Egypt short on options as Ethiopia dam nears completion
Egypt will have to adapt to acute water poverty while working to alleviate that as much as possible.
Shortfall. People line up with empty containers and bottles as they wait to collect filtered water in Toukh, Qalyubia governorate, north-east of Cairo. (Reuters)
2017/07/16 Issue: 115 Page: 10
The Arab Weekly
Cairo- Egypt is short on options to halt or circumvent the construction of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam, which experts said will have negative effects on Egyptian access to Nile waters.
“Time is running out and the dam is about to become a fact on the ground. Egypt cannot stop it,” said Talaat Musallam, a retired army general and strategic analyst.
He ruled out the prospect of a military solution to the issue, saying that, given that Ethiopia intends to start filling the dam this year, Cairo’s room for manoeuvre is limited.
“The remaining diplomatic and legal options are inadequate because the project has already reached the point of no return,” he said.
Ethiopia hopes to fill the dam in five years but Cairo hopes to extend that period to seven years or more.
Legal experts suggested Cairo take the issue to the UN Security Council to seek a temporary halt in the construction of the multibillion-dollar hydroelectric project until further technical studies can be completed. Egyptian political experts also recommend mediation from international players, such as the United States, China or Russia.
Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam is expected to reduce Egypt’s annual water quota from the Nile from 55 billion cubic metres to 40 billion cubic metres, which would severely aggravate existing water shortages. Egypt, with a rapidly growing population, has a water deficit of 20 billion cubic metres.
The loss of an additional 15 billion cubic metres a year would have a debilitating effect on Egyptian agriculture, including the potential loss of 400,000 hectares of farmland.
Lower agricultural production would require more food imports for Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer with 12 million tonnes annually. Lower production would pressure the national budget, already showing deficit of almost 30%.
“These are all catastrophic scenarios for our country,” said water and irrigation expert Ahmed Nour Abdel Monem. “Ethiopia is moving ahead with the project, although it is fully aware of the enormous harm it will cause to Egypt.”
The view in Addis Ababa is that the dam will cause no harm to downstream countries such as Egypt and Sudan.
In March 2015, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed a declaration of principles that included a pledge of cooperation based on “common understanding” and “mutual benefit” and to “take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm in utilising the Nile.”
The three countries had earlier hired an international firm to conduct technical and environmental studies on the dam but the results of the studies have yet to be published, even as construction of the dam nears completion.
The mood in Cairo regarding the dam is gloomy, with general calls for Egyptian authorities to take action but little hope that anything can be done.
A leaked recording purportedly of former President Hosni Mubarak emerged in June and revealed his preparedness to bomb the planned dam. Muslim Brotherhood leader and former Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, in a 2013 strategy session with key advisers that was unknowingly broadcast live, appeared to consider throwing support to Ethiopian rebels to pressure Addis Ababa.
With the dam almost complete and a new political reality for Cairo, scenarios such as this are unlikely to play out.
“The current Egyptian administration has built bridges of trust with Ethiopia and will not resort to any violent scenario to resolve the issue,” Musallam said.
Egypt will have to adapt to acute water poverty while working to alleviate that as much as possible. Cairo has begun implementing an ambitious national water desalination and treatment strategy, which is expected to cost $50 billion in the coming decade.
The strategy, which includes the construction of sea-water desalination and sewage treatment plants, aims to make up for the expected drop in Egypt’s water resources.
Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel Aty said Egypt would need 114 billion cubic metres of water every year to meet the needs of its growing population and move ahead with agricultural expansion and food production plans.
“Adaptation will prove very costly but it is the only way ahead for us to avoid the destructive consequences of the construction of this dam,” said Fawzi Diab, a researcher at the Egyptian state-run Desert Research Centre. “We must depend on desalinating seawater, treating and reusing sewage and upgrading irrigation methods to save water to be able to survive.”