Renaissance Dam is a fait accompli and it is in everyone’s interest to reach a negotiated solution

11 November 2019
From left to right: Mahmoud Dirir Ghedi (via satellite), Al Jazeera presenter Mostafa Ashoor, Abdelwahab El-Affendi, Abdel Fattah Fayed, and Badr Shafei. [Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, in concert with Al Jazeera Mubasher, organised a panel discussion on Wednesday, 30 October 2019, in Doha, titled “The Renaissance Dam Crisis and Possible Scenarios,” attended by a select group of researchers and experts. Participants concluded that since the dam is scheduled to begin operations next year, it has become a fait accompli, and all three parties—Ethiopia, the source party, as well as Sudan and Egypt—must address this fact and search for practical solutions to mitigate potential harm and realise the anticipated benefit.

The panellists also concluded that Egypt must improve its relations with Sudan, resolve the border dispute involving Halayeb and Shalatin, and support the democratic transition in Sudan in order to bring stability. By so doing, Cairo can find support in Khartoum for vital issues like water. This is important, panellists noted, because Egypt receives 18 billion cubic meters of water from Sudan under the 1959 agreement, and it is critical to maintain this share after water resources diminish once the dam begins operating.

Some panellists also pointed out the dangers of the dam are being exaggerated. The participating Ethiopian panellist explained that under the agreement with Cairo, if there are heavy rains and plentiful floods, the reservoir will quickly fill up, in which case Egypt will not be harmed. In years of drought, Ethiopia will only fill the reservoir within a reasonable period that will also not entail any harm to Egypt.

Finally, panellists noted how the dam is no longer the subject of technical debate, but has become a political issue exploited by both the Egyptian and Ethiopian regimes to settle domestic scores and make political headway.

Exaggerated dangers

The panel discussion was held on Wednesday evening at of the Al Jazeera Media Institute auditorium in Doha. Dr. Abdelwahab El-Affendi, a professor of politics at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, said Egyptians are exaggerating the anticipated danger from the Renaissance Dam and that if Egypt had cooperated with Ethiopia on development projects it would have been better for both countries.

El-Affendi pointed that Egypt’s share of water comes from Blue Nile as well as the White Nile, and that this fact should not be forgotten when discussing water shares.

He also noted the importance of finding practical solutions to resolve the crisis, saying, “In my view, there is the important point that Egypt asked international parties to step in to help mediate, with the purpose of finding international support for both itself and Ethiopia, to compensate and assist them in resolving the dispute.” El-Affendi explained, “The international community could offer financial support to Ethiopia to compensate it for losses over the disputed two-year period for filling up the reservoir. It could also offer support to Egypt, whether financial or technical, as redress for the decrease in water. This could come in the form of projects for the exploitation of groundwater, to compensate farmers who have been harmed, or something similar.”

El-Affendi said that the Renaissance Dam would have numerous benefits for Sudan, including supplies of electricity at reasonable prices. Resolving the problem of the silt that will clog channels and canals requires money, as does regulating the water flow during the Nile floods to prevent losses from the floods.

El-Affendi concluded, “Egypt must expend more diplomatic and technical effort to persuade the world of the harms resulting from the dam—if indeed there are harms—because thus far the Egyptian discourse has not persuaded the international community, whether diplomatically or technically.”

Political advantage

The second panellist, Abdel Fattah Fayed, the editor of Egyptian Affairs at Al Jazeera Arabic, noted that the Renaissance Dam is not the first dam to be built on the Nile and it will not be the last. The problem is not withholding water, for it is impossible to stop and restrain the flow of water in perpetuity. The issue is the period during which the reservoir will be filled, if Ethiopia insists on five years, rather than the seven or ten that Egypt wants. This would cause the loss of some 1 million feddans of agricultural land and impoverish more than five million farmers working in the affected areas. It would also adversely impact Lake Nasser and damage the High Dam due to the paucity of water that would run through the dam’s electricity-generating turbines.

Fayed said that the construction of the dam is mostly completed and as such the dam has become a fait accompli. It is therefore expected that some negotiated settlement will be reached because there is no other option after military action is ruled out. Fayed pointed to the mediation efforts of Russia in this regard, as well as statements from the United States and Israel that they would be willing to help resolve the problem.

Fayed concluded, “It would be better if Ethiopia’s discourse were more flexible and less severe, in order to reach a solution. It should not treat water like a commodity like oil, but as a communal human right, just like air, which the state cannot capture or sell.”

Egypt’s hand

Dr. Badr Shafei, an expert in African affairs, did not diverge greatly from Abdel Fattah Fayed He discussed the harm the dam is expected to do to Egypt, noting that Egypt’s per capita share of water has dropped to 700 cubic meters annually, while the United Nations defines water poverty as 1,000 cubic meters of water annually. He concluded that the share of Nile water that reaches Egypt—about 55 billion cubic meters—barely meets this minimum, especially when we consider that the population of Egypt has reached 100 million. Nevertheless, he said that the sense that the construction of the dam will lead to a water shortage would perhaps not be immediately vindicated upon operation of the dam, considering the current reserves in Lake Nasser. The impact, he said, would be felt in two or three years after the water in the lake is depleted and the water flowing through the High Dam decreases. At that point, everyone in Egypt will keenly feel the problem of the Renaissance Dam.

Shafei reviewed the international conventions regulating the Nile waters and their historical contexts, concluding that they are binding to the present day. Arguments that they are not binding because they were signed in the age of colonialism are irrelevant, he said. Agreements signed in the imperial age must be respected just as border agreements signed in the same age, for example, are respected, to avoid opening a Pandora’s box of never-ending border wars and disputes on the African continent.

Shafei said that Egypt under President Hosni Mubarak had persistently followed the decades-long Foreign Ministry line that no Nile Basin countries should build any dams except after prior consultation and approval from Egypt. Under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, however, Egypt had signed a Declaration of Principles agreement that allowed Ethiopia to build the dam as an act of national sovereignty and in the belief that it would not harm other states. Shafei said that Egypt hastily signed the declaration before completing the necessary consultations and studies on the anticipated adverse impact of the dam. He concluded that the Egyptian parliament could reject the Declaration of Principles and refuse to ratify it.

Shafei concluded by reiterating the need for Egypt to improve its ties with Sudan in numerous aspects and resolve all outstanding problems with the country, most importantly the Halayeb and Shalatin border dispute, He urged Egypt to support the Sudanese democratic transition, which would bring security and stability and benefits to both Sudan and Egypt. This would also induce Khartoum to stand by Egypt in negotiations over the Renaissance Dam, compensating Sudan for the anticipated advantages of the dam.

He also noted that Egypt benefits from Sudan’s water surplus, which is expected to decrease after the construction of the dam. He pointed out that Sudan’s share under the 1955 agreement is 18 billion cubic meters and that Egypt uses about 6 billion cubic meters of this amount every year. Cairo thus needs to improve its relations with its neighbour to ensure the continued flow of this important quantity of water.

An Ethiopian perspective

The final panellist spoke from Addis Ababa through a satellite link. Ambassador Mahmoud Dirir Ghedi, an advisor to the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry, discussed his country’s stance on the Renaissance Dam. He said that the water shares inscribed in international treaties concluded in the colonial age did not take Ethiopia’s interests into account, although 80 percent of Nile waters fall on its territory and it has a right to use them.

The ambassador reminded panellists that Sudan and Egypt both built dams on the Nile without consulting Ethiopia, concluding that Ethiopia has a right to build the Renaissance Dam without consulting anyone provided it does not harm another party.
Ghedi pointed to the anticipated benefits of the dam for both his country and Sudan. Turning to Egypt and its fears of reduced water supplies, he said, “We have informed the Egyptians that in the event of heavy rains and Nile floods, we will fill the reservoir in a reasonable time period that is advantageous to us, because in this case Egypt will suffer no harm. In the event of light rains and flooding and in drought years, we have agreed with Cairo to extend the period needed to fill the reservoir to avoid harm.”

Ghedi addressed statements by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that if Egypt thinks about launching a war on Ethiopia, his country would be able to mobilise millions on the front line. “The translation of Abiy Ahmed’s words was not accurate,” he said. “Both sides, Egyptian and Ethiopian, agreed in Sochi, under Russian auspices, to return to the negotiating table.” He affirmed that his country is dealing with all Nile Basin states openly and clearly and that it had submitted documents pertaining to the Renaissance Dam to the Egyptians. He added that an Egyptian minister had visited the project site to see it for himself. Ghedi concluded, “The only solution is negotiations and more negotiations without impediment, and we will continue on this track.