Egyptians who followed closely the talks held in the Sudanese capital Khartoum last week over the Renaissance Dam Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile were in for at best perplexity and at worst disillusionment. It was hoped that the talks among Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan would break the near-deadlock between Egypt and Ethiopia vis-à-vis the dam and the impact it is expected to have on Egypt.
The multi-billion dollar dam is being constructed 20 kilometres from the Sudanese border, has a capacity of 74 billion cubic metres, and is expected to generate electrical power of up to 6,000 megawatts. It has been a point of contention between Ethiopia, an upstream Nile country, and the downstream Egypt and Sudan. Especially for Egypt the dam is a thorny issue, seeing that Egypt is the only Nile Basin country that depends totally on the Nile for her water supply. Egypt is technically a desert that receives next to no rainfall, whereas all the other riparian States get ample rainwater. No wonder that Egyptians see the Nile as their lifeblood; blocking or diminishing a substantial part of its waters threatens their very existence.
Last week saw the completion of the seventh round of talks among the upstream Ethiopia and downstream Egypt and Sudan. The three-day talks, in which the water resources ministers of the three countries participated, failed to achieve a clean breakthrough; Egypt and Ethiopia concluded without settling all their differences.
Yet the talks had started with good hope. In his address during the opening session, Sudan’s Minister of Water Resources and Electricity, Muataz Musa, voiced confidence that the meeting would be held in an atmosphere of mutual understanding and consensus, stressing it would achieve its objectives. Last March, the three countries had signed a declaration of principles to ensure a climate of peace and goodwill throughout any negotiations concerning the dam; possibly this formed the backdrop to Mr Musa’s aspirations.
The Ethiopian Minister of Water Resources Alymayou Tegeno admitted that the last meeting between the three countries has failed to bridge the disputes.
Meanwhile the Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Hussam Mughazi disclosed that the three countries had their differences over the impact of the dam on the downstream countries.
It was hoped the talks would resolve matters that had remained suspended since the sixth round of negotiations held by the three countries in Cairo last month. A decision was needed regarding the international consultancy firm that should assess the impact of the dam on the downstream countries, bearing in mind that the technical studies required had to be completed according to a timetable agreed upon on the roadmap already approved by the three nations. The three countries had previously formed a committee to select a consultancy firm from among Australian, Dutch, and French firms short-listed to submit proposals.
The talks in Khartoum were, obviously, no straightforward or simple matter. They should have concluded in two days, but the long arduous discussions that took place—the second day alone witnessed a 16-hour-long session that left the negotiators exhausted yet with no results to show—led Mr Musa to propose a third day of discussions.
Egypt and Ethiopia had been split on whether the French BRL Group or the Dutch Deltares company should handle the technical studies. The two firms had been selected in the wake of prolonged negotiations.
Dr Mughazi said the French and/or Dutch firms should be conducting studies on the impact of the dam on the three countries in question on all social, financial and hydraulic fronts. Cairo, he said, had a number of reservations on the proposals made by the two firms, and that part of these reservations concerned the mathematical models provided by each firm. All this, he said, had to be sorted out in Khartoum. He also said that Egypt had submitted two new studies on the impact of the dam on the country, in the main part regarding the probable reduction in water flow and how this is expected to affect Egypt’s agriculture and her ability to generate hydropower.
It was finally decided that the technical studies would be split between the French and Dutch firms, with the French handling 70 per cent of the load and the Dutch 30 per cent. Dr Mughazi said that all the technical reservations will be sent to the consultancy firms to be taken into consideration in the final proposals they should submit in two weeks’ time. Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan should approve these proposals, after which the consultants should start their work and conclude it in the space of the 11 months stipulated by the roadmap.
Crucial time factor
“We are working against time,” Dr Mughazi remarked, “yet it is important that all the details should be spelt out in order for the consultancy firms to complete their work and give us a trustworthy assessment of the impact the Renaissance Dam should have.”
According to Alaa’ Yassin, consultant to the Irrigation Minister on the topic of dams, the talks on the Renaissance Dam took more time than had been expected, since the technical details are extremely intricate and complicated. “Three ministers from three countries met,” Dr Yassin said, “with each concerned in the first place with the maximum benefit to his country. Not surprisingly, they needed to reach some compromise on several issues, which took time, effort, and goodwill.”
“The talks between Egypt and Ethiopia in presence of Sudan have been cloaked in considerable obscurity, especially where the points of contention are concerned,” Abbas Sharaqi, Professor of Geology and Water Resources at Cairo University, told Watani. “Yet, it appears that the main goal of these last talks was to agree upon the consultancy firm that should conduct the technical studies and assess the impact of the dam on all three nations.”
Dr Sharaqi said that the Ethiopian side insisted that the French firm should handle the studies, in view of the good relations it has with Ethiopia. But Egypt believed the Dutch firm was more fit to do these studies. The final agreement was reached after mediation by the Sudanese; the French were awarded 70 per cent of the work and the Dutch 30 per cent.
At stake: share in Nile waters
“The time factor is very significant where the Renaissance Dam is concerned,” Dr Sharaqi said. “A protocol should be signed as soon as possible so that the studies would be completed in 11 months according to the roadmap agreed upon by the three countries.” This, taking into consideration that even while prolonged talks have been taking place for some two years now, Ethiopia is already making progress with building the dam, a task it began in 2011. At the time Egypt was in the throes of post-Arab Spring political turmoil, and only began talking seriously with Ethiopia after the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood regime which ruled Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring was overthrown in July 2013.
Worth noting, however, is that use of the Nile waters was since the 19th century governed by international agreements that ensured for Egypt a generous portion of the waters, seeing the Nile was the only water resource the country owned. It allowed for development and water projects in upstream countries—a number of which projects Egypt participated in with expertise and funding—but gave Egypt veto power if such projects affected her water share. During the last decade, however, upstream countries led by Ethiopia decided to forego these agreements under the pretext that they were signed when all the riparian nations were under colonial powers.
29 July 2015