Egypt’s New Rulers Face Crisis With Ethiopia Over Nile

July 25, 2013 in Water Crisis

 Boats sail on the river Nile in Cairo, June 12, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih)

Boats sail on the river Nile in Cairo, June 12, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih)

By: Abdelrahman Youssef and Ayah Aman

CAIRO — While the political situation in Egypt seems to be heading toward relative stability after the new cabinet took the oath of office, the issue of the Nile has returned to the government’s agenda as an external challenge threatening national security. A delegation of senior Egyptian diplomats, including Africa expert Ambassador Mona Omar, traveled to a number of African states, starting with Ethiopia, to explain Egypt’s position and improve its image following the recent coup and overthrow of deposed president Mohammed Morsi. Coordination meetings were also held between the ministers of foreign affairs and irrigation to make progress on the political and technical levels toward a solution to the problem.

About This Article

Summary :

Egypt has sent delegations to Ethiopia to push for a compromise on the dam project and sharing the Nile’s waters.

Original Title:
Egypt’s New Rulers Confront Ethiopia Nile Threat
Author: Abdelrahman Youssef and Ayah Aman
Posted on: July 24 2013
Translated by: Steffi Chakti and Sami-Joe Abboud

Categories : Originals  Egypt  

The new government is trying to address the crisis with Ethiopia regarding the Renaissance Dam on the political and technical levels by completing technical studies and gathering data on the dam which the tripartite committee did not finish. Egypt is also holding negotiations on the international, regional and bilateral levels in order to highlight any potential damage or shortage threatening Cairo’s historical share, as noted by the new Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohammed Abdel Matlab in a conversation with Al-Monitor.

A key technical source in the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation told Al-Monitor, “Action on the issue of the Nile was relatively slow in the past two weeks, especially when it comes to the Egyptian stance on the Renaissance Dam. Negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have came to a halt until the dust settles in Egypt.”

Last month, presiding over a technical, political and legal delegation during his visit to Addis Ababa, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed Kamel Amr held negotiations with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. During these negotiations, they agreed to hold a series of talks aimed at finding a compromise to placate Egyptian fears regarding the construction of the Renaissance Dam. However, the recent events prevented Cairo from hosting a meeting with the Ethiopian and Sudanese water ministers.

A diplomatic source told Al-Monitor that in regional negotiations with the upstream countries, the Egyptian attempts to reach a solution over the Entebbe agreement or to convince the countries involved to renegotiate the points of contention were an exercise in futility. The source affirmed that Egypt still has some negotiating cards to play.

Despite Egyptian endeavors to re-launch negotiations over the Entebbe agreement, the Ethiopian and Ugandan parliaments have ratified it and refuse to return to the negotiation phase. Instead, they called on Egypt and Sudan to join the agreement.

A security and intelligence source informed about the Nile issue told Al-Monitor, “Egypt is adopting all possible means to halt any move that would hurt its water interests in the Nile. Strenuous efforts are being exerted with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan to convince them not to join or sign the agreement.”

The Nile issue was one of the first files to be addressed by Mohamed ElBaradei, interim deputy president for international affairs. ElBaradei held an “unannounced” meeting to discuss the crisis of the Nile waters, the mechanisms to be adopted and the steps that would be taken in regard to this issue.

A diplomatic source who took part in the meeting told Al-Monitor, “The necessity of completing the data of the Renaissance Dam and conducting accurate studies was agreed upon. The meeting came up with three conclusions: first, the impossibility of resorting to international arbitration; second, the non-compliance … of the past regimes, represented by arrogance and condescending attitudes toward the upstream countries in addition to acknowledging the fact that some policies were wrong; [and] third, the acceptance of the option of cooperating on the basis of building new power-generating dams according to international high-tech standards and making sure that there will be no damage. Additionally, Egypt will call on halting the construction of the dam for the time being until a mutual solution is reached.”

The source continued that Egypt “will be able to contain the crisis with Ethiopia, especially given that a number of Egyptian politicians who are known for their competence are at the forefront of the scene.”

There are reports that the previous government had taken actions to restructure the technical and political aspects of the Nile waters in Egypt. It shuffled the administration of the matter away from the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation and attributed it to a national council directly affiliated with the presidency.

The recent political changes in Egypt that followed Morsi’s ouster have raised the ire of some African countries that deemed the action of Defense Minister Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a military coup. The African Union suspended Egypt from all activities following what they described as a coup against democracy, a measure customarily taken with African countries that go against the democratic approach.

Mohamed Nasreddin Allam, former minister of water resources and irrigation and a candidate for the presidency of the National Water Council, told Al-Monitor, “The African Union’s position will not affect the course of negotiations between Egypt and Ethiopia with respect to the dam.” He added that the current problem is the “lack of a clear vision and purpose on the part of the Egyptian negotiator … as we do not know what to negotiate. Should we ask to stop the dam and complete the studies, or accept the current situation and opt for not damaging Egypt’s historical share of the Nile water?”

Egypt gets an annual quota estimated at 55.5 billion cubic meters of water from the Nile in accordance with the 1959 agreement signed with Sudan, whereby Sudan gets 18.5 billion cubic meters. This distribution is rejected by the rest of the Nile’s headwater states, which believe that Egypt gets the lion’s share of the water, despite the allegations of Egyptian officials and experts who complain that this share is insufficient for Egypt’s internal needs, as the country depends on the Nile waters for 90% of its water needs.

Adel Nabhan, a political researcher interested in African affairs, warned of further tensions in the Nile Basin. “Should the same negotiating track continue and the current situation remain, tension will go on, especially with Ethiopia’s completion of nearly 25% of the construction of the dam, which shows that there is no disturbance on the part of Ethiopia, be it at the level of the dam construction or the Framework Convention. Add to this Egypt’s preoccupation with its domestic affairs and the negative mental image that has crafted Egypt’s vision of Africa and the upstream countries, after the famous National Congress that was broadcast before the isolation of President Mohammed Morsi. This makes rapprochement between Egypt and Ethiopia in particular as well as other African countries, including South Sudan, even harder.”

Nabhan explained that Egypt’s relationship with South Sudan is different from that with Ethiopia. Therefore, the size and implications of the tension will not be the same in the two cases. This is reflected by South Sudan’s delay in signing the Framework Convention and openly declaring its support for the construction of the dam.

Nabhan ruled out a military solution as an option due to internal crises and the lack of regional or international support for such a solution. Additionally, such an option would only further complicate the situation. Nabhan expected the acceptance of the idea of the dam while seeking to reduce the risks to Egypt.

He said if this scenario were to come to fruition, it would reduce the tension relatively, but he pointed out that the Framework Convention, including its three contentious articles — one about water security, one about giving prior notification and one about the need for consensus — may represent a broader and larger reason for tension that will last for a long time.

Abdelrahman Youssef is an Egyptian journalist specializing in religious issues and political affairs. He has written for publications including Al-Shorouk, Al-Youm Al-Sabea, Al-Watan, Egypt Independent and Egypt Daily News, as well as for news organizations outside of Egypt such as the Lebanese Al-Akhbar and Reuters. On Twitter: @Abdoyoussef

Ayah Aman is an Egyptian journalist for Al-Shorouk specializing in Africa and the Nile Basin, Turkey and Iran, and internal Egyptian social issues. On Twitter: @ayahaman

Back to news list

Read more:

Nile Power Shifts Away From Egypt

July 19, 2013 in Nile Power Shifts Away From Egypt

 David Arnold

Ethiopia started building the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam two years ago. The hydroelectric power project will use the waters of Ethiopia’s  Abai River, which is the primary source of water for Sudan and Egypt.

Ethiopia started building the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam two years ago. The hydroelectric power project will use the waters of Ethiopia’s Abai River, which is the primary source of water for Sudan and Egypt.

Before the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was ousted as president earlier this month, his government was planning to catch up on overdue negotiations with nine upstream neighbors in the Nile River Basin to salvage the country’s historic stake in the Nile River waters.

Morsi’s government had planned to talk with Ethiopia and Sudan over the future management of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a massive hydro-electric project on Ethiopia’s Abai River, and to re-start talks on what promised to be very tough a new agreement with Ethiopia and its other upstream partners.The upriver countries have been busy in recent years signing papers that could have serious consequences for Egypt’s almost total dependence on the Nile waters.

Grand Renaissance Dam, EthiopiaGrand Renaissance Dam, Ethiopia

But when the Morsi government began objecting to Ethiopia’s upstream dam project a few months ago, it quickly discovered that it did not have control over the Abai River – whose basin provides 75 percent of the Nile waters.  The Morsi government also found it was going to have trouble with at least eight other countries that were interested in acquiring their own share of Nile waters.

Two previous Nile access treaties were based on river rights the British had guaranteed to colonial-era Egypt and Sudan. But countries at the Nile’s several sources upstream were kept out of those agreements.

That may soon change as the other Nile nations seek to ratify a new agreement, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). And here again, Egypt could be a loser in the world’s latest water conflict.

Equal rights on the Nile

“What’s going on in the Nile Basin is to some degree what’s been going on in the Nile basin for many years,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security. “And that is growing competition over the limited resources of the Nile River, increasingly by the upstream nations.”

The era of Egyptian dominance is being replaced by an era “when many more countries, and especially Ethiopia, want to have a say in the ways it’s managed. The potential new agreement and the Abai dam could affect the amount, timing and quality of the water Egypt gets in the future,” said Gleick.

Six upstream countries have signed the new Nile Basin Initiative accord: Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Burundi. Newly independent South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo are also expected to sign.

Each country must also ratify the agreement. Ethiopia’s parliament did so in June and Uganda’s may soon follow.

Sudan stands to be a key beneficiary of a new Nile basin agreement. A completed Abbai dam just across its border would offer Sudan much-needed cheap electrical power and put the country first in line for regulated flows of water from a friendly ally, Ethiopia.

The World Bank encouraged such regional cooperation when it created and funded the NBI process. But a western government official who monitors cross-border water rights issues says reaching an accord on the Nile has been more difficult than achieving similar water management agreements for the Tigris and Euphrates, the Mekong and the Indus rivers.

“At the national and regional level, many have done better,” the official said of the Nile talks.

Power shifts on the Nile

And regional experts say Egypt has been slow and ineffective in protecting its water rights to the Nile compared to other nations in the river basin.

Richard Tutwiler, director of the Desert Development Center at the American University in Cairo, says Egyptian politicians were so consumed with maintaining or winning political power during the recent upheavals that they didn’t pay enough attention to the Nile water negotiations.

“Water was not part of the revolutionary conversation,” said Tutwiler.

According to Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, this lack of attention could cost Egypt dearly.

”Egypt’s eye was not on the ball when it came to these negotiations over the Nile Basin Initiative and [it] was completely caught off guard by the construction of the [Ethiopian] dam,” Trager said.

The problem started well before Morsi took office last year, Trager added, noting that the Mubarak regime had balked at collective ongoing water rights negotiations with its upstream neighbors on the Nile.

At one point, Cairo even suspended its negotiations on an overall accord and tried to negotiate separate deals with some of its upstream neighbors.

“There is not much they can do about it” now, said Harry VerHoeven, a political scientist of the University of Oxford specializing in Nile basin issues. He said Egyptian efforts to block World Bank support of Ethiopia’s water initiatives and dam construction projects got Cairo nowhere.

“The world has changed very much and it is no longer the world of 20 or 30 years ago when Egypt could have veto [on] this sort of thing,” said VerHoeven.

And when Morsi finally realized how serious the situation was becoming for Egypt, he and other politicians began hinting or talking openly about possible military action to halt Ethiopia’s dam construction. But Trager noted that “the military gave a very clear signal it would not tolerate that.”

The generals, he said, were “not prepared to fight a war right now.”

Taking the Nile to court

One possible way to resolving Nile water issues peacefully is the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, according to Tom Campbell, dean of the Chapman University School of Law and a former Congressman who served on the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs subcommittee for African Affairs.

Campbell encouraged Ethiopia to take its case to the ICJ early so it could preempt any military conflict over the water rights. This is important, he added, because the court would not intervene in an on-going war.

And Ethiopia is on good legal ground, Campbell said, because legal precedent on trans-border water rights favors existing population needs. Egypt previously sought to expand its water rights on the Nile “to serve new settlements in the Sinai, he said, while Ethiopia was seeking to preserve existing life and livelihood” following severe periodic droughts.

In addition to its legal arguments in favor of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project, experts say Addis Ababa can make a good political case as well.

First, Ethiopia’s population is now estimated to be slightly larger than that of Egypt. Ethiopia’s economy has grown by 6 percent or more in recent years and its future economic progress now depends heavily on dams for irrigation and for energy production.

The nation’s 12 existing dams are designed to irrigate lands once subject to drought and famine, provide electricity to the majority of Ethiopians who live in rural poverty, boost foreign investment in agriculture and earn needed foreign currency by selling hydroelectric power to its neighbors in the Nile basin at a low price.

Disagreement between Egypt and Ethiopia over dam revived the tension due to Leaked report

July 13, 2013 in A Tale of Two Dams, Damming, Dams and desertification, Delay of Nile Treaty, Disagreement between Egypt and Ethiopia over dam, Egypt warns

Mohammed Yahia

A Google Earth mapNile_dam showing the location where the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be built in the Ethiopian Highlands.

When Ethiopia diverted part of the Blue Nile river at the end of May 2013 to begin construction of what will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam, it sparked outrage from the now ousted Egyptian government, which was concerned the dam would reduce its water supply.

The Blue Nile is one of two main tributaries that feed the Nile River, which supplies 97% of Egypt’s population with water. Ethiopia seeks to abolish a 1929 British mediated colonial-era agreement between Egypt and Sudan that gives 90% of the Nile’s water to the two countries and gives Egypt the right to veto the construction of dams in countries upstream.

In May 2012, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt appointed a panel of experts, with each country appointing two experts, alongside with four experts from non-member countries, to evaluate the environmental impact of the dam on the region. The panel submitted its report on 1 June. Though the report is yet to be published, each government has leaked details of the panel’s findings.

While the Ethiopian ministry of water and energy produced a press release saying the report recommends the building of the dam, the Egyptian state information service contends that the scientific evidence cited by their Ethiopian counterparts either lacked sufficient detail or was out of date.

“While Ethiopia has announced that the dam will have many beneficial effects and no negative ones on the two downstream countries, the final report stressed that the studies and designs presented by Ethiopia had several deficiencies in the methodologies used to produce them. Additionally, some of these studies need to be updated in light of the new information that was collected from laboratory and field work,” read the statement released by the presidency’s office in Egypt.

Risk concerns


“Dams are constructed today with much more care to livelihoods and environments.”


“There were no sufficient geological studies done. The risk is that the dam might create earthquake zones,” says Elnaser Abdelwahab, former regional software developer of the Nile Basin Decision Support System, a component of the Nile Basin Initiative, which is a partnership setup among the Nile riparian states to handle cross-border issues regarding the river.

Abdelwahab says that the construction of the dam will create a man-made lake in the mountains, which will contain around 74 billion tonnes of water. This lake could lead to seismic activity that could collapse the dam and cause a massive outpouring of water. “The Ethiopians also used optimistic data when considering rainfall rather than using a worst case scenario.”

Abdelwahab, who was not a member of the expert panel but worked with an Ethiopian–Egyptian team to set up the Nile countries’ first water management decision support system, claims that the report included no environmental studies. “This is considered to be an extremely negative point. Dams are constructed today with much more care to livelihoods and environments.”

Tilahun Amede, a researcher on natural resource management at the International Crops Research Institute in Semi-arid Tropics (ICRISAT), says the dam’s design will not be the main factor in the effect it has on the environment and peoples’ livelihoods. “It is also about how the dam is going to be managed and water regulated. It is about protecting the upper watersheds of the dam to increase water yield, reduce siltation and improve overall environmental services.”

When complete, the dam will be one of the world’s tallest at 145 metres and produce 6,000 MW of power, an equivalent of six nuclear power stations. Amede, who was not on the expert panel but has studied water use in Africa for the past four years, says the design and height of the dam means the reservoir will be deep rather than wide to lower evaporation. The cool, humid climate of the Ethiopian highlands should further reduce evaporation, thereby minimizing the amount of water loss from the dam.

All three governments agree that the dam will reduce water flow to downstream countries while the reservoir forms. The reduction in water flow will depend on how fast Ethiopia decides to fill the dam. The original plan aimed to fill the reservoir in three years, but Hailemariam Desalegn, the Ethiopian prime minister, said his government is willing to spend up to six years filling the reservoir to address the concerns of downstream countries.

According to a document released by the Egyptian government, the Ethiopian members of the expert panel failed to present any research on the potential impact on countries downstream in the event of the dam collapsing.

Politics over science


“The current rhetoric will do little for the best shared vision of the three countries.”


Abdelwahab says he is frustrated that both the Egypt and Ethiopia governments are ignoring scientific evidence and technical information. “[The Nile Basin Decision Support System] contains the necessary computer simulation tools to design and test dam projects before construction. However, the countries did not use it and now they deliver such poor studies with such poor scientific arguments.”

When the panel presented its findings to the three governments behind closed doors, they outlined the need for further research and it was not supposed to be made public until after agreement was reached. However, both Ethiopia and Egypt leaked details, prompting some Egyptian politicians suggesting military intervention could be taken to sabotage the dam’s construction.

Both Abdelwahab and Amede say that the latest political exchanges between the two countries will bring no resolution to the disagreement over building the dam. Instead, they should be collaborating on the science and technical aspects of the dam construction, such as the design to be used and the environmental effects it may have.

“My worry is the current rhetoric will do little for the best shared vision of the three countries,” says Amede. “Given their experience with the Aswan High Dam, the Egyptian government could play a pivotal role in helping Ethiopian engineers ensure that the dam construction and overall management is of high quality and will have no negative effect on Egypt.”

“Unless they consider the dam construction a technical not a political piece of work, I don’t see any resolution to the problem because the politicians will continue to force science out,” adds Abdelwahab.