Egyptian experts divided over Renaissance Dam declaration of principles

Hana Afifi , Tuesday 24 Mar 2015

Political analyst sees declaration as a step towards new relations with Ethiopia, but former water minister slams it for threatening Egypt's share of Nile water

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, center, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, left, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, right, hold hands after signing an agreement on sharing water from the Nile River, in Khartoum, Sudan, Monday, March 23, 2015 (Photo: AP)

Egyptian experts are divided in their reactions to Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia on Monday signing a declaration of principles over Ethiopia building the Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, the Nile's largest tributary.

Egypt has repeatedly raised fears that Ethiopia's $4.2-billion dam, whose construction is said to be 40 percent complete and to finish in 2017,  would negatively affect its Nile water share.

Amany El-Taweel, African affairs specialist at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, explained to Ahram Online on Tuesday that "the declaration does not grant anything to any party."

She believes the declaration is merely an "introductory" step that forges a political atmosphere suitable for future negotiations, echoing Youssef's sentiments that the declaration is a "true beginning" for cooperation between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.

"It's a political agreement, a diplomatic move par excellence," El-Taweel said, explaining thats its aim was not to grant Egypt its rights, but to create harmonious relations.

Presidential spokesman Alaa Youssef said on Monday that the Declaration of Principles protects Egypt's water rights and is consistent with international laws, Al-Ahram's Arabic news website reported.

Youssef said that Egyptian diplomacy has been working on enhancing its relationship with Africa, and that Egypt is "launching" a new stage with its African neighbours.

"The declaration came at a very important time to remove the tension that had marred Egyptian-Ethiopian relations due to differences over the issue of the Renaissance Dam," Egypt's State Information Service (SIS) on Monday said in a document it published to explain the declaration.

El-Taweel said the declaration has to be followed by an agreement.

Egypt's Irrigation and Water Resources Minister Hossam El-Din Moghazy said earlier this month that the document was a positive step that will be followed by others.

Starting on 3 March, the foreign and water ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia attended three days of closed negotiations in Khartoum.

The declaration was drafted in Egypt and submitted to the Egyptian presidency, which resulted in Monday's signature.

Supporter: 'a dam for electricity, not irrigation'

Meanwhile, Egypt's president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi sent the declaration to the Supreme Council for Nile Water who commented on it, according to Ambassador Mona Omar, former assistant to the foreign minister for African matters.

Omar explained that the declaration is a statement of intentions or a general framework, agreeing with El-Taweel.

But unlike El-Taweel, she thinks that the declaration "offers some sort of guarantees for Egypt," she told Ahram Online.

It guarantees that Ethiopia will use the dam to generate power, not for agriculture, which would require greater water flow from the Nile, she explained.

Ethiopia's 6,000 megawatt dam is set to be Africa's largest.

"The purpose of the Renaissance Dam is to generate power, contribute to economic development, promote cooperation beyond borders, and regional integration through generating clean sustainable energy that can be relied on," states Principle 2 on "development, regional integration and sustainability".

However, Mohamed Nasreldin Allam, former irrigation and water resources minister, said "economic development" refers to agriculture.

Omar says that the declaration guarantees fair water distribution, according to Principle 5 on "the dam's storage reservoir first filling, and dam operation policies".

"We are still waiting for the consultancy firm's report," however says Omar.

The consultancy firm to carry out water and environmental impact studies on the dam, in fulfillment of an agreement made between the three countries last year, has yet to be selected after a delay from an initial selection date of 9 March.

Moghazy said last Wednesday that one of two shortlisted firms would be chosen by the end of March.

Omar stressed that the declaration is not binding, but it sends a comforting message that the three leaders are willing to cooperate, understand each country's needs and seek to abide by international law.

Critic warns of reduced water share

But Mohamed Nasreldin Allam, former minister irrigation and water resources, does not agree.

On private television channel Rotana on Monday, he slammed the declaration, especially as, he said, it might annul former agreements on Egypt's Nile water share or violate international law.

"Most of what was in the Antebe agreement that we refused in 2010 is in this declaration," he said.

The declaration is harsher than the UN's 1979 agreement, Allam says, because it does not stipulate fair use of Nile water "in a way that does not contradict former agreements". The declaration, he means, does not include this last condition.

Former agreements also include the 1959 agreement, which defines the Nile share for each of the downstream countries and sets Egypt’s annual share of Nile river water at 55.5 billion cubic meters.

This may well be annulled by the the recent declaration, says Allam.

"The agreement has taken up [the 10] principles from the perspective of their relation to the Renaissance Dam and its possible effect on the two downstream countries," however stated the SIS document, "and not from the perspective of regulating the use of Nile water included in other current international agreements that are not violated."

But Allam sees the declaration as "an unsuccessful step at an inconvenient time".

The former minister of irrigation and water resources further referred to Principle 4 on "fair and appropriate use", which states that a country's Nile water share depends on "the extent of contribution from each of the Nile Basin countries into the Nile river system."

Allam explained that, since Egypt does not contribute to the Nile, as it only receives water, this means that its share of water would decrease according to the above mentioned criterion.

He also criticised Principle 10 on "the peaceful settlement of disputes", which states that any discord is to be solved between the three countries through negotiations.

"If the parties involved do not succeed in solving the dispute through talks or negotiations, they can ask for mediation or refer the matter to their heads of states or prime ministers," according to the principle.

Allam said that  the declaration thus prevents Egypt from referring the case to the International Court of Justice or the Security Council.

Allam admitted that the declaration is only a general framework, not an agreement, and mentioned the fact that the parliament would review the matter.

Egypt has been without a parliament since the House of Representatives elected in late 2011 was dissolved in June 2012, following a court ruling that judged the law regulating its election to be unconstitutional.

Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi holds legislative powers until an elected parliament convenes.

Once a parliament is elected, they will have to vote on all laws issued by El-Sisi and his predecessor, interim president Adly Mansour.

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