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Ethiopia's game plan on the dam
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 - 01 - 2016

The Egyptian government has opted for negotiations and dialogue with Ethiopia in reaction to the crisis over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Many members of the Egyptian intelligentsia have disagreed with this course, viewing the crisis as not a dispute to be resolved by negotiations but rather as another episode in a historical conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile and political influence.
Their main arguments have been that negotiating with Ethiopia while the latter continues to build the dam puts great pressure on Egyptian negotiators while granting the Ethiopians the upper hand. And the fact that four years of negotiations have elapsed with no tangible outcome in sight, and that Ethiopia has kept on building the dam, lends some weight to these arguments.
Three distinct rounds of negotiations have taken place. The first round started in 2011, only a few months after Ethiopia laid the cornerstone of the dam. At the time, Ethiopia was in robust economic and political shape, while Egypt was going through difficult times, both internally and externally.
This disparity seeped into the wording of the tripartite memorandum prepared by Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia regarding the framework of the negotiations. The wording of this gave the Ethiopians a clear advantage.
The memorandum noted that the dam was under construction, whereas in fact Ethiopia had not yet started working on the dam. The phrasing suggested that the three countries would be negotiating while the Ethiopians would proceed with the construction work. The memorandum also noted that the aim of the multilateral committee was to revise and assess Ethiopian studies of the dam, rather than conduct new studies to assess its impact on both Egypt and Sudan.
The multilateral committee at the time consisted of two representatives from each state, plus four international experts chosen collectively by the three countries concerned. The committee took one year to finish its work, producing a review of the Ethiopian studies of the dam on 31 May 2013.
The committee's conclusion was that the structural design of the dam was unsafe in a manner that could lead to its collapse and that the water studies and the ecological and economic research were incomplete and substandard. It therefore recommended that all the studies be repeated by international consulting firms.
After the 30 June Revolution and following the dispersal of the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins in Cairo, Egypt's membership of the African Union (AU) was frozen. But the Egyptian government continued to give priority to the dam.
A second round of negotiations began between the water ministers of the three countries in November 2013. Two other meetings followed in December 2013 and January 2014. The goal of the meetings was to agree on a mechanism to commission international consulting firms to conduct three studies of the dam: one on structural safety, another on the water and hydroelectric impact on downstream countries, and the third on the environmental and economic impact.
The ministers agreed to form a committee, consisting of four experts from each of the three countries involved, to select the consulting firms and supervise the studies. Ethiopia insisted that no international experts should be included in the membership of the said committee — something that was rejected by Egypt, as Cairo believed that the presence of international experts was necessary to resolve any difference of opinion among the three countries.
As a result, the negotiations ground to a halt, and Ethiopia took the opportunity to lure Sudan to its side and persuade it to give up its strategic partnership with Egypt, an effort in which Addis Ababa was successful.
In June 2014, the same month in which Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was elected as president, Egypt's AU membership was reactivated. It then signed the Malabo Declaration with Ethiopia, which paved the way for the resumption of talks. The declaration scored some points for Egypt, as it noted that the Nile was a “vital lifeline” for all Egyptians, that Egypt's use of the Nile's water should not be hampered, and that cooperation on regional projects to improve the utilisation of the river should start to benefit all riparian nations.
The declaration also scored some points for Ethiopia, by noting that dialogue and cooperation were the only way to resolve problems between the two countries, asserting the right of Ethiopia and its people to development, and reinstating the technical committee, something which Ethiopia had made a condition for resuming the talks.
The Malabo Declaration was silent about Ethiopia's continued construction of the dam and its not waiting for the studies about its impact on downstream countries to be concluded. With Egypt signing the Malabo Declaration, Cairo placed its trust in the dialogue and cooperation with Ethiopia as a way or resolving the crisis. Cairo also accepted that the technical tripartite committee was the mechanism through which the dialogue would be conducted.
Speaking on 16 July 2014, only weeks after the declaration was signed, Egypt's foreign minister said, “Egypt wants to avoid points of confrontation with Ethiopia while minimising harm to its own interests.” He also admitted that Egypt “cannot stop the building of the dam.” Was this, one wonders, the view of the foreign minister, or that of the government as a whole?
ETHIOPIAN DEMANDS: In August 2014, two months after the signing of the Malabo Declaration, the technical tripartite committee, led by the water ministers of the three countries, met in Khartoum.
At the meeting, the Egyptian irrigation minister agreed to Ethiopian demands to exclude international experts from the tripartite committee. He also agreed to the Ethiopian demand not to refer the structural studies on the safety of the dam to an international consultancy firm, but instead to allow the Ethiopians themselves to revise and amend their previous studies.
Were these concessions part of an Egyptian strategy to build confidence? Was the Egyptian government hoping that its leniency would make Addis Ababa more cooperative?
Following the meeting, the Egyptian irrigation minister announced that he and Ethiopian officials had agreed that the dam studies should be completed before 1 March 2015. After assessing the impact of the dam on Egypt, Cairo would discuss with Addis Ababa the dam's height and storage capacity.
Egypt's concessions encouraged the Ethiopians to push their luck, however. As Addis Ababa dragged its feet, Egypt became nervous. As a result, President Al-Sisi himself intervened. He asked Egypt's foreign and irrigation ministries to draw up an agreement with Ethiopia on a legal framework for completing the dam studies and resolving the crisis. The result was a Declaration of Principles that lowered even further Egypt's expectations from the talks.
In the declaration, Egypt acknowledged that the aim of the studies was to agree only on the number of years it would take to fill the dam and the general outline of its operational policies. Egypt also agreed to extend the period for completing the dam studies from six months to 15. The Declaration of Principles was silent about the height of the dam and its capacity, issues that the irrigation minister had promised to tackle.
Sensing Egypt's willingness to make concessions, Addis Ababa procrastinated further. The tripartite committee then held ten meetings, the last of which was in November 2015, all of them without making much progress. Then, in almost typical fashion, Ethiopia all of a sudden declared that 50 per cent of the dam's structure had been built and that the Blue Nile had been diverted back to its natural course. It said that it would start storing water behind the dam during the flood of July 2015.
Naturally, the Egyptian public was alarmed at the news, and proponents of Political Islam in Egypt used the opportunity to needle the government. Once again, President Al-Sisi intervened and told the Foreign Ministry to assist the Irrigation Ministry in the tripartite committee talks.
Egypt called a meeting of the foreign and water ministers of the three countries concerned on 11 December, in order to figure out a mechanism guaranteeing that the dam would not be filled until all the studies had been completed and their results approved, as per Article 5 of the Declaration of Principles. But the meeting did not produce any tangible results. At the next meeting, held on 27 December, the committee named two French companies, BRL and Artelia, to conduct studies of the dam, instructing them to begin work in February 2016.
Ethiopia still continued to reject the Egyptian request that the dam remain empty until the studies had been completed. A further meeting of the tripartite committee was scheduled for February 2016. Meanwhile, following the last meeting, Egyptian officials said that a new document had been signed addressing the main concerns of the three countries as well as Egypt's water security.
The Ethiopian minister of irrigation, however, said that Ethiopia had not reached any agreement with Cairo and Khartoum about filling the dam. He added that filling the dam had “nothing to do with” the negotiations and that it would be completed on schedule.
Confirming this view, the Ethiopian foreign minister said that Addis Ababa had fulfilled its duty towards Egypt by signing the Declaration of Principles in March 2015. He added that the declaration recognised Ethiopia's sovereign right to use the Nile water to develop its economy.
The foreign minister asserted that the outcome of the talks could not affect the construction plans for the dam and that Addis Ababa had no contractual obligation towards Egypt that could interfere with the construction. Meanwhile, the Egyptian foreign and irrigation ministers continued to tell the public that the negotiations were the only way to resolve the dam crisis.
NO GROUNDS FOR OPTIMISM: Egypt, it would seem, has no ground for its optimistic belief that Ethiopia will refrain from filling the dam until all the studies are completed and the process of filling and operating the dam is agreed upon.
Judging by Ethiopian statements, it is unlikely that Addis Ababa will leave the dam dry for a year or more pending the completion of the studies. Such an option, the Ethiopians claim, would be too costly for their economy, as well as politically hazardous. Four years of procrastination on Ethiopia's part had only one objective, which was to place Egypt face to face with a fait accompli. Ethiopia is now planning to install the dam's first two turbines soon.
Ethiopia knows very well that studies of the dam will take a long time to complete, something our negotiators failed to recognise. By the time the studies are finished, it will be too late to act on them. The Declaration of Principles asserts that the dam should not impinge on the fair use of Nile water for all the nations involved. It also sets criteria for calculating the fair use of every country, but stops short of offering exact figures.
Agreeing exact figures on fair use requires the participation of all the Nile riparian nations, for the simple reason that the concept applies to the entire river, not the Blue Nile alone. It was because of this that Egypt rejected the Entebbe Agreement, which called for dividing the water among the riparian countries on the basis of fair use and using the same criteria embraced in the Declaration of Principles.
In order to assess the harm the Renaissance Dam could inflict on the Nile riparian countries, it is necessary to determine the share of each of the river's water according to the criteria of fair use. Therefore, Egypt and Sudan must both joint the Entebbe Agreement and begin negotiating with other riparian countries on water shares.
Contrary to popular claims, the aim of the Renaissance Dam is not development, but regional influence. In fact, most of the dam's electricity is not even geared towards local Ethiopian consumption.
The dam's true aim is to redistribute water as well as influence in the region, an endeavour that is bigger than Ethiopia and bigger even than all the countries of the Nile Valley combined. And although the rhetoric of cooperation and dialogue is alluring, perhaps even partially true, it cannot end the crisis. The aims of the Renaissance Dam are more devious and hazardous than meets the eye.
The writer is a former minister of water resources and irrigation.

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