Cairo attempts to ward off Ethiopia's anger

Dina Ezzat , Friday 26 Nov 2010

Egypt is acting to prevent a diplomatic confrontation with Ethiopia over the distribution of Nile water

Disturbed by provocative statements from Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, that promoted a possible war with Egypt to settle a disagreement over the distribution of Nile water, Cairo is developing a diplomatic foray designed to simultaneously contain Zenawi's anger and underline Egypt's rights over its share of Nile waters.

On Tuesday, Zenawi said that his country is prepared to go to war with Egypt if Cairo insists on keeping its annual 55.5 billion cubic metre share of Nile water. On the same day, Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hossam Zaki said the remarks were uncalled for in view of ongoing consultations between Cairo and Addis Ababa over the issue.

Wednesday, President Hosni Mubarak said that Egypt and Ethiopia have “good friendly relations” and insisted that all disagreements could be discussed and settled. Mubarak also denied accusations levelled by Zenawi who had suggested that Egypt is cooperating with Ethiopian rebel groups.

Egyptian officials assess that the “approach of containment” has worked. “Immediately after President Mubarak made his statements, state run television in Ethiopia removed all references to any possible war between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Nile water,” said an Egyptian official who asked for his name to be withheld. “This is a positive sign. It shows that Egypt reacted in the right way,” he added.

Meanwhile, Cairo is planning to keep business as usual with Ethiopia at all fronts, official sources say. “Some [Egyptian] private sector companies that have initiated business in Ethiopia recently called to enquire about what they should do in view of the Zenawi statements. We asked them to conduct business as usual; we are not changing anything,” the same source told Ahram Online.

According to Foreign Ministry sources, Egypt refrained from summoning the Ethiopian ambassador in Egypt to protest the Zenawi statements. “There is no room for miscalculated reactions in our strategy to settle differences over the distribution of Nile water,” said a Foreign Ministry source.

Last May, five of the seven Nile upstream countries signed an agreement to redistribute the close to 100 billion cubic metres of annual Nile waters. This new agreement was designed to replace two agreements signed in the 1920s and 1950s on the distribution of Nile waters between lower stream countries and upstream countries.

Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda signed the new deal while Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) did not. Egypt and Sudan, the lower stream countries, protested the new agreement and insisted that any amendment of the established rules on distributing Nile waters should be by consensual agreement.

A meeting for water ministers of the nine Nile Basin countries is scheduled for January in Nairobi to examine the issue further.

Meanwhile, Egypt -- according to concerned officials -- is working to impress upon all possible donors that it would be a violation of international law for them to finance any water projects in upstream countries that could reduce Egypt's annual share of Nile waters. “The rules are clear: any projects that are designed to redirect water resources of any river cannot be launched without prior notification to all members of the Nile Basin, and without insuring that these members will not be subject to harm due to such projects,” said the Foreign Ministry source.

In parallel, Egypt is consolidating its relations with both the DRC and Burundi, to strength their position against the signing of the controversial deal. During talks held Thursday, 25 November, in Cairo between the foreign ministers of Egypt and Burundi, the Nile water issue was the primary item on the agenda.

Meanwhile, Egypt is attempting to work with the countries that signed the agreement to agree on joint projects that could increase the annual flow of the Nile River, to help increase the share of upstream states without diminishing that of lower stream countries.

Disagreement over Nile water shares could enter a new phase next year if the south of Sudan votes in favour of separation from the north, a move that would increase lower stream countries from two to three. The referendum on southern secession is scheduled for 9 January, but could be delayed for some weeks.

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