Egypt is one of the water-poorest countries in the world. One of the biggest challenges facing it now and in the coming years is securing enough water for its growing population, an enormous challenge given the double threat posed by climate change and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Whatever measures Egypt takes to optimise its water use will mainly depend on the Nile. Yet Ethiopia has failed to provide clear evidence, let alone commit itself to a legally binding agreement that guarantees GERD will not affect the amount of water coming to Egypt, despite nearly a decade of negotiations.
Several developments in the last 12 months contributed to delaying the restart of the African Union- (AU) sponsored tripartite talks that aim to reach an agreement between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia on the filling and operation of GERD.
The conflict between the government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) — though it has subsided in recent days, there is no sign of it ending soon— begs many questions, not least whether the Ethiopian government will opt for a reasonable compromise in order to close the file, or take an even more intransigent stand in the hope it will garner popular support.
Judging by the latest official statements, the government appears inclined towards the second option. In quest of more popular support in its battle with opposition forces, the government of Ethiopia is desperate to show that construction work on the dam is ongoing. Ethiopian officials, including the newly appointed Minister of Water and Energy Habtamu Itefa, said last month that the construction of the second phase of GERD will be completed soon, allowing the first of the dam’s turbines to begin generating electricity.
Yet Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, said that “at present, satellite pictures show no progress in building the dam, and no signs of preparations for the generation of electricity, or even for a third filling of the reservoir.”
AU-sponsored tripartite negotiations stalled in April, despite US backing for the process. During a visit to Egypt in May, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated Washington’s commitment to Egypt’s water security and stressed the need to resume negotiations under the AU. In the same month, newly-appointed US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman visited Congo, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia in an attempt to revive tripartite negotiations.
In June, the Arab League issued a resolution rejecting any measures that undermine Egypt’s and Sudan’s share of Nile water and called on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to intervene to resolve the crisis which threatened peace and security in the region. Ethiopia denounced the resolution, describing the Arab League’s position as “misguided”.
When the UNSC met in early July to discuss the issue, Tunisia, the only non-permanent Arab member of the council, submitted a draft resolution calling on Ethiopia to negotiate in good faith and setting a timetable of six months for reaching an agreement, under the umbrella of the AU, on the filling and operation of the dam. Ethiopia, however, slammed the UNSC session as an “unhelpful distraction” to the AU-led negotiating process. Egypt and Sudan had expected the UNSC to draw a roadmap for the resumption of talks, but the session concluded without a vote on the draft resolution.
The UNSC did, however, issue a presidential statement urging Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt to resume negotiations, under the auspices of the AU, and “finalise the text of a mutually acceptable agreement on filling and operating the dam within a reasonable time frame”.
Hopes were raised in August when Algeria offered to mediate between the three countries in an attempt to restart the tripartite negotiations. Algeria’s Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra subsequently visited the three states but no date was set for the resumption of talks.
More than three months have passed since the UNSC issued its statement, and the three countries have not yet managed to return to the negotiating table. What has become increasingly clear during the course of the dispute is that it is not simply about the filling and operation of GERD. Ethiopia also objects to Egypt’s historic right to 55 billion cubic metres (bcm) of Nile water annually, as stipulated in international agreements signed in 1929 and 1959.
Ethiopia took a unilateral decision to start the first filling of the dam during the 2020 flood season, and undertook a second filling this year. Egypt fears that continued filling of the dam in the absence of any stipulations enshrined in an agreementwill reduce the flow of Nile water on which Egypt depends, while Sudan is worried Ethiopia’s unilateral actions will endanger its own dams.
“I hope that our brothers in Ethiopia will cooperate with us as cooperation will cost less than any other option. The best way to coordinate between the three countries is cooperation and integration,” Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Atisaid during this year’s Cairo Water Week (CWW). He underlined that, in the absence of any studies on the environmental, social, and economic repercussions of the dam, Cairo and Khartoum had every right to feel threatened.
The problems facing Egypt — a growing population and economy, climate change, and a severely limited supply of water — also apply to other African states, making it essential for the continent to swiftly implement water-saving solutions and slow the growth of demand for more water. With this end in mind, Abdel-Ati said the Egyptian government was keen to share its “successful experience in water management” with other Nile Basin states.
ATER MANAGEMENT: Egypt’s water resources are about 60 bcm per annum, coming primarily from the Nile, with very limited amounts of rainwater and groundwater, while its needs are 114 bcm. The difference is covered by reused agricultural wastewater and surface groundwater. Egypt also imports food from abroad that would require 34 bcm of water annually to produce locally.
Climate change and population growth are putting further pressure on Egypt’s limited water resources, with levels by 2025 estimated to reach 500 cubic metres per capita — defined as absolute water poverty.
Egypt’s National Water Resources Plan 2017-37 aims tooptimise water use by recycling agricultural wastewater and groundwater. The $50 billion, 20-year plan seeks to improve water quality and to bring additional water resources online, and encompasses wastewater treatment, desalination of seawater, and an overhaul of agricultural irrigation systems.
ATER PROJECTS:The Bahr Al-Baqar plant in Port Said was inaugurated in September. It was built at a cost of about $1.3 billion and isthe largest facility of its kind in the world, capable of treating five million cubic metres of water from Bahr Al-Baqar basin each day.
The plant will contribute to bringing 475,000 feddans of land in Sinai, east of the Suez Canal, under cultivation.
Other desalination and water treatment plantsthat opened this year include the Abu Zenima seawater desalination plant, with a capacity of 20,000 m3/day; the Ras Sedr plant with a capacity of 30,000 m3/day; a plant in Dahab with a capacity of 15,000 m3/day; and a plant in Nuweiba with a capacity of 15,000 m3/day.
A wastewater treatment plant in Al-Hammam, in the northwest of Egypt, is expected to be completed by June 2022, producing sufficient water to irrigate 1.5-2 million feddans of land.
A nationwide project to rehabilitate irrigation canals is improving water management and distribution and reducingwastage.
“Lining canals can lead to a 50 per cent reduction in the cost of cultivating crops and increases production by 30 per cent,” Abdel-Ati told CWW.
The Ministry of Irrigation is currently working on the first phase of the project, rehabilitating 4,589 km of irrigation canals, which is slated for completion in June 2022 at a cost of LE18 billion. Over the life of the project 20,000 km of canals will be upgraded.
Lining canals, explained Sharaki, stops seepage and eliminates weeds.
CAIRO WATER WEEK: CWW is held annually to, according to the Irrigation Ministry, aims to “find sustainable solutions for the management of water resources to face the problems of population growth and changes to land use and climate”.
During this year’s CWW, Abdel-Ati stressed the need for concerted global efforts. “Without cooperation,” he said,“no country will be able to the challenges posed by reduced access to water. We live in one world and share a common destiny.”
Abdel-Ati also underlined that Egypt is prioritising cooperation with African countries by implementing development projects across the continent and providing training courses on all aspects of water management.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.