Disabusing Egypt of outdated attitude on the Nile

Posted on September 3, 2014


30 August 2014 Written by Staff Reporter
Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt reached an agreement on Tuesday to establish a committee comprising experts from the three countries which, under the supervision of an international consultancy firm, would undertake two studies proposed by the International Panel of Experts (IPoE)

on the impact of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The committee is scheduled to start work next Monday and submit its findings six months later. While the agreement marks a positive turn in the long-running negotiations between the three countries which broke down on three previous occasions, the rhetoric coming out of some quarters in Egypt both prior to and after the conclusion of the talks by and large continues to be a restatement of the same old argument.

It’s to be recalled that when Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn met Egyptian President Abdul Fattah El-Sisi on the sidelines of the African Union Summit in Equatorial Guinea in late June they had reached an understanding on some seven issues and agreed to resume talks. This was in the belief that guaranteeing that the GERD would not in any way harm the water rights of Egypt would remain a contentious matter. It’s precisely on this issue that the two sides are yet to see eye to eye.

Egyptian media, which are notorious for advocating inconsistent and impractical positions on the Nile, are still bent on maligning the GERD. This compelled Alemayehu Tegenu, the Minister of Irrigation, Water and Energy, to express his disappointment and to call on them to refrain from their unhelpful acts at the start of the two-day meeting in Khartoum.

Egyptian politicians, on their part, have signaled that there is a long way to go before a comprehensive deal is sealed. Following the meeting, Egypt’s irrigation and water resources minister, Hossam El-Moghazi, told reporters that Egypt neither publicly agreed to the construction of the dam nor to its storage capacity. This and other jingoistic views expressed by Egyptian politicians as well as other actors smack of the desire to turn the clock back at a time when the construction of the dam is going ahead full steam.

For instance, while the talks were under way an Egyptian water expert told a local newspaper that “Egypt will never accept the dam with its current specifications or dimensions – a height of 150 meters and a storage capacity of 74 billion cubic meters.” He said that the dam’s dimensions allowed Ethiopia to completely deprive Egypt of its water supply for up to three years and that this was something Egypt would never acquiesce to. He added that Ethiopia “had made a political, diplomatic and technical error” by embarking on the construction of the dam without first agreeing to consider a report issued by the IPoE and even suggested that Ethiopia return to the initial dimensions of the dam dating back to 1963.

The constant and concerted barrage of opposition voiced by Egyptian media, politicians and water experts to the construction of the GERD is bound to have a detrimental impact on future trilateral talks. It may also dent the spirit of trust and cooperation that should exist among the Nile Basin countries thereby affecting the ratification and implementation of the Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) that the majority of the riparian countries had signed.

The campaign Egypt is currently waging against other upper Nile Basin countries as well is underpinned by the argument that its status is different from the rest of the riparian states because its very survival is entirely dependent on water from the Nile. Despite the fact that the construction of the GERD is over 35 percent complete, it’s advocating an alteration of the design specifications of the dam with a view to counteract what it claims to be the dam’s adverse environmental, socio-economic and hydrological effects.

Ethiopia should always bear in mind that Egypt always invokes colonial era treaties to contend that Ethiopia’s right to develop using the Nile must not violate its “historical and legitimate” right on the river and that this is motivated by the desire to have control over the use of the Nile by all of the basin states – Ethiopia, in particular, given that around 85 percent of the river’s water flows from its territory.

In view of the likelihood that Egypt will cause future talks to collapse and blame Ethiopia for it, Ethiopia must pull out all the stops to unmask the ploys Egypt uses and convince everyone that the construction of the dam is neither intended to nor will have the effect of harming Egypt’s right to get its fair share of the waters of the Nile. This requires it to engage in smart diplomacy so as to ensure that all Nile basin countries ratify and implement the CFA and bring about an equitable use of the river for their common benefit, which it has been consistently calling for from the get go. While this responsibility is shared by all Ethiopians, it’s primarily the government‘s responsibility to work steadfastly towards disabusing Egypt of its outdated attitude on the Nile.

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