Grand Renaissance Dam tensions: How much success can Egypt accomplish?

Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 2 Jan 2015

Ethiopia's Great Renaissance Dam is constructed in Guba Woreda, some 40 km (25 miles) from Ethiopia's border with Sudan, June 28, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

The Nile Basin issue, with regards to the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam, is one of the tensest issues in Egyptian foreign policy. Besides being a critical file in foreign policy, Egypt's water security is also of great importance for ordinary Egyptians.

Egypt might not have been successful with regards to the issue for decades due to many reasons, but there is additional lack of success resulting from the fact that the file has not been the responsibility of one specific part of the Egyptian state for a long time.

More than one entity used to manage the issue, sometimes coordinating with another, and at other times without coordination. In addition, this issue was handled by consecutive governments and officials who each had their own vision of it at a personal level before being a strategic vision of the state.

Hence, there is a strategic defect in this issue according to one of the most important experts on the topic, Mohamed Salman, an  academic at Cairo University's Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences. He told Ahram that the defect was "flagrant" from the start of the negotiations until now, as if someone is negotiating for their own loss.

On the other hand, it seemed like Ethiopia benefited more by investing in those weaknesses for their own interests. Indeed, the circumstances that Cairo went through during the Arab Spring helped Ethiopia a great deal; 52 days after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took power and Mubarak left office, the foundation stone was put in place in order to build the dam, as Hany Raslan, president of the unit of the Nile Basin at Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies said.

He told Ahram that "there is an insistence on anaesthetising the Egyptian people" and  that they will wake up to a “disaster” related in the first place to their national security, as the time factor is in favour of the Ethiopian side, which is close to completing the first phase of the dam's construction.

"I, as an eye witness to what happened in the many negotiation sessions between the Ethiopian and Egyptian sides, I notice this defect, that started under (former) minister Mahmoud Abou Zeid who stayed at the irrigation ministry for 14 years, and who always reassured us that the dam's establishment is not worrying to Egypt, and that things are fine,” said Raslan.

“Then suddenly he left office and a minister from outside the ministry came, Nasr Allam, to find that there is a policy of concessions ongoing in this issue, and he could not fix the reality of the negotiations and it was too late, then we moved to the revolution phase from which the Ethiopian side benefited and was dedicated to create a fait accompli; this means there is internal confusion, impacted by Ethiopian maneuvers in the negotiation process."   

When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power after SCAF rule, they wanted to let the dam issue pass, added Raslan, and they gave the Ethiopians an important card to play through a disastrous conference.Ethiopia used and translated the conference into all African languages and presented it to all parties, as an aggressive statement from Egypt.

After the ouster of Morsi it became a tactic that Egypt negotiates on a peaceful basis and not an aggressive one, until it reached serious talks. But there is an exaggeration of hope in this regard, says Raslan.

“And to assure this, Malabo's announcement at the last African summit which was held in Equatorial Guinea came with no gains for Egypt in the issue, but the part related to removing the remains of Morsi’s era was taken from it as a gain.”

Egypt received an Ethiopian public diplomacy delegation last month, and meetings included high level officials.

One of the participants in the delegation is a member in the negotiations and has written a lot about the topic. He said that what was reached in the last session concerns the issue of the consultancy firms who will study the reality of the dam, and which are supposed to submit their study within six months. He sees this as a prejudice against Ethiopia.

But another source close to the negotiations said that the suggested consultancy firms will not offer their results within the current phase. And according to the last international report about the dam that was published in May 2013, the studies need to be done within a year and a half, hence Ethiopia refers to this timeframe. Consequently, what Cairo thinks it achieved, in terms of the time factor, will not be in its favour this time.

The negotiations that were supposed to be held in the beginning of January were postponed, and sources in the ministry say it is possible that they will be held in the middle of January instead, when the firms present their offers about the studies.

Nader Noureldin, an international expert in water affairs, was more critical of the steps that Egypt is taking. He told Ahram that he agrees with the previous experts that Ethiopia has a strategy of trying to gain time, and he criticised the policy of appeasing cooperation by Egypt at the time where Ethiopian statements indicate escalation.

He argues that the negotiations, if they were serious, would have led to Ethiopia stopping construction at the dam, or at least slowing down the work, of which there has been no sign.

The international committee that was formed of international experts and presented its report on 31 May 2013 concluded that the dam would be disastrous to Egypt, in terms of the country’s water needs. In addition, it said the dam would have a dangerous environmental impact.

Noureldin also questions why Egypt would agree to refer to another international committee to say something else, noting that the Ethiopian irrigation minister has said that the report the yet-to-be-formed committee will generate will be respected but is not binding.  

Noureldin adds that the new consultants will not conduct any studies related to the height or the storage capacity of the dam, but only about the social, economic and hydraulic aspects of the water flow downstream, according to what the Ethiopian side will present to those experts.

And it is believed, he said, that the Ethiopian side will procrastinate even in presenting those studies.

“I have a copy of the international report, and it was discussed with a committee concerned with national security, and we concluded that the dam will be built without studies, given that the studies would be conducted later on,” he said.

According to other reports that Ahram saw, three secondary dams are supposed to be built behind the dam, which Nader Noureldin confirms, and which he considers as part of what he calls “a disaster.”

He refered to the calculations of the actual storage process that Ethiopia will have, which reaches 200 billion m3 from a river that only generates 48 billion mlike the Blue Nile. Added to that are the calculations of the incline level. If we say that the incline level at Lake Tana is 1200, what would be the need for storing all this water, he asked.

Also, there is the Japanese experience with the construction of 1,000 dams for generating electricity without lakes or storing water because the water’s speed is 30 metres per second, so the electricity gets generated instantaneously.

Hence, argues Noureldin, Ethiopia aims to store water behind the dam with the aim of selling it, or else, what would it do with all this amount of water for which electricity generation would not be the real aim as Ethiopia claims. "They want to have the title of the owner of the biggest dam in Africa, this is the aim," he said.

In the middle of this month, the committee will start working for six more months, which may be extended, as Ethiopia wants. At the same time, the first phase of the dam will be completed in June, and the first electricity turbine out of 16 will start working, which means it will get 700 megawatts out of 6000 megawatts.

How then can the first phase be inaugurated while the committee’s decisions are still being awaited? Will the committee’s decisions alter anything of the reality of the dam? The international expert in water affairs Nader Noureldin replies categorically: "No."

Experts in Egypt assert that it is necessary to stop the negotiations that have a background of creating reality on the ground and then delaying, policies that Ethiopia is following. Nader Noureldin says that what should be done now is the internationalisation of the case, taking the issue to the United Nations because it threatens the security and the peace in the region, and it could even lead to a water war in the near future.

He recalls that Ethiopia went to the UN in 1959 when late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser started building the High Dam, but the UN concluded that Egypt’s building of the dam would not harm other countries because it is the downstream country, and would protect them from the danger of flooding.

He added that Ethiopia has not coordinated with any of the river’s parties as is stated in international law, and that the studies are no longer necessary. Ethiopia is rather insisting on escalating and even building more dams. In addition to the four dams including the Renaissance Dam, it is determined to build another dam on the Sobat River from which Egypt gets 12.1 billion m3, hence it is moving towards threatening international security and peace, which requires that we head quickly to the Security Council.

*This article was first published by Al-Ahram Hebdo.


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