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Egypt and Ethiopia : Seeking arbitration? …no signs of easing

Tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa over construction of the Renaissance Dam show no signs of easing, writes Doaa El-Bey

February 6,2015

Egypt receives 55.5 billion cubic metres of water from the Nile and extracts 4.5 billion from subterranean water and other sources, says Nader Noureddin, a professor of agricultural resources at Cairo University.

Yet water security requires an annual supply of 1,000 cubic meters per person. The current shortfall stands at 30 billion cubic metres a year.

This is the backdrop against which the dispute between Cairo and Addis Ababa over Ethiopia’s construction of the Renaissance Dam continues to rage.

There were hopes President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to Ethiopia last week would see a breakthrough, or at least defuse existing tensions. Now experts are advising that, in addition to diplomatic negotiations, Cairo should make it clear it is ready to pursue international arbitration.

There is no magic solution to the dispute, says Hani Raslan of the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. He envisages long and difficult negotiations during which “Cairo needs to work within regional and international frameworks to press the argument that any failure to resolve the problem could cause conflict in the region.”

Massoum Marzouk, a former assistant to the foreign minister and an expert in African affairs, agrees. “We must continue along the diplomatic track,” he says, “while doing everything possible at the regional and international level to secure a firm commitment from Ethiopia to resolve the issue in a way that harms the interests of neither state.”

Diplomatic messages, he adds, need to stress that Egypt is serious about cooperating with Ethiopia and should seek to remove any misunderstanding that resulted from the political stands taken by Cairo under the Mubarak and Morsi regimes.

Noureddin expects the way out of the current standoff will come in two steps. The first should involve asking the EU to send experts to assess the impact of existing plans for the dam on Egypt’s supply of water while the second will see the UN becoming involved.

“Egypt has to clearly state that the dam will not only compromise its sole water supply but could threaten regional security by creating a conflict that leads to war,” he says.

In Addis Ababa, Al-Sisi met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. He stressed that while Egypt does not oppose Ethiopia’s right to development through the implementation of projects on the River Nile, Ethiopia has to recognise that the Nile is Egypt’s only source of water.

The two met last Thursday on the sidelines of the 24th African Union (AU) summit. Al-Sisi attended the AU’s opening session on Friday before rushing back to Cairo following a series of devastating terrorist attacks in north Sinai. The AU summit ended on Saturday.

The impact the Renaissance Dam on their share of vital Nile water has long been a cause of concern in Cairo and Khartoum.

In what was described as a breakthrough in November, following the fifth session of the Egyptian-Ethiopian joint committee in Addis Ababa, the foreign ministers of Egypt and Ethiopia issued a seven-point joint statement that recognised Egypt’s water rights and Ethiopia’s right to development. But any optimism was short-lived.

“Addis Ababa focused on a single point in the statement, the need to continue studying the dam’s impact, and ignored the rest,” says Raslan.

Construction work according to the original plans continued, points out Marzouk, even though Addis Ababa had committed itself to a review of what the impact of the dam would be.

The dam is scheduled to begin operation in 2017 and a third of the total construction work has been completed.

Alhough Egypt and Ethiopia agreed to resume stalled tripartite talks with Sudan after Desalegn and Al-Sisi met in Malabo in June, the first three rounds, held in November and December 2013, and January 2014, ended without even an agenda being agreed.

A fourth meeting, held in Khartoum in August, ended with the three countries agreeing that a six-month period was needed to assess the impacts of the dam. They also agreed to form a 12-member technical committee, consisting of four experts from each country, to review the findings of the six-month review. If the committee members fail to agree their differences will then be referred to international arbitration.

The problem, says Noureddin, is that “while we are moving from one report to another, and one committee to another, construction work on the dam continues.”

The Renaissance Dam is being built on the Blue Nile, source of Egypt of 85 per cent of the water that flows into Egypt.

Shares of Nile water are enshrined in a 1959 agreement that gives Egypt and Sudan 55.5 per cent and 18 per cent of the total and the right to veto any building projects along the Nile’s banks.

Ethiopia and other Nile Basin states want the 1959 Agreement replaced by the Entebbe Agreement, which they claim provides for a fairer distribution of Nile water. Cairo and Khartoum have both refused to sign the Entebbe Agreement. Southern Sudan signed in April 2013. Congo is the only upstream country that is not a signatory to the agreement. (see p.13)

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