Nile dam crisis sees many disputes, little agreement

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) crisis is perhaps the most serious faced by the Egyptian state in recent years. This is because the dam is a threat to Egypt’s water security on many levels, including the irrigation of agricultural lands, electricity generation, and even drinking water.

Frequent meetings between official delegations of Egypt and Ethiopia, alongside Sudan, have been marked by plenty of smiles and statements of commitment but scarcely involved any agreements.

During the meetings, Cairo has offered solutions, compromises, understandings and even concessions that were much greater than what Addis Ababa had expected. Nevertheless, the other party has responded with procrastination and stalling every time. A few weeks ago, the Egyptian government surprised us by announcing that the GERD negotiations had failed and the other party did not give any reason why. This prompted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to speak about the crisis in his speech at the recent UN General Assembly. He even pledged that he would not allow his country’s water security to be harmed.

This crisis did not begin in the past few years. It started in the early 1990s, when Ethiopia announced its intention to continue its development plans for its Nile water resources and build the dams it needed. It also said that no force on Earth could prevent it from doing so, prompting former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to threaten Ethiopia if it established any dam on the Nile.

Things quieted down between the two states after the signing of the Framework for General Cooperation in 1993, and Ethiopia joined the Nile Basin Initiative and actively participated in it. However, the situation deteriorated after the June 1995 assassination attempt on Mubarak in Addis Ababa.

This crisis did not begin in the past few years. It started in the early 1990s, when Ethiopia announced its intention to continue its development plans for its Nile water resources and build the dams it needed.

Dr. Abdel Latif El-Menawy

After a period of latency and drought between Mubarak and Ethiopia, the crisis re-emerged in 2009, when the Ethiopian government began a survey of the site of the dam. On May 1, 2010, it announced its intention to start construction and named it the Renaissance Dam.

Egypt and Sudan said at the time that the dam would affect their share of water, and a crisis erupted in the Nile Basin countries. The crisis escalated after a decision was taken by six countries on the river’s course to sign a new treaty to share the Nile’s resources. The treaty was known as the Entebbe Agreement, named after the Ugandan city in which it was signed.

At the time, Cairo and Khartoum were given a year to join the treaty, but they refused and said it was contrary to all international conventions. Egypt filed a formal complaint to the UN and the African Union, demanding that the dam not be built.

When the events of Jan. 25, 2011, took place, the issue was complicated by the security situation and political instability in Egypt.

Egypt relied on informal people’s delegations to meet the Ethiopian leaders. One delegation from Egypt, including former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi and Egyptian Ambassador to the US Abdel Raouf El-Reedy, went to start a dialogue with Ethiopia. The delegation’s members stressed that their visit was part of efforts to build a new system and establish a new domestic and foreign policy that achieved the interests of Egyptians and protected their national security. They said: “If Egypt returns to Africa, Africa returns to Egypt, and we highlight the importance of this return as it is the desire of Egyptians.”  

The members of the delegation explained that one of the objectives of the visit was to build bridges with Ethiopia, which is a big country and a brother. They highlighted that Egypt and Ethiopia share a strong heritage and are partners in something great, which is the Nile. “This means there are strong ties, and the stagnation in relations that took place in the past period between the two countries was not necessary,” they said.

The delegation asked Addis Ababa to postpone the ratification of the agreement until Egypt took official, practical positions. They thought that the contents of the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement were negotiable.

The delegation’s visit lasted four days, during which time the members were received by former Ethiopian President Girma Wolde-Giorgis at the presidential palace. They announced after returning to Egypt that their mission was successful, even though all they had heard was procrastination and all that they had seen were smiles.

The Egyptian and Ethiopian authorities agreed to form an international committee of experts to study the effects of the construction of the GERD, but efforts stalled after the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt. Nevertheless, the committee resumed its work in 2013. It issued a report on the necessity of conducting studies evaluating the dam’s impact on the two downstream countries, but negotiations stalled.

The two sides agreed to select two consultants, one Dutch and the other French, to conduct the required studies on the dam. Negotiations ended with El-Sisi, his Sudanese counterpart, and former Ethiopian Prime Minister Haile Mariam Dessalines signing the Declaration of Principles on the GERD.

In late 2015, however, the consultants withdrew because “there were no guarantees for impartial studies” and tension erupted. Ethiopia said that it would not stop building the GERD and announced that 70 percent of the dam’s construction was about to be completed.

The current Egyptian political leadership has attempted to repair relations, to the point where El-Sisi visited the Ethiopian Parliament to convey a message of love and respect.

Things quickly cooled after Dessalines said he would not jeopardize the interests of the Egyptian people in any way. The situation continued until the appointment of new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who assured the Egyptian president that he was determined to resume the process of tripartite negotiations, bringing together Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. But we were surprised that the negotiations have stalled again.

There are demands in Egypt to internationalize the issue — to put it before the international community. El-Sisi’s move at the UN was clear, while Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry discussed the crisis a few days ago with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. He said that the Egyptian side was uneasy over the lengthy negotiations with Ethiopia on filling and operating the dam, stressing that “the issue of the Nile River water is a matter of life and death for Egypt.”

The crisis continues even after Egypt’s measures of desalination, waste water treatment and expansion of groundwater wells, all of which are alternatives that the Egyptian state is trying to take to avoid the danger of the dam being built — but they seem insufficient.

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