Protecting Egypt’s lifeline

Hany Ghoraba
Saturday 5 May 2018

The Ethiopian government continues to ignore Egypt’s historical rights to Nile water and has refused to recognise its concerns over the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

The Ethiopian government has been evasive with regards to Egypt’s demands for negotiations over the building of the massive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile in Ethiopia.

Since President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi came to power in 2014, he and his government have been treading carefully and diplomatically to repair the frictions caused by the former regime of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi.

However, the Ethiopian side seems to have ignored those efforts, and it still maintains that Ethiopia will not cease building the dam regardless of Egypt’s complaints.

The new dam will be the seventh-largest hydroelectric plant in the world, with a power output of 6,450 MW. It is projected to have severe effects on the ecological balance of the Nile Basin and particularly on Egypt.

From the early construction of the dam in April 2011, which coincided with the eruption of the 25 January Revolution in Egypt, the Ethiopian side has been ferocious in its pursuit of building the dam and has nullified treaties controlling the distribution of Nile water including the 1929 and 1959 Treaties.

The latter guaranteed an annual flow of 55 billion square metres of water to Egypt and 18 billion to Sudan, and Ethiopia now considers this to be null and void. In this way, it has committed an act of aggression by ignoring internationally recognised treaties.

The Ethiopian government has utilised the building of the GERD as a mega-project, claiming that it will change the lives of the Ethiopian people and as a show of power against its northern neighbour.

This unwarranted provocation started during the time in office of former Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi, and it did not change greatly during the rule of former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

The new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has shown little sign of changing direction.

Yet, against such odds Egypt has kept the disagreements on the diplomatic level and has insisted that they need to be settled diplomatically.

Nevertheless, the Ethiopian government continues to ignore Egypt’s historical rights to the Nile water, and it has refused to accept almost all Egypt’s concerns during the building of the dam.

While Egypt clearly recognises Ethiopia’s right to build the dam and its right to development, it has presented its concerns about the negative effects of the building of the dam and the period of filling it on numerous occasions.

These effects include worries presented by many international experts, to the effect that during the period of filling the dam, which will take years, there will be a reduction in the flow of water in the Nile to an extent that may cause the hydroelectric turbines at the Aswan High Dam in Egypt to stop functioning.

Some experts have also warned of the structural weakness of the new dam in its current location, which could cause a huge disaster should it collapse for Sudan and possibly also for Egypt.

However, such concerns have been rejected by the Ethiopian government.

Even calls for a convention to reinitiate the negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have fallen on deaf ears, as the latter countries have not replied to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri regarding urgent negotiations.

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government is playing a waiting game and testing Egypt’s patience on an issue that represents a matter of life and death for all Egyptians.

The water from the Nile represents over 90 per cent of the needs of the Egyptian population, now standing at 95 million, and this makes it crucial for Egypt to act.

Yet, Ethiopian officials want to place Egypt between a rock and a hard place, forcing it to accept their terms and maybe later forcing it to buy water supplies from Ethiopia, a notion that is completely inacceptable to all Egyptians.

This farce cannot continue, but before resorting to other options, all forms of diplomacy must be utilised to put pressure on the Ethiopian government and its allies including Qatar and Turkey.

Whatever the Ethiopian government’s delusions, Egypt still holds its ground as a regional power and one that will not sit idly by in the face of Ethiopian provocation. It is also time for Egypt’s allies to realise that Egypt is not taking this matter lightly and that it will pursue its interests.

This message must reach the Ethiopian government and its Sudanese supporters who may think that because Egypt is fighting a war against terrorism on multiple fronts it cannot afford to give them its full attention.

They could not be further from the truth on this, however, because the Egyptian state cannot ignore the sudden loss of its water supplies as this is an existential matter for Egypt.

The reactions of the Ethiopian government resemble those of the early gold prospectors in the American west during the 19th-century “Gold Rush”.

This took place when immigrants and locals alike headed for the mountains of the Western states to dig for gold, unfettered by the dangers and blinded by the prospect of quick riches despite the huge risks involved.

It seems that the Ethiopian government is blinded by “water fever,” not recognising the realities of the world and the fact that the Egyptians, who have lived in the Nile Basin for seven millennia, will not allow any other country to tamper with their livelihoods.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus called Egypt “the gift of the Nile,” and he could not have been more accurate in describing the importance of this great river as the lifeline of Egypt from the earliest beginnings of its civilisation.

The Nile is Egypt’s lifeline, and it is an irreplaceable source of water, regardless of other options such as desalination.

As a result, Egypt’s leadership will not be deterred by obstacles in its bid to ensure that the flow of the Nile remains unhindered, as it has been for millennia.

The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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