Optimism in Egypt over Nile dam talks breakthrough

The amount of water the project will deprive Egypt of during the reservoir filling period remains a major issue of contention.
Sunday 27/05/2018
A general view of the 6th October Bridge (bottom) and Kasr El Nil Bridge (top), which span the Nile River in Cairo. (Reuters)
Bone of contention. A general view of the 6th October Bridge (bottom) and Kasr El Nil Bridge (top), which span the Nile River in Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Following a breakthrough in Nile dam talks among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, Egyptians are hoping issues surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) have been resolved and that diplomatic problems between the three riparian countries are at an end.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi invited Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to Cairo to formally settle the dispute after the three countries agreed on technical impact studies and options for filling the dam, something Egypt says will harm its Nile water share.

“Egyptians need, however, to realise that this is an issue [protecting Egypt’s Nile water share] that will take time and effort before we reach an understanding that serves the best interests of everybody,” Sisi said.

The agreement came as part of annual ministerial meetings on the GERD, including a gathering May 15 in Addis Ababa during which foreign and water ministers and heads of security and intelligence services approved a preliminary technical report. It included guidelines over reservoir filling and the potential effects that would have on Egyptian and Sudanese water shares. It also contained dam operations recommendations.

“Initial approval by representatives of the three countries of the preliminary report needs to be followed by final approval of the report,” Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said. Final approval would be followed by completion of technical studies on the dam, he added.

The three riparian countries have been negotiating regarding the hydroelectric dam for almost seven years. Egypt is concerned that the project will deprive it of the 55.5 billion cubic metres of water it receives from the Nile every year.

However even that amount of water is not enough to meet Egypt’s overall water demands, which total 114 billion cubic metres a year, Irrigation and Water Resources Minister Mohamed Abdel Aty said. Abdel Aty, on May 21, said Egypt was facing water shortages for agricultural needs.

The dam construction will make Egypt less capable of producing food, water specialists said. The amount of water the project will deprive Egypt of during the reservoir filling period remains a major issue of contention.

“This is why there is a need for the three countries to reach agreement on the likely effects of each dam reservoir filling scenario,” said Ahmed Fawzi Diab, a water expert from Egypt’s state-run Desert Research Centre. “A longer dam reservoir filling period will make Egypt less prone to harmful effects in this regard.”

Egypt is trying to convince Ethiopia to lengthen the timeframe for filling the reservoir and co-operate in the operation of the dam with Addis Ababa to ensure that the project will not cause it problems in the future.

Abu Zeid said Egypt had a plan for dealing with technical, diplomatic and political issues related to the Ethiopian dam. “This is an issue of extreme importance for Egypt’s national security,” he said.

Sisi said he hoped Ahmed would visit Egypt during Ramadan. “Egyptians will want him to come and hear from him,” Sisi said.

Egypt has been trying to contain Ethiopia in other ways, including its suggestion to set up a joint fund for investment in infrastructure, a plan that would include Sudan. Officials from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are to meet in June to discuss organisational matters related to the fund.

This seems to be a small detail in the larger picture with Cairo hoping that its closest Arab allies — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — can help exert influence over Addis Ababa.

Two days after Sisi extended his invitation to Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister visited Riyadh. In a gesture of goodwill, Saudi authorities promised to release 1,000 Ethiopian nationals in Saudi jails.

Ahmed also headed to Abu Dhabi where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. UAE authorities vowed to release hundreds of Ethiopian prisoners in UAE jails.

The UAE has invested about $3 billion in the African state and is planning to expand investments. Saudi Arabia has also invested extensively in Ethiopia’s agricultural and livestock sectors and has hopes for stronger economic ties with Addis Ababa.

“Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are apparently planning to play a role in creating common ground between Egypt and Ethiopia,” said Jasim Khalfan, a political analyst from the UAE. “Apart from planning this mediation, the two states are also for strong relations with Addis Ababa as part of their pursuit for strong presence in Africa.”