Is Egypt’s water security in danger?

Ahmed Mahdi.

This article was first posted on Al Ahram weekly. 

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi attended a summit of the heads of state of the Nile Basin countries in Uganda on 22 June, at which he tried to save what he could of Egypt’s influence in the Nile Basin. The country’s power in this region has been declining as a result of challenges by the Nile Basin countries against Egypt, as seen in African attempts to reduce Egypt’s share of Nile water by building upstream dams that could have a negative effect on Egypt’s share of the river’s water. Such developments have caused public concern in Egypt about the country’s water security.

The Nile provides Egypt with 95 per cent of its water, and it has no other major source of water even as the other Nile Basin countries also benefit from rainwater. In 1902, 1906, 1929 and 1959, Cairo signed agreements with the Nile Basin countries that guaranteed 55 billion cubic metres of Nile water per year for Egypt and veto power over developments on the Nile by other Nile Basin countries. The British, who occupied Egypt, Sudan and large parts of Africa until the 1950s, wanted to ensure that Egypt would have enough water to grow the cotton essential for the British textile industry.

Under former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt was greatly involved in Africa and in the decolonisation movements in the African countries. The Nile Basin countries wanted ever larger shares of Nile water, and the Ethiopians in particular wanted to build dams on the Blue Nile. However, Nasser, owing to his wide influence in Africa, was able to stop them. Egypt’s involvement in Africa declined after the defeat in the 1967 war against Israel, and from then onwards the country put less emphasis on relations with Africa.

Under former president Anwar Al-Sadat, Cairo’s attention to Africa was less than it had been under Nasser, as Sadat paid more attention to the United States and the West than he did to the African countries.

During the peace talks that took place with Israel in the late 1970s, Sadat even suggested that a canal be built to transport water from the Nile to the Negev Desert in Israel. He argued that this would help promote peace among the three religions sharing Jerusalem, being a kind of new Well of Zamzam, the holy well in Mecca, for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However, Egypt’s diplomats and intelligence services opposed the idea, and Sadat retreated from his suggestion.

Former president Hosni Mubarak continued Sadat’s pro-Western policies, and, like Sadat, did not pay enough attention to Africa. This neglect of Africa was especially the case after the failed attempt to assassinate Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995. As a result, Egypt started to suffer from problems regarding the Nile during the last years of Mubarak’s rule.

The first was the Entebbe Agreement signed by the upstream Nile Basin countries that wanted to redistribute shares in Nile water because they thought that the downstream countries (Sudan and Egypt) were receiving too much. They also wanted to cancel Egypt’s right to veto projects on the river in the Nile Basin. In May 2010, five of the Nile Basin countries — Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda — signed the Entebbe Agreement that was intended to give them larger shares of water for farming, electricity and economic development. However, the agreement needed at least six signatories before it could be put into effect. Burundi signed the agreement in March 2011.

The second problem seen under Mubarak was the beginning of plans to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). In 2007, Ethiopia announced that it would build a dam on the Nile to help it generate electricity, calling this Project X. In November 2010, after Ethiopia had signed a contract with the Italian firm Salini Costruttori to construct the aam, it changed its name to the Millennium Dam. A few months later, in April 2011, it changed its name again to the Renaissance Dam.

The Dam Under Mubrak

Mubarak was not against the Ethiopian Dam, and in December 2008, according to Ethiopian government documents, the Egyptian government asked the World Bank to finance the Ethiopian project.

The problem for Mubarak, according to Ahmed Abul-Gheit, the last foreign minister during Mubarak’s presidency, was the amount of time it would take to fill the dam with water.

The dam would have a capacity of 74 billion cubic metres (bcm) of water, and the less time it took to fill it with water, the fewer the problems Egypt might be expected to experience. If Ethiopia filled the dam with 74 bcm of water in two years, then this would mean that it would be filled with 37 bcm per year, depriving Egypt and Sudan of huge amounts of water for these two years and causing a water crisis.

But if Ethiopia wanted to fill the dam over a longer period, for example 10 years, then this would mean it would be filled with 7.4 bcm of water per year, depriving the two countries of much less water. The annual water shortage for Egypt and Sudan would be less, and both countries could be prepared to absorb the shock.

In other words, Egypt and Sudan would lose a total of 74 bcm of water in all cases, but the more time it took for the dam to fill, the less the annual water shortage would be for the two countries. Therefore, according to Abul-Gheit, Mubarak did not object to the Ethiopian Dam as such, but he wanted the country to fill it slowly.

A few days after the signing of the Entebbe Agreement, Ethiopian prime minister Melles Zenawi said that Egypt would not be able to stop Ethiopia from building dams on the Nile. “Some people in Egypt have old-fashioned ideas based on the assumption that the Nile water belongs to Egypt and that Egypt has a right to decide who gets what… But circumstances have changed and changed forever,” Zenawi said. He also dismissed Cairo’s threats of legal action, saying that Egypt cannot “stop the unstoppable”.

Similarly, in November 2010, Zenawi said that Egypt could not win a war with Ethiopia over the Nile. “I am not worried that the Egyptians will suddenly invade Ethiopia,” Zenawi told Reuters at the time. “Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story. I don’t think the Egyptians will be any different, and I think they know that.” Zenawi also accused Egypt of trying to destabilise Ethiopia by supporting rebel groups.

In reaction to Zenawi’s statements, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said that “charges that Egypt… is exploiting rebel groups against the ruling regime in Ethiopia are completely devoid of truth.” Abul-Gheit told Reuters at the time that he was “amazed” by Zenawi’s language and that of course Egypt was “not seeking war”.

Wikileaks reports in June 2013 then claimed that Mubarak had plans to attack the Ethiopian Dam. However, Egyptian military experts dismissed these reports. Retired general Sameh Seif Al-Yazal said that in order to carry out such a military operation, Egypt would need to have missile bases in South Sudan, which it does not have. Retired general Hamdi Bekhit also said that Egypt did not have such bases, as did retired general Mokhtar Kandil. The latter added that an Egyptian military strike against the Ethiopian Dam would lead to a military response from Ethiopia, and that Israel might also interfere.

The Entebbe Agreement and the Renaissance Dam were not the only problems which Egypt faced regarding the Nile during the last days of Mubarak’s rule. According to official Egyptian reports, Egypt also entered a phase of water shortages during the Mubarak period. In July 2009, Egypt’s Information and Decision Support Centre, affiliated to the cabinet, reported that Egypt’s water supply was equivalent to 860 cubic metres per capita per year, below the water poverty line of 1,000 cubic metres per capita per year.

Another report by the state-run Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) said in March 2010 that Egypt was among 15 Arab countries considered to be under the water poverty line set at 1,000 cubic metres per capita per year.

The 25 January Revolution

Then the 25 January Revolution took place, leading to Mubarak’s stepping down as president in February 2011. Egypt had already been becoming weaker in Africa prior to January 2011, but as the country became busier with its own internal affairs, events in Africa weakened the Egyptian position further.

In February 2011, a referendum was held in South Sudan on whether it should separate from the rest of Sudan. This referendum was held according to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that the government in Khartoum had signed with the South Sudanese rebels in January 2005 and stated that South Sudan would have a degree of autonomy and that a referendum would be held in South Sudan six years later on whether the South should separate from the rest of the country.

The majority of the voters in this referendum said that the South should separate. Thus, in July 2011 South Sudan was declared an independent state. It can thus be seen that the foundations of the separation of South Sudan were put in place when Mubarak was still president of Egypt, and Sudan would have been divided into two even if the 25 January Revolution had not taken place.

In March 2011, Burundi signed the Entebbe Agreement, becoming the sixth state to do so. This brought the total signatories of the agreement to six, thus paving the way for its implementation.

In April 2011, Zenawi laid the foundation stone for the GERD. And in May then Egyptian prime minister Essam Sharaf visited Ethiopia, where he agreed to form a committee of Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian experts to study the effects of the proposed Ethiopian Dam on the flow of Nile water to Sudan and Egypt. Sharaf reiterated that Egypt did not oppose the dam.

In June 2012, Mohamed Morsi was inaugurated as the new president of Egypt, and the weakening of Egypt’s position in Africa, starting under Mubarak, continued. During Morsi’s rule, there were negotiations about the construction of the dam, in which Egypt argued for specifications that would make it less harmful for Egypt.

However, in late May 2013, when Ethiopia diverted the flow of the Blue Nile as part of the dam’s construction, Morsi committed a series of mistakes that helped lay the foundations for his downfall. In May, he was in Ethiopia to attend the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the African Union. After his return to Egypt, Ethiopia announced that it would divert the flow of the Blue Nile as part of the construction of the Renaissance Dam.

The diversion in itself would not affect Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water, because the flow of the river was to be diverted and then returned to its original path a few km later, meaning that the amount of water reaching Egypt would be the same. But the fact that Morsi was in Ethiopia only a few hours before Addis Ababa’s announcement and that he did not say anything about the Renaissance Dam before or during the visit was a sign of mismanagement.

On 3 June 2013, Morsi invited prominent political figures in Egypt to attend a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Cairo to discuss the issue of the Nile and the Ethiopian Dam. The attendees began discussing possible military and intelligence moves against Ethiopia in what they thought was a secret meeting. To their surprise, they were then told later in the meeting that they were live on air. This incident was a sign of serious mismanagement.

On 10 June, Morsi made a speech to his supporters at the Conference Hall in Nasr City, in which he said that the “price of the dam” would be “our blood”. “We are not calling for war, but we will not tolerate threats against our water security,” Morsi said, adding that if Egypt lost one drop of Nile water, then “our blood would be the alternative.”

He was under pressure from the media to show toughness on the issue. But such declarations of violent intentions were counter-productive for diplomatic negotiations with Ethiopia, and Egyptian military experts said that Morsi’s statements were not well-thought through and that a military solution was unlikely.

A few weeks later on 30 June 2013, millions of Egyptians protested against Morsi in the streets, and he was overthrown as a result of the intervention of the military.

After The 30 June Revolution

After the overthrow of Morsi, the Egyptian government continued to negotiate with Ethiopia to change the specifications of the dam to make it less harmful for Egypt.

In October 2013, the then prime minister, Hazem Al-Beblawi, announced that the dam could be a source of prosperity for Egypt in a statement which caused ridicule among the general public. Ethiopia continued to use the tactic of wasting time and imposing the status quo on Egypt as it continued to build the Dam despite Egypt’s concerns.

Since then, however, Egypt has continued to follow the diplomatic route in attempts to solve the crisis. In March 2015, President Al-Sisi, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn signed the Declaration of Principles of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which said that Ethiopia would “respect” Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water.

According to Hani Raslan, head of the Nile Basin and African Study Unit at the Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies, “the declaration does not have major advantages, but it does have important implications,” such as improving Egypt’s image internationally and regionally and stressing the atmosphere of cooperation and dialogue. However, it was “not a solution to the technical disputes that still exist”, he said.

The three countries also started looking for international companies to study the technical and environmental impacts of the Renaissance Dam, and in December 2015 the three states chose two French consultancy firms, Artelia and BRL, to do the job. The Declaration of Principles states that Ethiopia should not start filling the dam without the agreement of the three countries and until the consultancy firms have released their report about the effects of the dam.

However, the Renaissance Dam will start its first filling process in this month, and the dam is expected to be completed before the French companies deliver the technical studies.

Raslan is not optimistic about the situation. “Ethiopia does not approve of Egypt’s historic share of the River Nile’s water… What is happening now is a waste of time from which Ethiopia is benefiting. Ethiopia will not make any positive moves, especially after Egypt’s recent steps which show our good intentions,” he said.

Similarly, Nader Noureddin, a professor of water resources at Cairo University, agrees that dealing with the French consultancy firms is “a waste of time” since the studies conducted by BRL and Artelia will not oblige the Ethiopian side to change its mind. Hani Sewilam, holder of the UNESCO chair in water resources management at Germany’s RWTH Aachen University, said that “it does not make sense to assess the impacts of the Ethiopian Dam after its construction.” Furthermore, international water expert Ahmed Al-Rawi says that the Declaration of Principles is not legally binding and that it is only based on “respect”.

The Uganda Summit of 22 June did not result in any declarations, probably showing that the disagreements between Egypt and the Nile Basin countries have not been solved. President Al-Sisi should continue to pursue the diplomatic route with the Nile Basin countries and find ways to regain Egypt’s position in the region and in Africa in general, as was done by his predecessor Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

The writer is a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs (ECFA) and the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in the UK. He is an assistant professor of political science at Future University in Egypt.

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