This week, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi made his toughest statement yet on the crisis surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) since his ascent to power in 2014.
“I don’t threaten anyone. We will stick to rational talk. But I am saying that Egypt’s water rights will not be compromised by a single drop. If anyone wants to try this resolve, they will see that for themselves,” Al-Sisi said.
The president was talking at the Suez Canal Authority (SCA), which he visited on Tuesday in the wake of the dislodging of the Ever Given, a container ship that had gone aground last Tuesday and blocked the waterway for six consecutive days before it was refloated on Monday to allow for the resumption of maritime traffic.
Al-Sisi’s comments on the GERD contrasted with previous statements that had underlined that Egypt is committed to dialogue and is confident about its right to secure a legally binding deal on its water rights with Ethiopia.
The crisis over the GERD started in 2010 when Ethiopia announced plans to build a dam on the Blue Nile that provides Egypt with over 80 per cent of its annual share of Nile water. On an annual basis, Egypt gets around 56 billion cubic metres (bcm) of water from the Nile, and even this falls short of securing its basic rights.
According to government statistics, Egypt is at least 20 billion bcm short of its annual needs of water. During the past five years, the country has been exploring water-desalination schemes and has expanded water-recycling projects to cover for the shortage.
On Tuesday, President Al-Sisi also said that Egypt would move on with expanding its agricultural areas to improve food-security levels. He promised an extra 1.5 million feddans as part of the New Delta project would be reclaimed and said that water recycled from industrial and agricultural usage would contribute to the irrigation of the new area.
He also said that the next few weeks would see more political work to resolve the crisis over the GERD. There has been a decade of on-again and off-again negotiations between Ethiopia and the two downstream countries of Sudan and Egypt to provide a deal on the filling and operation of the GERD.
Last year, Ethiopia violated political commitments and started the first filling of the reservoir of the GERD with close to five billion bcm of water. Next July, it is set to launch the second filling of around triple that amount.
African Union (AU) mediation has failed to produce a legally binding agreement, and it is not clear whether a new round of talks will lead to a solution in view of the contradictory positions of Ethiopia, which declines anything beyond guidelines for the filling and operation of the GERD, and the downstream countries that insist on a legally binding agreement.
In his press statements in Ismailia on Tuesday, President Al-Sisi also spoke of plans to upgrade the Suez Canal. He said that the upgrading of the southern part of the crucial waterway had been under consideration for a while prior to the Ever Given incident.
In August 2016, Al-Sisi oversaw the inauguration of a new stretch of the Suez Canal at its northern point. Government officials have maintained that the extension has facilitated traffic in the waterway.
Al-Sisi said on Tuesday that the Ever Given crisis had reminded the world of the importance of the Suez Canal. During the six-day crisis, over 400 ships were caught up in a long wait to pass through the canal.
Al-Sisi said that the canal was an indispensable pathway for world trade, something which the world knew well, he said, despite speculation about alternative routes. He said that the SCA and other relevant bodies were conducting investigations into the Ever Given episode.
The president also shared an overview of the mega-projects the executive is working on during his press statements, including upgrading the capacities of Egyptian harbours and upscaling railways service in Egypt.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly