, a suggestion turned down by Addis Ababa.

Abu Zeid said the United States was ready to mediate an end to the deadlock over the dam.

“The United States is keen on security in the Horn of Africa region, which is why it is ready to intervene if it is requested to,” Abu Zeid said.