Egypt's president and his Eritrean counterpart met in Cairo on Monday amid heightened tensions with Sudan and Ethiopia over border disputes and the construction of a massive upstream Nile dam.
Egypt fears the soon-to-be completed dam in Ethiopia could cut into its share of the river, which provides nearly all its freshwater. Eritrea and Ethiopia have long been bitter rivals and went to war in the late 1990s. Ethiopia denies it is cutting into Egypt's share of the Nile, and has accused Eritrea of training rebels to carry out sabotage attacks on the dam.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi hosted Isaias Afwerki at the presidential palace. "The two sides have agreed on continuing intensive cooperation in all issues related to the current situation to support the security and stability in the region," Egyptian presidency spokesman Bassam Radi said, referring to the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea strait of Bab al-Mandab as two major areas for ensuring stability.
The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network recently reported that Egypt is deploying troops in Eritrea. The Red Sea Afar Democratic Organization, an Eritrean opposition group, last year claimed that Egypt is building a military base on Eritrea's Dahlak island and will deploy up to 30,000 Egyptian naval forces.
Eritrean Information Minister Yemane G. Meske denied the Al-Jazeera report in a tweet this week, saying: "Al-Jazeera News Channel seems to relish propagating false and preposterous news on Eritrea: latest is phantom deployment of Egyptian troops/weapons!"
Egypt's relations with Sudan, which has lent support to Ethiopia in the Nile dispute, have meanwhile deteriorated.
Sudan recalled its ambassador for consultation last week, and has said a 2016 maritime demarcation agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia infringes on its territorial waters. The waters in question are off the coast of an Egyptian-held border region claimed by Sudan. Egypt's pro-government media have accused Sudan of conspiring against Cairo with Turkey and Qatar.
Ethiopia says the $5 billion dam is essential for its economic development, noting that the vast majority of its 95 million people lack electricity. The dam's hydroelectric plant will generate over 6,400 megawatts, a massive boost to the country's current production of 4,000 Megawatts.
Egypt, with a population roughly equal to Ethiopia's, receives the lion's share of the Nile's waters under agreements from 1929 and 1959 that other Nile nations say are unfair and ignore the needs of their own large and growing populations.
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry traveled to Ethiopia on December 26, for a meeting with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in which they discussed the stalling of negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The visit followed Egypt’s announcement in November that negotiations with the Nile Basin country over its mammoth national project had failed.
Shoukry relayed Egypt’s concerns over developments in the dam project, which it fears will affect its Nile water share, during the meeting. His visit came on the heels of four major hiccups that have hampered negotiations, according to Egyptian and Ethiopian government sources.
The first issue, according to an Egyptian government source speaking on condition of anonymity, is Addis Ababa’s refusal to clarify details regarding the filling of the dam reservoir while talks are ongoing. The early filling of the dam’s reservoir was reported to have started this summer, without prior notification from Ethiopia.
The source calls the rapid filling of a reservoir of 74 billion cubic meters in size “a catastrophe of unimaginable consequences.”
“The first plan for the construction of the dam was based on the assumption that the reservoir’s storage capacity was less than 15 billion cubic meters. Ethiopia developed the project, however, and the single dam was transformed into one of four connected dams. Ethiopia increased the storage capacity to five times more than the initial target without first reaching any agreement with the downstream countries,” the Egyptian government official adds.
An Ethiopian government official who attended the November Cairo meetings, in which Sudanese representatives also took part, asserts that Egypt announced the failure of negotiations because it rejected Ethiopia’s proposal to tailor the time period allocated for filling the reservoir to fit the amount of rainfall in the Nile Basin area during the season which sees the median annual rainfall.
During a visit to Parliament, the Ethiopian Ambassador to Cairo Taye Atske-Selassiehad relayed his fellow statesmen’s desire to emphasize Ethiopia’s commitment to minimizing serious damage to Egypt while the reservoir is filled. However, he made no mention of how many years this process is expected take.
The Egyptian government source believes that the only way to mitigate the imminent damage is for Egypt to secure a guarantee that Ethiopia will take at least seven years to fill the dam’s reservoir.
The expected outcomes of filling the reservoir are “negative and worrying,” according to the source, who adds that available information “indicates that the biggest blockage of water will affect Egypt next summer.”
Egypt’s current share of the Nile water has been a source of contention throughout the negotiations. Sudan, which has typically shared Ethiopia’s stance on Egypt, expressed discontent over the distribution of Nile water when Prime Minister Ibrahim Ghandour announced it has not been obtaining its share of 18 billion cubic meters in comments to the press in November.
This share is outlined in a 1959 agreement signed by Egypt and Sudan, which is now being discarded on the grounds that Sudan signed while under occupation, and Ethiopia was never party to it. Egypt, however, has continually claimed its current share of the Nile’s water is insufficient.
The second issue, which the Egyptian government source claims Ethiopia is trying to evade, is Cairo’s request for joint management of the dam in order to guarantee its safety and structural integrity, reportedly based on “information available suggesting that the site of the dam is questionable from an engineering perspective.” The source adds that the request is also rooted in concerns regarding the environmental effects of the dam, as the water storage process is expected to impact the type of silt reaching Egypt which will impact agricultural activities.
A third sticking point is related to agricultural cooperation. “What we fail to understand is why Ethiopia is avoiding a clear commitment to agricultural cooperation in the dam’s vicinity,” the source says.
“Ethiopia has always stressed that the dam’s only aim is to generate electricity for development purposes,” they add. “We do not oppose its right to development. However, the truth is that the dam could have been constructed in a region remote from the Blue Nile, which supplies us with the bulk of our water needs, without affecting Ethiopia’s ability to generate electricity for developmental purposes.”
A second Egyptian government source, also speaking on condition of anonymity, cites Ethiopia’s refusal to include the findings of a technical assessment of the dam conducted by an external international firm in the negotiations process as the final reason behind the announcement of their failure.
“Ethiopia has been slow to reach an understanding of this advisory office’s work. It refused to include the findings of its preliminary report. What is the use, then, of a negotiation process that has been transformed, into coercing Egypt to accept a fait accompli,” the second government source says.
Reports emerged following Shoukry’s latest visit to Addis Ababa outlining Egypt’s proposal to include the Word Bank in the negotiations with Ethiopia.
A vicious campaign against Ethiopia unfolded in the days following the announcement of the failure of negotiations, according to two Ethiopian diplomats in Cairo. They both assert, speaking on condition of anonymity, that this environment is not conductive to reaching an understanding on the points of contention, adding that negotiations should take place in a context where Egypt is confident that Ethiopia intends it no harm.
Egypt intends to pursue three different avenues, according to the second Egyptian government source. The first is a media campaign intended to prepare the public for the complications expected from the dam. Cairo also intends to turn to international diplomatic efforts, in an attempt to garner enough support to pressure Ethiopia into limiting the amount of water the dam would block annually. This was outlined in President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s address at the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly in September. The third avenue currently being considered is halting all negotiations with Ethiopia.
Yet, the complications plaguing the discussions with Ethiopia are exacerbated by the fact that the vast majority of the Nile basin countries, both downstream and upstream, support Ethiopia, according to the Egyptian officials.
Most Nile Basin countries do not sympathize with Egypt, according to a government source who previously worked on the Nile water issue in a government agency. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they say that support for Ethiopia stems not only from its promises of cheaply supplied electricity, but from the fact the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam would act as a precedent. This could open the door for other countries on both banks of the river looking to follow suit, the source adds, saying “There are similar ideas being raised in Kenya and in Tanzania.”
Within Egypt the dam has proved a controversial issue, dividing decision makers in Cairo. The Egyptian government sources who spoke to Mada Masr say that ministries and authorities, including the foreign and irrigation ministries, are laying the blame for Egypt’s diminishing sway in the negotiations at others’ doorsteps. Moreover, within certain ministries, accusations are traded between current and former occupants of the same posts.
The government source who previously worked on water issues adds that there is a general antipathy toward the Declaration of Principles, signed by Sisi in 2015, which serves as Cairo’s official recognition of Addis Ababa’s right to construct the dam but does not yield any benefits for Egypt. The declaration was one of several steps taken to kick start negotiations over the dam in 2013. The source believes that there is a pressing need to pursue legal means of voiding the declaration through parliamentary intervention, particularly as it is not a definitively binding agreement.