Amid President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s calls for unity among Nile Basin countries at the presidential summit held in Uganda, Egypt attempted to shore up its ability to control the technical process at the heart of the Grand Renaissance Ethiopian Dam — a pressing concern for the upstream country’s immediate and future ability to lay claim to water sovereignty in the region.
A government source says that, in the first instance, Cairo submitted a draft of a general statement to the wider summit — which was not officially issued — and which would have formalized Ethiopia’s earlier proffered commitment to fill the dam’s reservoir over a period of five years.
The delegation submitted the draft statement despite the fact that the Egyptian government sees the five-year period as less than ideal. According to sources at Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, the real battle in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam talks will be fought over the timeframe in which the dam is filled. It is a battle, the sources say, that Egypt has to win decisively by pushing the time period to seven years, if it hopes to minimize expected damage.
According to diplomatic sources, the draft of the formal statement submitted in Uganda was only part of Egypt’s wider aims to intervene in the political process surrounding the dam’s construction.
Earlier this year, Ethiopia sought to persuade Egypt to sign a bilateral agreement that would have cemented terms to fill the dam over a five-year period. It was a proposal that Cairo had initially judged to be sensible, before the majority of concerned parties agreed that Cairo should not go forward with an agreement that would have stemmed any remaining legal right to contest Ethiopia’s lack of commitment to the cooperative framework on the technical procedures of the construction of the dam and the test filling of its reservoir.
Ethiopian sources, as cited in the privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper, state that Addis Ababa is preparing to begin to fill the Renaissance Dam’s reservoir next July over a five-year period, without waiting for the completion of the technical study conducted by the French consulting companies, which is trained on testing the dam’s effect on the water flow from the Blue Nile to the High Dam lake.
This decision has not gone unaddressed by the Egyptian government. A source at the Foreign Ministry tells Mada Masr that deputy Foreign Minister Hamdy Loza summoned Ethiopia’s ambassador to Cairo, Taye Atske-Selassie, in early June to send a “sharp and clear” message regarding Egypt’s anger at Addis Ababa’s retreat from its commitment to postpone filling the dam until after an understanding has been reached on a number of technical issues related to the construction of the dam, its capacity and storage mechanism details.
According to the source, the decision to summon Atske-Selassie was meant to serve two goals: First, it intended to send a clear message that Cairo is alarmed by Ethiopia beginning the trial phase; and second, it aimed to prevent Cairo from shifting its position from containment to escalation, which is the reason the issue was not tackled in the media through the Foreign Ministry spokesperson.
According to a Foreign Ministry authority working on the Renaissance Dam file who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, Foreign Minister Sameh Shokry is also aiming to prompt a realignment in the Nile Basin, by affecting change in the position of a sufficient number of member states in the Nile Basin Initiative to re-launch the initiative on a new basis that would see members agree on two issues: First, that none of the member states can start a project on the banks or the pathway of the river without the “consensus” of member states; and second, that any projects launched by a member state without prior warning will be suspended.
The points which Cairo believes it can garner support from its Nile Basin neighbors remain general, and include seeking to maximize the benefit of Nile resources through joint projects, and talk of “the right of all people on the banks of the Nile to life, development and mutual benefit.”
The proposal was met with “strong support” by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, according to the Foreign Ministry source familiar with the Renaissance Dam file, and the result of Shoukry’s communication with the Nile Basin countries. The source says that Museveni spoke directly with Sisi days before the summit, promising continued support until an agreement that ensures Egypt is immune to an acute water crisis is reached before Ethiopia begins the process of filling the reservoir in the summer of 2018.
The ministry source, however, says that Museveni’s efforts in support of Egypt’s proposal amounted to little, as the majority of the Nile Basin countries stand behind Ethiopia, for reasons that range from the possible benefit they might secure through favorable electricity export prices the new dam will facilitate to setting a precedent that they could cite if they wanted to pursue water projects on the Nile in the future without having to notify Egypt.
Official figures indicate that Egypt’s annual per capita water consumption has fallen from 2,526 cubic meters in 1947 to 663 cubic meters in 2013, placing the country below the United Nation’s water security line. The UN forecasts that Egypt will be in a state of water scarcity by 2025, when average consumption will fall to 500 cubic meters per capita.
Egypt announced its decision to freeze its membership in the Nile Basin Initiative in 2010 after five upstream member states signed a Cooperative Framework Agreement that would reallocate Nile water quotas without Egypt’s involvement. The parties to the agreement asserted that the framework by which Egypt is allocated 56 billion cubic meters of water per year was signed in the 1950s, before most of the concerned states gained their independence.
The five signatories to the NBI in 2010 were Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya. The following year, Burundi joined the agreement, taking the number of Nile Basin Agreement members states party to the NBI to six and thereby ensuring a majority that could push for a new framework agreement — a move which Egypt rejects — to come into effect once each country’s parliament adopts the international deal.
Misaligned friends to the south
Egypt has not gotten support from its southern neighbor in its political play in the dam struggle, according to a Foreign Ministry source who participated in a number of meetings with Sudan’s Foreign Minister, Ahmed Ghandour, referring to what he describes as “the unfortunate stance of Sudan.”
Another diplomatic source that took part in the Khartoum meeting of irrigation ministers of the Nile Basin states in March speaks of “a disturbing situation” in which the Sudanese irrigation minister attacked his Egyptian counterpart and accused Cairo of ignoring delays in water projects in other Nile Basin states or their right to development.
This situation, according to the source, bolstered information Cairo had received through what it considers to be trusted sources regarding discussions between Ethiopia and Sudan of water projects to be implemented in Sudan that would cause the quality of water that reaches Egypt to suffer, and thereby affect the country’s agricultural production and soil ecology, among other cumulative environmental factors.
The source adds that Cairo has not succeeded in obtaining a clear message regarding Sudan’s position on these potential projects during Shoukry’s meeting with his Sudanese counterpart, nor was Cairo able to ascertain Sudan’s position on the NBI, despite Shoukry subtle disapproval of Sudan’s position on the issue.
However, a Sudanese diplomat currently in Cairo says Khartoum feels Egypt is overestimating the support it can expect from the Sudanese government, especially given what the source says is Egypt’s record of “intervention in domestic Sudanese issues.”
Egypt and Sudan’s relation has been marked by increased tension in recent months, against the backdrop of Sudanese accusations that Cairo is interfering in Darfur, in addition to supporting opposing parties in Libya and engaging in a border conflict over the Halayeb and Shalatin triangle and Abu Ramad.
“Today we are seeking today to exert pressure on Ethiopia and Sudan in parallel through a network of understanding and cooperation with both Eritrea and South Sudan,” says a sovereign source speaking on condition of anonymity. “But it’s difficult to predict the path the issue will take.”
Historical missteps in the political game?
A retired diplomatic source who was in charge of the Renaissance Dam file in the months after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 believes that the way Cairo has dealt with the crisis from the very beginning has been “unfortunately marked with an exaggerated confidence in its ability to suspend the project by exerting pressure on African states and the states funding the project, without sufficiently taking into account the diminishing influence of Egypt in the region, after Egypt’s presence shrank following the assassination attempt on former President Hosni Mubarak in 1995.”
The retired diplomat adds that Egypt “underestimated Ethiopia’s diplomatic ability to mobilize sympathy in its favor, not only through Israel, but also through mobilizing western sympathy for Ethiopia’s desire for development and heralding the Renaissance Dam as the project that will allow the country to achieve a massive leap in electric power production.”
“Those who took charge after the ouster of Mubarak were, without exception, less qualified to deal with the issue,” the retired diplomat states. There were several issues in the post-January 25 revolution period, according to the source, punctuated by “a little skit performed by a popular delegation in Ethiopia after 2011, who obtained worthless pledges that do not bind Ethiopia to suspend the project until an understanding has been reached with Egypt; a naïve discussion that took place about the dam during the rule of former President Mohamed Morsi, which was broadcast on air without prior notice being given to the president and most participants; and finally the signing of the Khartoum agreement without a proper understanding, and instead aiming only to secure a quick containment of Ethiopia, a country that had already started construction at a rapid pace.”
The three Foreign Ministry sources agree that the presidential decision to sign the Khartoum agreement at the end of 2015 under the banner of “resolving the disputes over the Renaissance Dam” was, to a large extent, a hasty move, and one that took place without sufficient agreement among the president’s senior aides.
According to one source, Fayza Abul Naga, the president’s national security advisor — who is considered one of the most important Egyptian government experts on African issues — was one of the most prominent voices opposed to the agreement. Naga reportedly perceived it as an official acknowledgment from Cairo of Ethiopia’s right to proceed with the project, thus closing the door on international arbitration in the future.