Is Egypt softening stance toward Ethiopia’s mega-dam?

News & Insights
Aug 6, 2013

After months of heightened tensions and exchanges of occasionally bellicose rhetoric between Egypt and Ethiopia over the latter’s plan to build a massive hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile, the diplomatic row between two of Africa’s most powerful states might be cooling.  Egypt’s minister for water resources and irrigation, Dr. Muhammad ‘Abd al-Mutalib, told press yesterday that he planned to meet with his counterparts from Sudan and Ethiopia after this week’s ‘Eid al-Fitr holiday. A technical committee made up of experts from Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia conducted a technical study of the proposed dam’s impact on down-river water use; the meeting Minister ‘Abd al-Mutalib announced would be focused on reviewing that study and planning the implementation of its recommendations.

The announcement was the latest—and most encouraging—development in the saga surrounding Ethiopia’s mega-dam and a much broader plan for regional cooperation on water use issues. The story starts (for our purposes) in 1959, when two young African republics—Nasser’s Egypt and the former Anglo-Egyptian colony of Sudan—signed a treaty on Nile River water use in which the two nations effectively divided the entire output of the Nile between themselves according to a fixed proportional formula. The treaty also stipulated that it was up to Egypt and Sudan to allocate water rights to other riparian states, and that the two signatories would maintain a unified position in any future negotiations with their up-river neighbors.

As time went on and the up-river states started to develop and demand more of the water that flowed through their territories, it became clear that the order established in 1959 was no longer satisfactory. In 1999, after a number of smaller multilateral initiatives, the states of the Nile established the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), a mechanism designed to facilitate regional cooperation on all water development issues. The NBI was meant from the outset to be a temporary arrangement until the states could agree upon a treaty establishing  a permanent regional body. The Agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework (CFA herein), which was drafted by the NBI members in 2009, is the mechanism by which such a regime will hypothetically be achieved.

Out of the NBI’s ten members—Burundi, D.R. Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda—only six (Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, and Burundi) have signed the CFA, and only Ethiopia has ratified it. It appears Uganda is now on course for ratification as well.  During the drafting process in 2009, Egypt and Sudan objected to language in the CFA (Article 14 b) which would have committed the parties “not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin State.” Egypt and Sudan wanted to replace this with “not to adversely affect the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile Basin State.” In other words, Egypt and Sudan wanted the new agreement to uphold their 1959 treaty.  At present, of course, South Sudan cannot be counted upon to follow the lead of its northern neighbor.  Even Khartoum’s position could change. Egypt’s demands for protection of its historical rights became more strident  with the launch of Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam project. It is not clear how much consultation with other NBI states took place during Ethiopia’s planning phase, but at present the project is being financed entirely by Ethiopia, even though it could potentially benefit other states, including Egypt. Egypt has asked, since the beginning of the project, for assurances from Ethiopia that the dam would not decrease the amount of water available for use in Egypt. Sudan seems to have been mainly on the sidelines, though it has expressed solidarity with the Egyptian position. As work on the dam accelerated and Ethiopia prepared to divert water from the Blue Nile (starting in late May 2013), Egypt’s opposition became more agressive. A number of figures inside and peripheral to the government of Muhammad Morsi were particularly bellicose. In June 2013, a technical team comprised of experts from Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia completed a study which seemed to be inconclusive concerning the dam’s potential impact. The report indicated that further study would be needed to bear out Ethiopia’s claim that the dam would not adversely impact Sudan and Egypt. As the annual meeting of NBI states neared (held in Juba in the last week of June), the extreme voices within the Morsi government ramped up their threats—with President Morsi himself promising that Egyptians would defend the river “with their blood”—and Ethiopia escalated in its own way, by announcing that its parliament had ratified the CFA.

The end of the NBI meeting corresponded roughly with the fall of the Morsi government in Egypt. The African Union suspended Egypt’s post-coup government from the continental body, as required by the AU constitution, but the new government seems to have continued to participate in NBI activities, and has thus far struck a  more conciliatory tone. But the new government is on shaky ground in terms of popular and international legitimacy, and it may prove more difficult than Minister ‘Abd al-Mutalib expects to push a Nile use agreement past the Egyptian public, who are more politically aware and wary of foreign threats than ever before.