Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr is expected in Addis Ababa next week for talks with top Ethiopian officials over Ethiopia's building of a mega dam over the Blue Nile that some argue may impact Egypt’s historic share of Nile waters.
Amr is expected to underline in talks with Ethiopian interlocutors the need for Egypt and Ethiopia to work closely together to ensure that the proposed dam will have a minimal negative environmental impact and would take into consideration Egypt’s need for its full share of Nile water as per past agreements.
The visit of Amr comes against the backdrop of considerable Egyptian-Ethiopian tension. Ethiopian diplomats are complaining, particularly to the world at large, about what they qualify as “renewed threats of war by Egypt.”
On Monday, President Mohamed Morsi, during a speech to Islamist supporters at the Cairo Conference Centre, promised “blood” should Egypt’s share of the Nile water be undermined.
His statements come less than two weeks after a controversial presidential meeting with some opposition figures that was aired on television live without prior notification given. Some participants openly called on the president to pursue military and intelligence options in Ethiopia and the entire Horn of Africa, to block the construction of the dam.
During a national security meeting held at the presidential palace Tuesday, Morsi was advised by some of his aides to “tone down the volume” on the military option, as such rhetoric could damage Egypt’s standing and ability to request its legal rights vis-a-vis the dam are respected.
Such rights could include being able to demand assurances that the dam will be structurally sound, in order to avoid possible collapse. According to one informed source, Morsi was directly told that the Ethiopians know very well that the studies on the construction of the dam need more work and that the current design leaves much room for improvement, and that it is perfectly legitimate and legal for Egypt — and for that matter for Sudan — to refuse construction pending rectification of the design.
“The president was told that Egypt has many legal and diplomatic options that could include international arbitration or a call for a moratorium on the dam, and that threats of war weaken this case. He said that he just wanted to signal that Egypt cannot take any chances when it comes to its water share, given that it is already under the water poverty line,” said one source.
The source added that for over two decades Egypt had successfully blocked funds for the aspired-to Ethiopian dam by stressing safety concerns, environmental impact, and the legal rights of Egypt by virtue of international agreements — all “without having to make any threats of war.
"On the contrary, we were actually underlining our commitment to supporting Ethiopian development schemes that would not harm Egypt, and we actually meant what we said," the source commented.
Amr's delicate Addis mission
In Addis Ababa, Amr is expected to reiterate a similar line by telling his interlocutors that what Morsi meant during Monday's speech was that for Egypt, Nile water is a life or death matter, rather than threatening war as such.
“The visit itself is a show of good will and of a commitment to work together with our Ethiopian friends in a positive atmosphere in order to reach an agreement on how to serve Ethiopia’s development interests without compromising Egypt’s water needs or causing environmental damage to the Nile River,” said Egyptian Ambassador to Ethiopia Mohamed Idris.
Idris said that it is very important for Cairo to communicate this "fair message" to Ethiopian public opinion that seems only to be hearing news of threats of war without acknowledging Egyptian water concerns.
The Ethiopian public, according to Ethiopian diplomats, is enraged against Egypt not only due to the war threats, but also due to demonstrations staged around the Ethiopian embassy in Cairo and reported cases of "antagonism" to which "some Ethiopian citizens in Cairo have been subjected to."
According to one Ethiopian diplomat, officials in Cairo are telling the public in Egypt that Ethiopians want to take all the Nile water and leave Egyptians to die of thirst. “We don’t want to harm Egypt. We just want to build a dam and it is Egypt that is threatening war against us over this dam,” he said.
Addressing Ethiopian public opinion to explain Egyptian concerns is one thing Ayman Abdel-Wahhab, an expert on water resource matters at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says should be a priority for Amr during his coming visit to Ethiopia.
“There is a misconception in Ethiopia that Egypt has abundance of water resources while this is not true at all because Egypt is a country that suffers from a serious and worsening water shortage,” he said.
Abdel-Wahhab also said that Ethiopian public opinion should also be aware that the “angry statements that were made here and there come as a reaction to the negative message that was delivered to Egypt when Addis decided to unilaterally divert the course of the Blue Nile last month.”
Late May, following the participation of Morsi in an African Union meeting in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa announced the diversion of the Blue Nile as a step in the construction of the Renaissance Dam it is hoping to build within the next five years with a planned reservoir of 74 billion cubic metres of water for electricity generation purposes.
Egyptian officials acknowledge that the diversion made in May was only for trial purposes and that it is not the full required diversion but rather a symbolic one ahead of the full diversion that would be required for dam construction.
Ethiopian good will sought
“All construction work of any nature should be temporarily suspended pending an agreement with Egypt as required by international law that demands the consent of all basin states of any river for the construction of mega irrigation projects by any basin state,” Abdel-Wahhab said.
He added that this suspension of construction should be openly demanded by Amr during his talks in Addis next week, as a sign of good will on the Ethiopian side.
“I think that Egypt should demand the full consent of all basin states of the Nile River before this project is constructed, even though it would be built on the Blue Nile in what might not directly affect other upstream states,” he said.
Abdel-Wahhab is convinced that the visit of Amr to Addis offers a good opportunity to tell the world that Egypt is willing to listen to and work with Ethiopia. “But the world should also hear a clear message about the need for the interests of all basin states of the Nile to be preserved, to make sure that stability in this part of the world — host to considerable foreign investment — is not undermined.”