Saturday, September 13, 2014

Moves to contain waterfears Egypt Al-Ahram Weekly

Confidence-building measures are key to resolving the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam, writes Doaa El-Bey
Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Hossam Moghazi has been invited by Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to visit Addis Ababa and the Renaissance Dam construction site this month.

The fourth tripartite meeting, held in Khartoum last month, Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri’s visit to Addis Ababa last week and Moghazi’s trip are part of ongoing confidence-building measures between Addis Ababa and Cairo.

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met with Desalegn in June, and is expected to do so again on the fringes of this month’s UN General Assembly meeting in New York.

As diplomatic efforts to contain the political fall-out from the dam project continue, hammering out technical problems is being left to the consulting companies and the committee of experts formed following the fourth tripartite meeting.

“The ongoing negotiations do not mean Cairo agrees to the dam going ahead without changes to its design,” stresses Maghawri Shehata, a professor of hydrogeology and water resources. “There are very sharp differences that will be addressed when the consulting companies finish their work.”

Helmi Sharawy, a former director of the Arab and African Research Centre in Cairo, sees the recent flurry of diplomatic activity as a positive sign.

“Differences are likely to arise because Addis Ababa is basically keen to build the dam without any changes to its design and Cairo is strongly pushing for changes that will minimise its downstream impact. What has emerged recently, however, is a will on both sides to forge an acceptable compromise,” Sharawy told Al-Ahram Weekly.

In the fourth round of talks held last month in Khartoum, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed that a six-month period was necessary to thoroughly assess the impact of the dam. The talks, headed by the water ministers of the three countries, resulted in an agreement to hire international experts to review the studies of the consulting companies and to form a committee of 12 experts, three from each country, to review their findings.

The outcome of the meeting, says Shehata, was extremely positive: it will allow Egyptian experts to take part in any impact assessments of the dam and puts in place a mechanism whereby the finding of the consulting companies will be subject to rigorous review.

“One outstanding issue is whether the final reports will be binding on Ethiopia or not. Egypt has said they will be but Addis Ababa has remained silent on the issue,” Shehata said.

The third round of tripartite talks, held in January, ended without an agreement being reached. The first and second rounds, held in November and December 2013, failed even to identify the points that needed to be further discussed.

The fourth round followed the meeting between Al-Sisi and Desalegn on the sidelines of the African Union summit in Malabo, the capital of Guinea Bissau, in June. Al-Sisi said he had received commitments from Desalegn that the dam would have no negative impact on Egypt’s share of water during its construction and subsequent operation.

Following the meeting, Egypt and Ethiopia announced that a joint committee would be established to streamline negotiations. Ethiopia acknowledged the central importance of the Nile to Egypt, Egypt acknowledged Ethiopia’s right to pursue development projects, and both parties committed themselves to the principles enshrined in international law.

Egypt, says Sharawy, should also pursue the possibility of integrated development projects with Ethiopia and with other Nile basin countries. He points out that Congo has not yet signed the Entebbe Agreement, and that Sudan’s position on the dam appears to be shifting.

Ethiopia is the source of 85 per cent of the Nile’s water. Egypt has repeatedly expressed its concern that the $4.6 billion dam project, which Ethiopia intends to build on the Blue Nile, could diminish the river’s flow. Ethiopia insists that the project will not reduce the amount of water that flows to Egypt.

A 1959 agreement gives Egypt and Sudan the lion’s share of Nile water — 55.5 billion cubic metres and 18 billion cubic metres respectively — and the right to veto any projects built along the river.

Ethiopia, together with other Nile Basin states, is seeking to replace the 1959 agreement with the Entebbe Agreement, which Addis Ababa claims provides for a fairer distribution of water. Cairo and Khartoum have both refused to sign the Entebbe Agreement. South Sudan signed in April 2013, leaving Congo as the only upstream country that has yet to sign.

A tripartite technical committee, including Egyptian, Ethiopian, Sudanese and international experts, began its assessment of the impact the Renaissance Dam project on Sudan and Egypt in 2011.

The committee’s final report, issued last year, said that preliminary studies conducted on the dam’s impact were insufficient to justify construction and more studies were needed.

Ethiopia’s foreign minister was scheduled to visit Cairo last July but the trip was cancelled in the wake of the uprising that led to Mohamed Morsi’s removal.

“Both Cairo and Addis Ababa are relying on expert opinion to ease tensions and open channels for dialogue,” says Sharawy.

The consulting companies and other experts are expected to complete their reports in the next six months.

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