GERD: Politics and the Art of Possibility

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Mohamed Mahmoud)

Egyptian officials, faced with the reality of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam are meeting the potential risks with mixed views on how to respond. Some believe that Egypt should be firm about the dam, which according to experts, represents a danger to the country’s water security. Others believe that Egypt could work with the situation on the ground, turning to joint economic activity in an attempt to minimize possible risks.

Further complicating the issue, however, are accusations by Ethiopian officials that Egypt is behind recent anti-government protests. “Countries displeased with our determination to build the great Renaissance Dam…have for a long time conspired with diaspora extremists to destabilize our country,” Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told parliament in early October, pointing a finger at “certain Egyptian institutions.” Communications Minister Getachew Reda also accused “elements within the Egyptian political establishment” of training and financing the rebel Oromo Liberation Front (OLF)—designated a terror group by the Ethiopian government and accused of provoking the unrest. Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid denied the accusations in a statement reaffirming “Egypt’s absolute respect for Ethiopia’s sovereignty, and non-intervention in its internal affairs,” a position reiterated by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Recent controversies aside, an Egyptian Irrigations Ministry official and technical expert familiar with negotiations over the dam says, “Egypt’s position is that we disagree with the dam’s current dimensions.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity due the sensitive nature of the issue. He adds, “We’d agree with it if those were changed.” GERD Project Manager Simegnew Bekele says the dam is only intended to generate electricity, it will not reserve water, and the flow of water to Egypt will never stop. Despite these assurances, Egyptian experts fear that Egypt will experience a water shortage when the dam’s reservoir—which will hold 74 billion cubic meters of water—is filled. Egypt fears that the 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water it is entitled to yearly will be affected by the dam when its reservoir starts to fill with water. The Nile provides just less than half of Egypt’s required 120 billion cubic meters of water annually, and Egypt is already facing a water shortage, confirmed by statements by government officials.

Nonetheless, Ethiopia is continuing construction on the Renaissance Dam, which aims to generate 6,000 MW of electricity. Bekele says this would enable the country to achieve its sustainable development goals and combat poverty, which he describes as Ethiopia’s primary enemy.

In Cairo, an Egypt diplomat familiar with the issue says Egypt’s efforts for compromise were rejected. “We presented four alternative proposals for four different dams of the same cost, which would be more secure and have less impact on Egypt,” he told MENASource. “But Ethiopia rejected all our proposals, and insisted on building the dam.” In January, Ethiopian state media said the country had rejected an Egyptian redesign proposal increasing the number of gates from two to four, which Egypt said would allow for increased water flow to downstream countries. Bizuneh Tolcha, an official at the Ethiopian Ministry of Water and Irrigation, was quoted as saying, “The decision to build two openings came following intensive studies, and Ethiopia does not need to redesign the dam project.”

The Egyptian diplomat is also critical of Ethiopia’s decision to start construction before agreed upon studies on the dam’s safety mechanisms and water are complete. Two French consulting firms signed contracts with Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan in September to conduct the studies, which initial reports suggest will take 11 months to complete.

Mohamed Nasr Allam, who served as Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation from 2009 to 2011, has been openly critical of the agreement with Ethiopia, expressing concern over what he describes as the future negative effects of the dam. He says Egypt fears that filling the Renaissance Dam’s reservoir will cause Lake Nasser, the lake behind Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, and Egypt’s water reserves, to shrink. Allam says this will reduce the amount of electricity produced by the Aswan Dam, and cause millions of feddans of agricultural land to go fallow, drinking water stations to go dry, and Egypt’s water table to drop. Italian and Turkish experts working on the dam site, however, tell MENASource that at least 80 percent of construction on the dam is already complete.

Despite these concerns, a senior Egyptian diplomat in Ethiopia considers it a “possible opportunity” for cooperation between the two countries. “Politics is the art of possibility,” the diplomat says, speaking to Egyptian journalists also on the condition of anonymity. “Our job is to turn every event into a possible opportunity.” He adds, “What’s important now is that we’re looking for opportunities for cooperation. Potential, concrete, shared interests” in dealing with the dam.

Speaking in Cairo close to the Nile, a third diplomat close to the negotiations tells MENASource, “The Nile will always come from Ethiopia, until the end of days. That’s why we need to work on building a good relationship with Ethiopians over time.”

“Water poverty must be taken into consideration,” he adds, particularly as “Egypt’s share of 55 billion cubic meters was determined when the country’s population was under 20 million people. How much should our share be when our population reaches 90 million?” Currently, average per capita water use in Egypt is less than 650 cubic meters per year. Studies indicate that this will drop to 350 cubic meters by the year 2050.  The global water poverty line is an average per capita use of about 1,000 cubic meters per year.

Aside from the Nile, Egypt and Ethiopia are connected by strong religious ties between the Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox churches. The Ethiopian Orthodox church historic ties with its Egyptian counterpart dating back to the 14th century before officially separating in the late fifties, and efforts have been made to use that relationship to improve bilateral ties. 

Commerce also serves as another key connection with an existing foundation to build on. Bilateral trade between Egypt and Ethiopia amounted to about 300 million dollars in 2015. Ethiopian Ambassador to Egypt, Mohamed Dardeer, is quoted in independent daily newspaper Al-Youm Al-Saba’a  saying his country aims to increase that figure to 500 million by the end of 2016, and Solomon Afework, President of the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce and Sectorial Associations says that between 1992 and 2014, Egyptian investors established 58 investment projects in Ethiopia worth 35 billion dollars. According to the Ethiopian-Egyptian Business Council, current Egyptian investments in Ethiopia amount to approximately 2 billion dollars.

The Egyptian diplomat with a positive outlook tells MENASource that the Ethiopian market is currently a very good investment opportunity for Egyptian companies. These investments, he says, can create “shared interests” between the two countries, and through this, overcome the dispute over the dam. He believes this may be a way for Egypt to participate in Ethiopia’s “renaissance,” which could benefit both countries and limit the potentially negative effects of the dam.

Meanwhile on the ground, far from diplomatic and commercial channels, humanitarian activities like those of British-Egyptian surgeon Magdi Yacoub send a positive message to Ethiopia. In late July, a medical team composed of 25 doctors led by Yacoub conducted 67 pro-bono heart operations in Ethiopia.

Egypt’s engagement in economic activities and significant commercial cooperation with Ethiopia can create real shared opportunities. Forging stronger bilateral ties and engaging in soft power could encourage Addis Ababa to consider Egypt’s position in negotiations over the technical management and operation of the dam.

Mohamed Mahmoud is an independent journalist based in Cairo.