International arbitration could be option for Ethiopia's Blue Nile dam: Govt source

Dina Ezzat, Saturday 1 Jun 2013

If Ethiopia and Egypt fail to come to an agreement about controversial new dam project on the Blue Nile, the matter could be taken to International Court of Justice


“We have a strong legal case to insist that our share of the Nile water is preserved – this is not just from a political perspective but also from a legal perspective,” said an anonymous Egyptian government source on the eve of the release of a report on the impacts of an Ethiopian dam on the Blue Nile.

Ethiopia had already started on the first phases of constructing the dam, on Tuesday diverting a stretch of the Blue Nile in preparation for the dam.

Egypt and Sudan, which both depend on water from the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia, have long objected to the plans for the dam, concerned that it could harm their share of the Nile water.

Egypt currently receives 55.5 billion cubic metres of the total Nile waters.

The reserve of the Renaissance Dam requires 74 billion cubic metres of water. Ethiopia has an initial plan to fill up the reserve in five years, which could cause Egypt a cut of over 20 percent in five successive years, contributing to Egypt’s existing water shortages.

The Egyptian annual share is decided by a series of international agreements that were signed in the first five decades of last century. Ethiopia has been arguing that agreements concluded during the colonial era should be revisited by independent African states.

“This is not a legal argument – it might be a political argument but not a legal one,” said the government source. He added that there are “precedents by which the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had stipulated the observation of international agreements reached during the colonial era by African states; we have a strong case if we were to go to the ICJ; that is for sure,” he said.

For Egypt and Ethiopia to pursue the arbitration of the ICJ, both countries have to accept the intervention. “If Egypt was to propose this intervention and Ethiopia declines it would put itself in a very unfavourable political situation,” the same source said.

In another option, he added, Egypt could resort to international arbitration in a mechanism that would require the presence of arbitrary representatives of both Egypt and Ethiopia along with international arbitrators. Egypt successfully pursued this to settle its dispute with Israel over Taba and managed to retrieve it in the early 1980s. 

Egypt’s pursuit of arbitration relies on international legal provisions that demand the consent of all the basin states of any river prior to the construction of any mega irrigation projects like the Renaissance Dam.

 These options, Egyptian officials say, are not the immediate choices of Cairo. “We are hopeful to fix the matter through negotiations; we might have a joint mechanism to decide the matter and we have had the firm assurances of Addis Ababa that it will not harm our water interests,” said another government official.

“We already have an idea of what we could do but we are waiting for the release of the report of the impacts of the Renaissance Dam which is being put together by experts from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on Saturday,” he said.

The report is likely to highlight the possible negative repercussion of the ‘proposed dam’ on Egypt’s share and to recommend the need for a consensual scheme to fill up the reserve.

The report may also raise questions about the possible negative environmental impact of the dam on the course of the river Nile. Other questions about the safety of the dam itself have also yet to be addressed.

However, the report would not at all go as far as recommending the cancellation of the project.

“Ethiopia is not without international support for the pursuit of this dam that would help development aspirations; still, it is not unaware of the growing international concern over the many problems of Egypt and the fact that nobody would want to see an acute water shortage problem added to the already tough challenges that the country is facing,” said a Cairo-based European diplomat.

“In fact, the matter could be fixed with the interests of both countries in consideration if Ethiopia agrees on a relatively slow process to fill up the reserve and if Egypt works to cut down on its water losses by upgrading its water usage; the international community could be of help there for sure.”

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