It is a pleasant late spring evening in Cairo, and Badr Mounir and Mohamed Islam have decided to enjoy it by the Manial Bridge that connects the Corniche Al-Nil to the island of Manial Al-Roda.
They come from the far end of eastern Cairo, and these two Arabic teachers, 58 and 35 years old, are planning a long fishing session starting an hour after sunset and lasting until the early hours of dawn. With their cars parked on the old bridge, they briefly leave their fishing lines in place to fix themselves a cup of tea or a bottle of water.
They sit there quietly next to a line of fishermen who barely know one another. They share a few words about fishing, the city, and the Nile.
“We don’t know one another, at least not really. I mean some people might have met before on this or some other bridge while fishing, but this is our bonding connection — the banks of the Nile,” Badr said.
Badr first picked up his fishing skills at the age of 15 from a late maternal uncle who was as in love with the Nile as with fishing. “There is something about fishing and about the Nile that helps one to let go of pressures and worries,” he said.
For over 40 years, Badr has fished at every possible spot accessible on the banks of the Nile in Greater Cairo, including Giza and Qalioubiya. Throughout these fishing sessions he has established long-lasting friendships. And he has mentored some beginners who were also coming to the banks of the Nile for tranquility. He also continues to make new friendships.
“People always come to the Nile, and when they do, they are so relaxed that they feel they know one another. I think it makes sense because life in Cairo is all about the Nile. It is the heart and soul of the city,” Islam said.
On this mid-May evening, both Badr and Islam are sharing worries over the possible consequences that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile could have on the Nile in Cairo. They said they were confident that “Egypt will be able to defend the Nile,” but they wanted to see a prompt and fair end to a debate that is “haunting every Egyptian”.
“Who would not worry about the Nile? What is Cairo without the Nile? What is Egypt without the Nile,” Islam asked.
On 11 May, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in a fresh round of remarks over the GERD dispute said that it was “perfectly legitimate for Egyptians to be worried” about the dam issue. But he added that Egypt’s water “rights will not be compromised.”
Earlier in May during talks with the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the current chair of the African Union (AU), Felix Tshisekedi, and with US Envoy to the Horn of Africa Jeffery Feltman, Al-Sisi reiterated the same message on his determination to uphold all of Egypt’s water rights.
Strolling along the Corniche, taking a felluca or fishing, Egyptians’ lives and spirits have always been associated with the Nile
At his business on the Nile in Garden City in Cairo, Mohamed Dokdok, the third-generation chief of a successful felucca business, had no doubt that “somehow things will be worked out.”
“I know that we are having a big problem, but I also know that for Egypt the Nile is a very serious matter,” he said.
His felucca business has been in the Dokdok family for over a century. His grandfather launched it with a couple of boats and managed with the help of his sons and grandsons to turn it into the most reputable name in the business today.
“For over a century, we have been living off the generosity of the Nile. In high seasons and in low seasons, we always manage to float with the water and the wind,” Dokdok said.
He recalled better and worse days in the business that came with the “peak of terrorism in Egypt” and later with the decline of tourism and the economy throughout a decade of political and economic changes ending more recently with the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The Nile is a source of fascination for Egyptians, not just for those who live in Cairo, but for everyone really. It is also fascinating for foreigners, and this is how the name Dokdok became a celebrity name,” he said.
Dokdok is now following closely the news of the GERD dispute with a sense of unease. “I can’t think of what might happen were the Ethiopians to try to block the flow of the Nile. I am not thinking of my business, because we know how to float our boats even in droughts. I am worried about the livelihood of this country — irrigation, drinking water, and everything,” he said.
DEBATE ON THE GERD
The amount of water that Ethiopia could block in the mega-reservoir of the GERD during droughts has been among the key disputed points of the GERD negotiations, launched after Egypt and Sudan, the two downstream countries, signed a Declaration of Principles (DOP) with Ethiopia in the spring of 2015.
The DOP granted Ethiopia the consent of the downstream countries to the construction of the dam with a reservoir capacity of close to 75 billion cubic metres (bcm) of water. In return, it demanded that Ethiopia should not inflict any grave harm on the downstream countries.
“The idea behind the DOP was to end the dispute amicably — to allow Ethiopia to build the dam that would help it overcome its electricity shortage in pursuit of development and to make sure at the same time that Sudan and Egypt did not suffer grave water shortages as a result of either the filling or the operation of the new dam,” commented an Egyptian government source on board during the signing of the DOP.
The three countries have since been engaged in three-way talks in the pursuit of a deal on the filling and operation of the GERD. Having failed to secure an agreement prior to the anticipated first filling of the GERD towards the end of 2019, Egypt requested the mediation of the US.
At the beginning of 2020, Washington-sponsored talks produced an agreement that was shrugged off by Ethiopia, which absented itself from the last session of the negotiations. Egypt initialled the agreement, while Sudan declined to join on a deal that Ethiopia had declined.
In June 2020, shortly before the beginning of the wet season, Egypt managed to secure a UN Security Council session to discuss the GERD. It demanded that the council call on Ethiopia to refrain from the first filling of the GERD prior to an agreement. But the council only called on the AU, then under the chairmanship of South Africa, to take charge of negotiations that could lead to an agreement.
In the absence of an agreement, Ethiopia then unilaterally executed the first filling of the GERD reservoir and announced that the Nile was “now Ethiopian”. The first filling came in at under five bcm during a good rainy season. Ethiopians, who had been dreaming of the day the GERD would start the filling in anticipation of an end to electricity shortages, rejoiced. Sudanese and Egyptians were apprehensive.
Seated on a bench on the banks of the Nile at the entrance to the Cairo suburb of Maadi to wait for the sunset and Iftar with a couple of friends on a mid-May Ramadan day, Hassan Ahmed, a civil servant in his early 30s, said that he was worried that a year down the road Ethiopia would “continue to snub everyone”.
Once a week in Ramadan, Ahmed comes to have his Iftar by the Nile at the Corniche l-AMaadi, which he holds to be the prettiest spot on the banks of the Nile in all of Cairo, including the Helwan neighbourhood. Following the news of the GERD dispute, he said he was worried that the banks of the Nile would not look the same when his toddler daughter was old enough to enjoy the view and have a simple and serene Iftar on the Nile.
“Yasmine is now two years old. I am not sure how the Nile will look in five or six years when she is seven or eight. I am not sure that we can take a family photograph similar to the one I have with my parents as a child or to the one that Noha and I had when we came here for a walk after our engagement,” Ahmed said, referring to his wife.
“[Ethiopia] says the second filling is going to happen this summer — in a few weeks — and that they are going to reserve a lot more water than they did last year. So, who knows what will happen in five to six years,” he added.
Ethiopian officials are determined that the second filling of close to 15 bcm will happen in mid-July this year, again without the agreement that the downstream countries are insisting on. This has been the case despite the extensive political pressure that Cairo, now with the help of Khartoum that has lost faith in the good intentions of Addis Ababa, has been exerting.
But as a result of the diplomatic pressure of both Sudan and Egypt, Ethiopia has agreed for the first time to allow experts from both downstream countries to be present during the second filling for a technical overview. It has also agreed to pace the second filling for a longer period than the first to accommodate the worry of Khartoum that another and bigger reservation of water will harm its Rosairas Dam in the south of the country near to the reservoir of the GERD.
Neither Khartoum nor Cairo has been impressed, however. Instead, they insist that they want a legally binding agreement that will specify the filling procedures during drought and extended drought seasons, set up a dispute-settlement mechanism, and rule out any further unilateral acts by Ethiopia. Addis Ababa has shrugged off these demands.
“It is a tough situation, but we will keep up the pressure. I think we are getting a lot more attention from the world today,” commented one Egyptian diplomatic source.
Egypt has also asked for further mediation by the new Biden administration in the US. In an article amounting to an open letter in the US journal Foreign Policy in April, Egypt’s ambassador to the US Moataz Zahran highlighted the need for Washington to act promptly to save the GERD negotiations from hitting an impasse that could undermine regional and international stability.
He warned against the impact of Ethiopia’s plans to unilaterally execute the second filling of the GERD in the summer without a legally binding agreement with the downstream countries on the River Nile. And he urged the Biden administration to revive the faltering GERD talks and to put into effect an equitable solution for the three countries concerned.
The article coincided with a visit by Feltman, who toured the three countries and reiterated the US commitment to a fair diplomatic exit from the crisis.
According to informed Egyptian and Western diplomatic sources, the US is determined to give a push to the DRC-sponsored talks in the coming weeks in the hope of “at least reaching an agreement on the second filling”.
But a partial agreement to be followed by a comprehensive agreement is something that Egypt and Sudan would only accept under tight conditions. “We cannot go for anything that would not guarantee our right to a legally binding agreement that will not compromise our water rights, especially as ours is a country that is already suffering from water poverty,” said the Egyptian diplomatic source.
WATER RIGHTS: Egypt is already close to 20 bcm short on its essential water resources despite plans the government has been executing to introduce water-saving technology for all irrigation and industrial purposes and water desalination to allow the governorates of the Nile Valley to reduce their dependence on the Nile.
“We are working on two parallel tracks — improving our water efficiency and negotiating for a fair deal that will not aggravate water shortages in drought and high drought seasons that could be coming in five to seven years,” said a consultant to the Ministry of Irrigation.
Before the end of this month, a new round of AU-sponsored negotiations should convene in Kinshasa. “This time, we are hoping for a more thorough and more effective US intervention,” the Egyptian diplomatic source said.
According to Ayman Abdel-Wahab, a senior water resources expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, “the window of opportunity for a diplomatic exit over the water dispute is getting very narrow.”
“The second filling of the GERD is almost triple the first filling, and it will simply create a new reality that could put Egypt’s rights to the Nile water at a great disadvantage. This is not something that the Egyptian authorities could accept,” he said.
According to Amany Al-Tawil, a senior African affairs expert at the centre, the time might be coming when the authorities in Egypt will have to start pulling back the “accommodation policy they have adopted” over the past five years.
“Egypt cannot compromise on its water rights. This is about basic survival,” Al-Tawil said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly