Q&A: Former Egyptian irrigation minister discusses Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Osman Fekri, Wednesday 19 Aug 2015

Ahram Hebdo interviews Mohamed Nasr Allam, former minister of water resources and irrigation, about the latest developments in the Ethiopian dam crisis and its impact on Egypt

Mohamed Nasr Allam, former minister of water resources and irrigation (Photo: Ahram)
Ahram Hebdo: The joint work between the Dutch and French companies in preparing the studies on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have started [on Wednesday 12 August]; does this mean that Egypt no longer has reservations about the French company having a bigger share of the work than the Dutch company?
Mohamed Nasr Allam: Yes, Egypt agreed that the French company be the main company and do 70 percent of the work, and the Dutch company be the subcontractors and do 30 percent of the work.

As for the studies, work has not started on them yet, and actually there is no contract regarding the studies so far. The French company was supposed to submit the joint final technical offer with the Dutch company on Wednesday 12 August to the national committees of the three countries, in order for them to review it.
They would then have consensus about it at the meeting in Addis Ababa on 20 August. After that, the financial offer would be opened and negotiations would be held on it; then, after an agreement, a contract would be signed with the French company. Unfortunately, the French company has not sent its final joint technical offer yet.
AH: What is the next step? What are the points that the two companies will work on?
MNA: The aim of a contract with the consultancy firm is to prepare two studies; the first is on the hydraulic and hydroelectric impacts of the dam on the two downstream countries [Egypt and Sudan]. And the second is on the environmental, economic and social impacts on the three countries [Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia].

The procedures for signing a contact with the consultant are still at square one, as the joint study by the French and Dutch companies has not been submitted yet, even though the deadline was passed a few days ago.
We do not have information regarding whether the report is going to be submitted or if the two companies will back out of the deal. The difficulty lies in the work distribution between the two companies, especially as the three countries have failed to do that before, and only specified the percentage of participation for every firm, leaving the distribution of labour for the two companies.
This situation might end in one of three scenarios: either the two companies will back out of conducting the studies, or the Dutch company will back out of it and the French company will conduct the studies alone – which Egypt will approve – or the two companies will manage to reach a collaborative work plan.
And even if the third scenario takes place, there will be disagreements about the work plan, especially on two main points. The first is about the size of the dam, which Egypt sees as needing to be studied in order to determine smaller alternatives that might be of less harm to Egypt, while Ethiopia, supported by Sudan, does not agree with this.
The second point is about the extent of detail of social and economic studies, especially as most of this study will be about Egypt, given that the Nile runs through the whole length of the country. This means that detailed accounts about water usage and its economic aspects will be required, which touches the core of national security.

AH: What is the date agreed upon for finishing the studies, taking into consideration that prolonging the procedures is not in Egypt's interests, especially as July's meeting failed to reach an agreement?
MNA: The concerned minister says the specified duration for the study is 11 months, but I expect it to be not less than two years because the studies will be halted a lot due to each country's reviews of the progress reports.

Secondly, there will be a delay from the three parties, in my opinion, in delivering the required data to conduct the two studies. After this, there will undoubtedly be substantial disagreements about their interpretation, and according to the roadmap, international experts will conciliate or arbitrate between them. Those procedures and discussions might take more than one whole year, so we are talking about August-December 2018. By that time Ethiopia will have finished, or almost finished, the first filling of the dam, and the studies would have no value.

AH: What is expected from the Egyptian, Ethiopian and Sudanese ministers of irrigation's meeting on August 20?
MNA: I doubt that this meeting will be held on time, and if it takes place, there will be disagreements about the details of the joint technical offer, if it is submitted in the first place. The meeting could also be held in order to look for a solution in the case where the two firms do not submit their joint technical offer.

AH: The irrigation minister said Thursday: "We know that the dam will be completed in 2017 and we received studies from the Ethiopian side about the dam's safety, and what worries us is the storage size." Is this the point of disagreement? In what way?
MNA: We did not receive the full dam safety studies, and Egypt conceded to Ethiopia (and I don't know the reasons behind this strange concession) the necessity to conduct a consultative independent study of the structural safety of the dam, even though the tripartite international committee's report published on 31 May 2013 stipulated the importance and necessity of conducting this study.
As for the storage size, I don't see that the current path and the increasing Egyptian leniency with clear Ethiopian intransigence will allow Egypt to study the storage size of the dam.
Rather, I see that the whole path will lead to nothing but Egypt's approval of the Renaissance Dam with all the specifications that Ethiopia dreams of, and with all the damages that Egypt fears, like the infertility of the land, the shortage in the electricity at the High Dam and the Aswan Reservoir, the aggravation of problems of pollution in waterways and in the northern lakes, and threats to fish resources, as well as low levels of underground water.

AH: And what alternative do you suggest?
MNA: I suggest a political path supported by a technical one through an Egyptian initiative that calls upon Ethiopia to stop the dam's construction when it reaches 120 metres or a little more, in a way that the dam's capacity does not exceed half of the initial storage.
Indeed, most of the international and Egyptian studies show that a smaller dam is capable of generating the same amount of electricity as the huge dam, and is much less costly.
And after agreeing to halt the dam's construction, the tripartite committee's studies continue. After they are finished and after consensus is reached about their results, serious negotiations can start.
So if the dam will cause damage to Egypt, which is certain, Ethiopia is committed to implement the policies of storage and operation that decrease the damages, and policies of compensation if needed.
And if there are any losses for Ethiopia as a consequence of keeping the dam at half its original size, Egypt compensates for the losses. And this way everyone is happy. At a later stage, and after sealing and implementing the agreement concerning the policies on minimising the damages and compensation, negotiations are re-launched concerning whether or not to continue the construction, then a final settlement of the crisis is reached.
And at a final stage, negotiations take place about the general framework for cooperation and coordination between the two states concerning the many other Ethiopian dams.
This is the summary of the initiative, plainly. And the initiative will not prevent damage from the Ethiopian dam, but there is no doubt that it will greatly decrease its negative impacts. And it has to be clear that the only solution to prevent any damage to Egypt is completely removing the dam. And I am not a specialist in structural removal and cannot speak about it deeply enough.

AH: How much work has been done in terms of the construction of the dam?
MNA: Fifty percent of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam, and unfortunately Ethiopia is using the time of the negotiations between both countries to continue building the dam, completely ignoring the negotiations which are useless. The state must take a clear stance towards this dam.
President El-Sisi is making magnificent efforts to solve the crisis, but Ethiopia, with its intransigence, has not left any space for negotiations or reconciliation. Egypt is considered one of the most powerful African countries, and that requires us to take a strong stance against Ethiopia.
And all countries will stand by Egypt if it resorts to international justice, and internationalisation of the case has now become pressing, at least until we bind Ethiopia to stop the construction of the dam during the negotiation phase.
Ethiopia is trying to create a situation of a fait accompli, which would push Egypt towards submission to Ethiopia. Ethiopia itself has a very big faction that rejects the building of the dam, and might be allied with Egypt if Egypt internationalises the case.
*This story was first published by Ahram Hebdo, Al-Ahram's weekly French language newspaper.
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