Egypt and Ethiopia are doing their best to lower tensions after weeks of increasingly heated rhetoric over a giant Ethiopian dam project that Cairo believes will reduce the flow of water in the Nile River.
The foreign ministers of the two countries met at the beginning of the week in Addis Ababa and agreed to hold further talks and review the recommendations from a panel of experts on what’s being called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD.
Construction on the dam started two years ago on Ethiopia’s Abbai, or Blue Nile, river, whose basin accounts for about 75 percent of the water flowing into the lower Nile River. The project is about 20 percent complete and Egyptian officials worry that when it’s finished in 2017, it will severely reduce the flow of water through the lower Nile channel and turn the arable parts of their country back into a desert.
A day after Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi visited Addis Ababa earlier this month, Ethiopia diverted the Abbai River’s flow temporarily to carry out the next stage of dam construction. Even though the water diversion was a brief, news of the interruption touched off a furor in Cairo.
Morsi said Egypt would not tolerate losing “one drop” of Nile water and made thinly veiled threats of military action by saying “all options are open.”
The Ethiopians, apparently, were not intimidated.
“I don’t think they will take that option unless they go mad,” said Ethiopia’s president, Haile Mariam Desalegn. The foreign ministry in Addis Ababa said construction on the dam would not stop “for a second.”
An expensive project
The GERD project includes a 170-meter high concrete dam and a 6,000-megawatt hydroelectric power plant and will make Ethiopia one of Africa’s top electrical energy producing nations when it is completed. Its total cost is estimated at between $4.2 billion and $5 billion.
Ethiopia has said all along that once completed, the dam would not reduce Egypt’s water resources, but Egypt wants proof. It also wants assurances that Ethiopia will not use the Abbai waters to irrigate Ethiopian farmlands.
Egypt is also concerned about additional problems as Ethiopia begins filling a massive water reservoir twice the size of the country's largest lake.
“Ethiopia is always saying ‘no impact’,” said Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, who was Egypt’s minister of water and irrigation for 12 years and is now president of the Arab Water Council.
But Abu-Zeid cited studies predicting that during the three to five years it will take to fill the reservoir behind the dam, “there would be a reduction of 14 billion instead of the regular 55.5 billion cubic meters.
“It’s time to go back to the negotiating table,” Abu-Zeid concluded.
Other experts doubt the reduction would be that much. One of them is Paul Block, a civil engineer who has been consulting on Ethiopian water projects for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Bank.
During the years it takes to fill the reservoir behind the GERD, Block says the loss of water flow into the Nile could be minimal. It all depends, he explains, on the amount of rainfall in the region.
“Eastern Africa may experience a slight increase in precipitation,” Block said. “However there are models that range from a modest decrease [in rainfall] to a very significant increase.”
It’s not just about the dam
Ethiopia’s new dam project is only the beginning of Egypt’s concerns about its neighbors upstream in the Nile basin.
During the last century, the British crafted agreements guaranteeing exclusive water rights from the Nile basin to Egypt and Sudan, shutting out countries further upstream at the Nile’s several sources.
But now, seven upstream countries have signed the new Nile Basin Initiative on equal water rights: Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and newly independent South Sudan. Any of these nations could potentially begin projects that would reduce the flow of Nile water through Egypt.
Now Egypt may have to come to grips with the fact that it no longer has a guaranteed lock on the Nile, source of 98 percent of its water.
The response from Cairo
The water resource challenge comes as Egypt is still struggling to recover from two years of political turmoil and social upheaval brought on by the Arab Spring uprisings. It’s only just recently, experts say, that the Egyptian government turned its attention to what was happening at the Nile’s source.
“The problem is Morsi has handled this problem very poorly,” said Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Rather than engage with Ethiopia, he looked internally and pulled a national unity dialogue because he is … primarily concerned about his own domestic standing. He is not appreciating yet the magnitude of foreign policy.”
While some Egyptian politicians have been calling for military solutions, Trager said, “the military gave a very clear signal it would not tolerate that.” The generals, he said, are “not prepared to fight a war right now.”
“The question is whether President Morsi is wise enough to know how to work foreign diplomacy when faced with a challenge,” Trager added. “Unfortunately, he has not shown the ability to do that.”