No breakthrough in Nile dam talks but is this Egypt’s moment?

The major sticking point in negotiations between Cairo and Addis Ababa remains the timeline for filling the 74 billion-cubic-metre dam reservoir.
Sunday 02/09/2018
Managing mistrust. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses a news conference in Addis Ababa, on August 25. (Reuters)
Managing mistrust. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses a news conference in Addis Ababa, on August 25. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Egypt has renewed calls for Addis Ababa to move ahead with negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) amid growing fatigue on both sides over the issue.

The call came after Egypt’s foreign minister and intelligence chief visited Addis Ababa to deliver a verbal message to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

The visit August 28 was two days after Ahmed criticised an Ethiopian company for delays in completing parts for the GERD, Ethiopia’s national electricity generating megaproject.

Ahmed said the $4 billion hydroelectric dam, a project that began in 2011, should have been completed within five years. “Seven or eight years later, not a single turbine is operating,” he said at a news conference in Addis Ababa.

Ahmed blamed the military-run Ethiopian Metals and Engineering Corporation for the delay and said the government would sign a contract with another company.

When complete, the dam is expected to generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity and could represent a major threat to Egypt’s water and food security, Egyptian officials said.

The major sticking point in negotiations between Cairo and Addis Ababa remains the timeline for filling the 74 billion-cubic-metre dam reservoir, which Egypt says could deprive it of a sizeable portion of its usual annual Nile water share of 55.5 billion cubic metres.

“This is a real problem if you are talking about a dam that will prevent the water from flowing towards Egypt as it did for millennia in the past,” said water and irrigation expert Ahmed Nour Abdel Monem.

Cairo asserted at the August 28 meeting “the importance of reaching an agreement on GERD in a way that guarantees Ethiopia’s development needs and preserves Egypt’s water security,” the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said. Despite this, talks among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia remain in limbo with time running out.

However, this could be an opportune moment, experts said, for Egypt to take the initiative in the negotiations and offer to assist Ethiopia to complete the construction of the dam in return for concessions.

“This would cause a total twist in the conflict over the dam and put Egypt in control of the project for the first time,” said Gamal Bayoumi, a former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister who has lobbied for Cairo to play a more active role with GERD.

“If Egypt is able to put hands on the project, this ensures that its technical demands will be heard,” he added.

Many in Egypt, speaking with local media, expressed hopes that Cairo could use the situation to its advantage by making overtures to the Ethiopians over GERD.

Cairo has been seeking to build trust with Addis Ababa since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became Egyptian president in June 2014. Sisi has been trying to widen the scope of relations with Ethiopia, offering expanded economic cooperation and development assistance in return for guarantees over Egypt’s Nile water share.

Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa agreed in June to establish an investment fund for infrastructure projects. The fund is expected to be Egypt’s tool to reward Ethiopia if it agrees to lengthen the amount of time to fill the dam reservoir.

If Cairo convinces Ethiopia it can help it complete the project, it would be a relief to many in both countries.

One of the challenges that remain is lingering distrust between the two capitals, even as relations between Sisi and Ahmed, who became prime minister in April, are viewed more positively.

“This mistrust will surely end as the two countries move towards open dialogue,” said Akram Badreddine, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Egypt had a point in doubting Ethiopian intentions in the past with Addis Ababa moving ahead with constructing the dam, even with Cairo’s continual protestations.”

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