Egypt hosted the fourth round of the Cairo Water Week (CWW 24-28 October), which brought together a significant number of regional and world ministers, international non-governmental organisations with the aim of spreading awareness of water issues and promoting innovation to face water-related challenges.
While Egypt and Sudan, on one side, and Ethiopia, on the other side, have been engaged in fruitless negotiations for nearly a decade over the means to contain the damaging effects of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the two downstream countries’ share of Nile water, Cairo has decided to introduce this dispute within the challenges facing the world in terms of water scarcity.
The regular convention of the CCW is Cairo’s way of warning against the dangerous consequences if the world does not pool efforts to deal with the challenges related to the most scarce and most important resource.
Egypt is located in one of the world’s most arid spots, and 97 per cent of its water resources come from the Nile. Over 100 million Egyptians also suffer from a wide gap between water resources and consumption. Egypt’s annual share of water per capita does not exceed 650 cubic m, which is well below the international threshold for water poverty specified by the United Nations at 1,000 cubic m. Meanwhile, Egyptians reuse 35 per cent of the water they consume to help narrow this gap.
While repeatedly stressing that “all options remain open” to ensure Egypt’s water rights, and Egyptians are united in their determination not to compromise a single drop of their share of Nile water, President Abdel-Fatah Al-Sisi confirmed Cairo’s intention to achieve that through diplomatic means, while maintaining the highest level of restraint and understanding of Ethiopia’s right to use its resources for development.
At the same time, and equal to all other strategic infrastructure projects the government has been building, Cairo has drawn up a four-pronged strategy to manage its water resources through 2037 at an initial cost of up to $50 billion. The strategy aims to regulate water use, improve water quality, provide additional water resources via establishing water treatment plants, and create a climate suitable for optimal water management.
In his recorded speech at the opening of CWW on Sunday, President Al-Sisi called for upholding the principles of international cooperation and solidarity in order for the world to overcome all water-related challenges. He called on the participants in the CWW’s discussions to encourage riparian states to uphold the values of integration and participation, activate the rules of justice and equity, and not compromise the interests of their neighbours.
Mincing no words, Al-Sisi reconfirmed Egypt’s keenness to reach a legally binding and balanced agreement as soon as possible and without further delay on the long-standing dispute with Ethiopia on the GERD. “The Egyptian people,” he said, “are closely following the developments of the GERD issue. And I would like to stress our aspiration to reach — as soon as possible and without further delay — a balanced and legally binding agreement… in line with the presidential statement issued by the Security Council on 15 September 2021.”
The agreement Egypt is seeking would guarantee Ethiopia’s development goals as well as limit the water, environmental, social, and economic damages of the dam to Egypt and Sudan.
The Security Council presidential statement, encouraging Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia “to resume negotiations” to swiftly reach a “mutually acceptable and binding agreement on the filling and operation” of the GERD, was not the best outcome Egypt and Sudan have been looking for. The two countries strongly pushed for a Tunisian-proposed binding resolution calling for an official agreement among the three countries, reached through the mediation of the African Union. Yet the presidential statement remained to be a united world message that the GERD dispute is no simple cross-border water issue, and could definitely pose a threat to international peace and security.
When the lives of more than 100 million people are at stake, the world cannot stand by watching only because one or two key world powers are worried that the Security Council should not turn into a body aimed at settling international water disputes. In the case of GERD, Egypt and Sudan have been negotiating in good faith for 10 years, and agreed on guiding principles with Ethiopia in 2015 to provide assurances that the dam project would not cause massive harm.
However, consecutive Ethiopian governments spared no effort to buy time without reaching agreement, while continuing on the ground the building and storage of water behind the GERD. Diplomatic talks, mediated by the AU, the United States, the European Union or the UN have all failed due to Ethiopia’s intransigence and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s domestic considerations. Ethiopia has repeatedly refused to sign such a deal and, instead, insists on mere guidelines that can be modified at any time at its discretion.
Egypt is ready to resume the tripartite GERD negotiations, but with international guarantees and in the presence of international observers. Relatively positive statements came out of Addis Ababa this week, stating that Ethiopia would not attempt to affect water flow to Egypt through the GERD. However, intentions are not enough, and no positive statements have meaning before they are translated into an agreement.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly