While Ethiopia goes ahead full force in building its Renaissance Dam which experts insist will threaten Egypt’s water supply, Egypt’s politicians dawdle around, giving a show of utter incapacity
Egyptians see the Nile as their lifeblood. With no other water resource to boast of, Egypt gets almost no rainfall to speak of and has negligible amounts of groundwater, the Nile in all truth holds the very existence of the Egyptians.
Today, Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam, which stands to threaten Egypt’s supply of Nile water, has Egyptians out of their wits with worry. But much worse, the apparently impotent policies adopted by Egypt’s ruling regime on that issue has Egyptians seething with fury.
The USD4.7 billion Ethiopian Dam on the Blue Nile, a main tributary to the River Nile, is already 21 per cent complete and when finished will have a 6000MW capacity. Its huge reservoir should start filling next year, which begins the direct threat to Egypt’s water supply 85 per cent of which comes from the Blue Nile. Egypt stands to lose 20 per cent of its water and 18 per cent of the hydropower produced by its Aswan High Dam on account of the Renaissance Dam, other than the damage to the biodiversity of wildlife in the Nile, and the detrimental harm to the Egyptian way of life.
Anything but decisive
The Egyptian official stance on the Renaissance Dam is anything but clear, let alone decisive. For starters, the Egyptian administration has, according to Cairo’s ambassador to Addis Ababa Muhammad Idris, voiced no objection to the construction of the dam. And, until Ethiopia last month diverted the course of the Blue Nile for necessary construction work on the dam; neither President Mursi, Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, Foreign Minister Muhammad Kamel Amr, nor Water Resources Minister Muhammad Bahaa Eddin; had in any way acknowledged the Ethiopian dam as a threat.
Once the Blue Nile diversion was announced, it took these officials more than a week to get moving; the only contribution was a declaration by Amr that Egypt had declined efforts for mediation by international bodies between Egypt and Ethiopia on the issue of the Renaissance Dam. This despite the fact that top experts on African and water issues, not least among whom were former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Egypt’s former Water Resources Minister Mahmoud Abu-Zeid , had declared that the only way out of the Ethiopian dam crisis was international mediation.
Only one reasonable voice
To counter the public rage at the threat posed to Egypt’s water supply by the Ethiopian dam and the apparent Egyptian official happy-go-lucky stance to it, the presidency went into an overdrive of meetings and declarations on the issue. The first meeting, held on Monday 2 June, included a number of politicians, many among whom belonged to the liberal streams in Egypt but who had no experience to speak of on the Nile issue or on international politics. The result was an astounding array of proposals which at best reflected ignorance of the problem at hand. The only reasonable voice heard was that of the Coptic Church representative Anba Danial of Maadi, Cairo, who said that the crisis could only be resolved through an agreement with Ethiopia, with international guarantees.
Other than that, the proposals ranged from the trivial to the ominous. The leader of the Ghad party, Ayman Nour, suggested leaking false reports that Egypt was building up its air power; whereas Younis Makhyoun, leader of the Salafi al-Nour party, said Egypt should back rebels in Ethiopia to sabotage the dam or, as a last resort, bomb the dam.
To compound matters, the meeting was aired live without informing the attendees. The presidential aide Pakinam al-Sharqawi later apologised to them for the unintended gaffe, but the damage had been done.
Apology to Ethiopia
Egyptians were livid. “Is it for any shortage of experts on water or African issues that only these ignoramuses are invited to propose a way out of the current crisis which threatens the very existence of Egypt?” was the question on the tongue of the Egyptian man-in-the street. It was vocally expressed on Facebook and Twitter, as well as on all the comments on news sites. Of course, Islamist voices could be heard saying what a wonderful, purposeful meeting that had been, but they were largely in the minority and had yet to find someone to agree with them.
Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei issued an apology to Ethiopia for the comments made during the meeting with the President, describing the statements made as “irresponsible”. But this was met with disapprobation on the part of the Islamists; the al-Nour Party spokesman Nader Bakkar expressed his discontent with ElBaradei’s move.
The Cairo government said that all options were open vis-à-vis the Ethiopian dam crisis, but that it preferred to explore diplomatic channels to resolve the dispute. It said it would demand the project be halted.
Ethiopia summoned Egypt’s ambassador to explain the hostile comments by the politicians. “In any case, demanding a halt is simply a non-starter. It’s not subject to negotiation,” Getachew Reda, a spokesman for the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalgne, said. “The Ethiopian government has no intention of harming Egypt. We are not in the business of starving Egyptians to death. There is nothing that will create any significant harm on the Egyptians as far building the dam is concerned,” Getachew insisted.
The Islamists chime in
A week later, another ‘meeting’ presided over by President Mursi took place. This time round, it was the Islamist politicians who were invited. But the real surprise was that some 17 Jihadi leaders, many of whom had been convicted and served sentences for political assassinations, were invited to attend. Muhammad Abu-Samra, Secretary-General of the Islamic Jihadi Party, told the press that they had received the invitation through the ruling Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was obvious the event had more to do with consolidating the ranks of the Islamists prior to the planned nation-wide move to oust Mursi on 30 June than with any water rights.
The ‘meeting’ took the form of a “people’s convention for Egypt’s water rights”. President Mursi gave a speech at the end, which he began with a Qur’anic verse and a poetry line, and in which he worked to project a strong, decisive image. Even though he termed Ethiopia and Sudan “sister countries”, he again said that “all options are open” hinting at the possibility of a military move. However, he quickly backtracked with “Egypt is a peaceful nation that loves its African sisters and is willing to work side by side with them.”
The following day, the spokesman for the presidency Omar Amer declared that Egypt might resort to international arbitration to resolve any water dispute with Ethiopia, insisting however that Egypt accepted no international mediation. Egypt was coordinating with Sudan on the issue, Amer said, and was holding talks with Ethiopia. “It is in the interest of Ethiopia to understand the Egyptian situation,” he said, informing that a visit by the Egyptian Foreign Minister to the Ethiopian capital was forthcoming. He absolutely denied there was any intention of a military option.
Water security for all
A national commission for water security is in the process of formation, Amer said; “the President will issue the decree for its foundation within a couple of days.” Even as Watani went to press, this decree was expected any time. “Egypt has a very clear vision on how it will proceed with the Renaissance dam issue, and the President himself is following and supervising even the minutest details,” Amer said. “This is a national security issue.”
In the meantime, the African Affairs Commission of the Shura Council, the upper house of Egypt’s Parliament, issued its report on the issue of Egypt’s water security and Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam.
The report confirmed what had already been proposed by Abu-Zeid and Boutros-Ghali that Egypt should negotiate with Ethiopia an agreement by which the dam reservoir would be filled over a minimum period of ten years, excluding those years in which the annual flood would be low. Egypt and Sudan should form a body, together with the Ethiopians, to manage the operation of the Renaissance Dam so that the interests of all parties would be heeded. And in the dire event in case the dam collapses, the report pointed out, Ethiopia should recompense the downstream nations for their losses.
The report also recommended that Egypt should negotiate with the upstream countries water projects that would answer their needs for development.
No data; no solutions
In a stormy session of the Shura, Prime Minister Qandil came under fire for criticising the Ethiopian dam but offering no concrete plan of action to resolve the crisis. He described the dam’s construction as an “act of defiance” and stressed that Egypt will not give up “a single drop of water”, but then hurriedly left the chamber despite calls over how to handle the situation if Ethiopia rejects overtures.
“Egypt will turn to a graveyard” if the dam is completed, Egyptian lawmaker Khaled Ouda, a geologist, shouted to parliament. “The prime minister didn’t provide anything.”
A 10-member panel of experts from Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and other countries recently released a study on the dam’s impact, but Egypt complained that the study could not give concrete answers to the impact of the dam, because Ethiopia failed to provide enough updated data to the panel, while Ethiopia said that the report assured that the dam will not harm Egypt.
Israel, for its part, denied any connection to the construction to the dam. “Israel, at this point, is not involved in any way—not officially and not in the private sector. This regards Ethiopia and Egypt exclusively,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. He said private companies might bid for contracts at a later stage. Palmor’s words countered stories circulated in Egypt that an Israeli company had been granted the contract to manage and distribute the hydropower produced by the dam. This would place Egypt’s lifeblood water in Israeli hands, a move that would drive Egyptians berserk.
Egypt’s water rights are governed by 10 international agreements that were signed between 1891 and 1991, and that involve the 10 Nile Basin countries. Ethiopia challenges the colonial-era agreement that gives downstream Egypt 55.5 billion cubic meters of water and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic meters of the total of 84 billion cubic meters, with 10 billion lost to evaporation. That agreement, first signed in 1929, took no account of the eight other nations along the 6,700-kilometer (4,160-mile) river and its basin, which have been agitating for a decade for a more equitable accord. But then, Egypt is the only riparian nation among them which has not a single other water resource.
Ethiopia’s unilateral action appeared to ignore the 10-nation Nile Basin Initiative, a regional partnership formed in 1999 that seeks to develop the river in a cooperative manner. It is leading a group of five nations threatening to sign a new cooperation agreement known as the Entebbe Agreement without Egypt and Sudan, effectively taking control of the Nile, which serves some 238 million people.
In another blow to Egypt, newly independent South Sudan said it would join the new group.
14 June 2013
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