Egypt pressures Ethiopia on effects of Nile dam project

Most Cairo can hope for is to convince Ethiopia to fill in dam reservoir over longer period that would prevent harm to Egypt.

Labourers transplant rice seedlings in a paddy in the Nile Delta town of Kafr Al-Sheikh, north of Cairo, on May 28th, 2008. (Reuters)

2017/02/05 Issue: 92 Page: 14

The Arab Weekly
Ibrahim Ouf

Cairo - Underlying Egypt’s growing ties with So­malia, Eritrea, Djibouti, South Sudan and Ugan­da is its desire to hem in Ethiopia politically, economi­cally and militarily, experts said.

The moves were prompted by Ethiopia’s constructing a multibil­lion-dollar hydroelectric dam on the Nile River, Egypt’s only source of water.

“Egypt can do nothing but put pressure on Ethiopia to make it think twice before it starts harm­ing Egyptian national interests,” said Attia Essawi, an African affairs specialist. “This can only be done by cementing ties with Ethiopia’s neighbouring countries.”

Before the dam construction, Egypt, which receives 55.5 billion cubic metres of water from the Nile annually, suffered a water deficit of almost 20%. The deficit is ex­pected to spike dramatically after the dam becomes operational in a few months.

Egyptian President Abdel Fat­tah al-Sisi said nobody should be allowed to tamper with the flow of the Nile. “This is a matter of life and death,” he said January 27th during a conference about Egyp­tian young people in the southern province of Aswan.

Nonetheless, Ethiopia said its Grand Renaissance Dam, which will turn the country into an elec­trical power hub in Africa, is indis­pensable for its economic develop­ment.

The project has reached the point of no return and the most Cairo can hope for is to convince Ethiopia to fill in the dam reservoir over a longer period that would prevent harm to Egypt, experts said. The dam reservoir will hold 603 billion cubic metres of water and Ethiopia plans to fill it over a 5-year period, during which Egypt expects to suffer its biggest water shortage.

Egyptian water experts, pointing out that the dam’s height and stor­age capacity indicate that Addis Ababa aims for more than just gen­erating electricity, suggest Ethio­pia may be trying to limit water available to Egypt.

“You do not need a dam 170 me­tres high to generate electricity,” said Alaa al-Zawahri, a professor of hydraulic engineering at Cairo University and a member of the panel studying possible effects of the dam.

Having failed to curtail Ethio­pia’s dam project, Cairo is trying economic and political pressure on Addis Ababa.

“Egypt can cut Addis Ababa off its immediate surroundings if it wants through its close ties with the countries neighbouring Ethio­pia,” said Hosni Sadek, a research­er in African affairs.

Egypt is an important market for meat and agricultural crops for neighbouring countries. The Egyp­tian Partnership Agency for Devel­opment, a Foreign Ministry divi­sion whose job is to cement ties with African states, allocates tens of millions of dollars every year in assistance to them and Egypt’s powerful army offers support to the fragile militaries of nearby countries as they try to keep mili­tant groups at bay.

During a December visit to Cairo, Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh oversaw the signing of sev­eral cooperation agreements and there was talk that Egypt would es­tablish a military base in Djibouti, the first outside its border. Sisi had been in Uganda earlier to discuss economic and trade issues and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir visited Cairo on January 9th to discuss similar deals with Sisi.

By winning Ethiopia’s neigh­bours’ support, analysts said, Egypt can secure a strong position against Ethiopia for future negotia­tions about Nile water shares.

“Now, Egypt is using the eco­nomic and political pressure cards it has in its hands to commit Addis Ababa to think well before it starts making Egyptians thirsty,” politi­cal analyst Abdel Monem Halawa said. “Egypt cannot stay silent while real work is being done to cut its lifeline, namely the Nile.”

Ibrahim Ouf is an Egyptian journalist based in Cairo.

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