Renaissance Dam crisis: Egyptian diplomacy between negotiation and escalation

The course of the Blue Nile has been re-diverted to run through Ethiopia’s newly built dam for the first time, the Ethiopian government announced on Saturday.

Ethiopia had diverted the course of the Blue Nile in 2013 to build the body of the Renaissance Dam, and now has had to re-divert the water back to its original course, according to the government statement.

The diversion comes following the construction of the first four water inlets and the announcement just hours before tripartite talks between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan were due to begin.

Egyptian Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Hossam al-Moghazy explained to local media that the move is “a normal step” that will not affect the negotiation process.

Nader Noureldin, an international expert in water affairs, expressed concerns over the lack of coordination preceding Ethiopia’s move to re-divert the Nile Water through the dam, however.

The announcement is a breach of the Khartoum agreement signed by the three countries last March, according to which the storage of water behind the dam was supposed to be agreed upon by the three parties, Noureldin told Mada Masr.

“This decision could be viewed as an aggressive escalation by Ethiopia, a clear message that they will continue with their plans and strategy, regardless of the agreement signed last March. It is the worst timing for Egypt and Sudan, as it is the dry season and they should be given the time to store water during wet periods first.”

The issue of Nile water was not high on Egypt’s political agenda before early 2010. Until then, historic water treaties guaranteed Egypt the greater quota of Nile water. Coinciding with the period of political instability following the 2011 uprising, however, it has become a priority, mired in crisis.

Egypt’s historical share of the Nile water becomes shaky

According to a 1929 agreement, Egypt receives a quota of 48 billion cubic meters, which is approximately 57 percent of Nile water. Signed by Egypt and Britain on behalf of Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, which were under British rule, the agreement gives Egypt veto power regarding Nile projects. It also allowed Egypt to make bilateral agreements with Sudan regarding arrangements for joint benefit from the Nile.

In 1959, Egypt signed its bilateral agreement with Sudan to ensure its quota and share of excess water as a result of the High Dam, raising Egypt’s quota to 55.5 billion cubic meters, amounting to 66 percent of the total.

After independence of the Nile basin countries — Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Democratic Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and later Eritrea — a number of governments called for the Nile quota agreements to be amended. They sought to be able to undertake projects along the river without the complexities of consulting, negotiating and coordinating with the Egyptian government.

In February 1999, discussions concluded in the endorsement by 10 basin countries of the Nile Basin Initiative, a transitional institution for cooperative water sharing and management of the Nile until negotiations are finalized and a permanent institution created.

More than a decade later, the basin countries had failed to agree on a framework agreement. Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda signed a proposed quota framework agreement in May 2010 in Antibi, Uganda in the hope that other countries would be persuaded to join and thus create a majority among the members of the initiative which would allow the final endorsement of the agreement.

Two days later, Kenya joined the agreement becoming the fifth signatory. Members of the Antibi agreement were thus waiting for a sixth country to join to achieve the needed majority.

Egypt denounced the move and refused to review the Nile agreements as well as announced the freezing of its activities in the Nile Basin Initiative. The Egyptian official position was that Egypt will not concede its historical share of Nile water. Despite its categorical rejection of the agreement, however, Egypt began to realize the possible risks facing its water security after the signing of the Antibi agreement.

In an attempt to improve relations, Egypt organized a football tournament for Nile basin states in January 2011. In view of the political disagreement surrounding the Antibi agreement, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Eritrea did not participate.

Egypt won the tournament amid popular celebrations and official support. The relations with the Nile basin countries did not show any improvements.

A few weeks after the tournament, Burundi announced its signature of the framework agreement as the sixth signatory. A majority had now been achieved and the next step was for the agreement to be endorsed by the respective parliaments regardless of Egypt’s position. So far only Ethiopia, Tanzania and Rwanda have endorsed the Antibi framework.

Ethiopia and the biggest dam in Africa

In March 2011, a month after Burundi joined the agreement and two months after the outbreak of the Egyptian uprising, former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zinawi announced his country’s intent to begin construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

According to an Egyptian senior diplomatic source, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, Ethiopia began considering the dam in 2005 but it remained an idea on paper for several years.

Controversy has surrounded the dam since 2011 and Egypt and Sudan, which both rely on Nile water, have relayed worries. A report released after a workshop of international experts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology raised five main concerns with regard to the Dam.

First, it must operate in full coordination with the operation of the High Dam in Egypt. “Nowhere in the world are two such large dams on the same river operated without close coordination,” it warned.

Second, the current design of the dam requires the building of an auxiliary dam to prevent the water from spreading outside the reservoir. The report expresses concern that the risks posed by this dam “may not have been fully appreciated or analyzed.”

The report also emphasizes the importance of the signing of a power trade agreement soon so that transmission lines can be built to deliver the dam’s hydropower. Without an agreement or transmission lines, not only will Ethiopia not accrue the economic benefits of the dam, but water may not be released through the dam’s turbines at full capacity.

The report also expresses concerns about the location and capacity of the dam’s low-level release outlets to provide water to Egypt and Sudan during the reservoir’s filling or periods of drought.

The final issue is salinization of Egypt’s agricultural lands. Accumulation of salts in agricultural land could greatly increase. The dam will enable greater water use by Sudan for agricultural purposes, which could result in a reduction in the amount of water available for Egypt. Egypt has been using greater than its historical share, the report says, and relies on this excess water for salt removal. The report warns that, as a result of the filling of the dam reservoir as well as other upstream developments, “this period of excess water in Egypt is coming to an end.”

There are technical solutions, the report says, but adds that urgent studies are required.

Ethiopia’s primary issue with the dam was less technical than economic, as it was unable to secure international funding.

According to a diplomatic source, this was due to pressures exerted by Egypt. Ethiopia was thus compelled to fund the dam with local resources in addition to some loans from Chinese banks. A national fund was created and large campaigns launched inviting contributions from citizens.

Facing funding obstacles, the government organized various events such as a ceremony in a village to honor local employees who were pushed to donate close to 200 euros from their salaries. In the presence of the attending populace, an official chanted “The Nile dam will be built to provide us with electricity” and those gathered repeated the chant.

According to the Egyptian diplomatic source, the project is one of several national projects which the Ethiopian government is undertaking “for political, not developmental, reasons.”

The Ethiopian government has sought to silence voices opposing the project. In June 2011, journalist Reeyot Alemu was sentenced to five years for criticizing the dam as well as the environmental and population risks it entails. Mada Masr was not able to talk with Ethiopian sources, who were reluctant to comment on the construction of the dam for fear of facing security issues.

The nationalistic rhetoric did not provide Ethiopia with a solution for its problems, however. Public, semiofficial propaganda of advancement in the building of the dam were a façade hiding the repeated postponements of the project and the difficulties it continues to face. The Ethiopian president announced in October 2014 that 40 percent of the dam’s construction had been completed and pledged that 700 megawatts of electricity would be produced by June 2015, but so far the government has failed to deliver.

Negotiations and construction begin at the same time

Negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan began at the same time as the construction works, in the hope to reach an agreement regarding the crisis.

The first design of the damn set out to store 14 billion cubic meters of water. With the beginning of negotiations in 2011, Egyptian diplomacy defined the situation, according to the diplomatic source, as a “disastrous harm,” meaning that the dam could not be accepted under any conditions.

In 2012, Ethiopia increased the specifications of the dam to store more water and so, the source says, Egypt’s diplomatic position changed in view of the new specifications and the continued preparation for construction. Its position changed to an approval pending essential conditions related to its participation in the management of the dam and the duration of the filling up of the reservoir to avoid negative effects on Egypt’s quota of water during that period.

In June of that year, and in view of the continued failure of negotiations, an international committee was formed, made up of four international experts in addition to two each from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, to prepare an evaluation report of the construction process and identify possible harmful effects.

The committee submitted its confidential report to the three countries in May 2013. After Egyptian-Ethiopian disputes over the interpretation of the report results, the report was leaked to the media.

The report mentioned a large number of technical and technological problems concerning the specifications of the dam and slammed feasibility studies carried out as incomplete and unreliable, including with regard to Egypt’s Nile water quota.

Ethiopia announced the diversion of flow of the Nile to allow for construction, just a few days after former President Mohamed Morsi’s visit to the country in May 2013. The move incited Egyptian popular and official mobilization and dozens of Egyptian citizens protested in front of the Ethiopian embassy.

According to the diplomatic source, the reaction resulted in concerns within the Ethiopian government that its Egyptian counterpart may be forced into undertaking a drastic reaction, should the popular anger continue. “That was one of the strongest moments in the negotiations,” he says. “And for the first time Ethiopians sought a negotiation meeting with us.”

Those moments of strength did not last long. In June, Morsi held a secret meeting to discuss the repercussions of the dam with a number of politicians that was mistakenly broadcasted. Some of the participants suggested funding rebels inside Ethiopia, while others proposed sending football players and cinema stars in an initiative similar to the football tournament during Mubarak’s presidency. No serious discussion of the issues took place.

The broadcast of the meeting resulted in the Ethiopian government summoning the Egyptian ambassador, as well as provided a logical reason for the postponement of any meetings.

The negotiations resumed again in November 2013 after the ouster of Morsi. Sudan shifted from opposing to supporting the dam, but neither Ethiopia nor Egypt changed their positions on any of the points of contention.

Rawya Tawfiq, professor of political science at Cairo university, recognizes a symbolic and diplomatic value in the change of Sudan’s position. She adds that Sudan’s declaration of support for the dam contradicts its agreement with Egypt and its historical position on the matter.

There are some who explain the change in the position of Sudan on the basis of a number of crises that escalated between the two countres recently, including the conflict over Helayeb and the numerous torture cases of Sudanese citizens in Egyptian police stations. 

But the shift is more likely a result of broader political factors. According to the diplomatic source, the decline in Egypt’s influence on the international map is key to this. Sudan would prefer to support Ethiopia as a rising southern ally enjoying the support of US and China, especially given the political isolation of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and the international warrant for his arrest.

Apart from the shift in Sudan’s position, there has been little change and over several negotiation rounds, the last earlier this month, where parties have failed to agree on a way to solve the crisis. Sisi’s visit to Sudan and Ethiopia last March and his signing of the Khartoum Declaration on that visit did not change this.

This agreement included an implicit acknowledgement by Egypt of Ethiopia’s right to build the dam, in what appeared to be a gesture of goodwill on the part of Egypt. Observers suggest that Ethiopia came out on top, both legally and politically in that declaration, as Egypt did not receive any guarantees nor reach any clear outline for negotiation and solving problems with Ethiopia.

On the other hand, Tawfiq considers the Khartoum Declaration to be a successful step on the part of Egyptian diplomacy. In an article published in privately owned Al-Shorouk at the time, she wrote “The declaration is a realistic outcome of changes in the Nile basin over the last decade,” and constitutes “an attempt to contain the losses that will follow Ethiopia’s building of that dam, which it has enforced as a fait accompli forcing Egypt to negotiate and make concessions.”

This difference in opinion concerning the Khartoum Declaration is not confined to experts and politicians. “The Egyptian negotiation team itself did not come to an agreed position regarding the declaration,” the Egyptian diplomatic source says.

The political confusion in Egypt points to a bigger crisis related to the responsibility for this issue. Officially, the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources negotiates on the technical aspects, while the Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation ministries address the diplomatic and political aspects. Some sources say it is likely that the Ministry of Defense and National Security Agency are also involved, considering that it is an issue that touches on Egyptian national security.   

The diplomatic source says that the average per capita share in Egypt ranks it as poor on the water poverty index, while that of Ethiopia ranks it as sufficient. The problem in Ethiopia then is not one of water availability, but of management and use, the source argues.

“These are points that can be used during negotiation,” he says. “It is possible for example to help Ethiopia build infrastructure that increases the efficiency of the use of rain water in exchange for consenting to Egyptian requirements from the Renaissance Dam.”

Nationalism versus nationalism

In a seminar presentation on regional changes affecting the Nile, Tawfiq argues that “the escalation in the nationalistic rhetoric used by the governments of Egypt and Ethiopia is primarily for political reasons.”

To Mada Masr, she adds, “This exaggerated nationalistic rhetoric raises the expectations of people, which constantly threatens the negotiation process.”

She stresses that this rhetoric “confines the Egyptian position within a narrow square depriving it of flexibility,” adding that the Ethiopian dam is a fait accompli and it is in Egypt’s interest to accept and deal with it. An early agreement could lead to the inclusion of Egypt in some aspects of the construction of the dam or filling of the reservoir and hence reduce the harms that could develop, she says.

Still, Tawfiq does not believe that the tension between Egypt and Ethiopia will be resolved soon. The state of nationalistic rhetoric that overshadowed the issue caused many sensitivities to the government, which would make any concessions difficult to make. However, the situation cannot persist like this.

“In the end, the governments will realize there is no way out of making concessions,” she predicts.

The diplomatic source agrees with Tawfiq that the tension is likely to rise in the next period. He adds that the Egyptian government has lately begun to realize the dangers of neglecting this issue, especially with continued construction works of the Ethiopian dam and the increasing popular pressure.

The negotiating parties are due to meet and December 27 and 28 and may see Egypt take escalatory steps. “There is a wave of agitation against Ethiopia by the Egyptian government in the coming negotiations,” the diplomatic source says. “Egypt’s position is strong this time. We may announce the failure of negotiations and withdraw,” he adds. “If this happens, we might raise the matter internationally.”

Mohamed Hamama 

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