In the three years since construction began on the 1.8km Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam across the Blue Nile River, Egypt and Ethiopia have been engaged in a war of words over its potential impacts.
Ethiopia believes the massive dam will herald an era of prosperity, spurring growth and attracting foreign currency with the export of power to neighbouring countries. But Egypt has raised concerns about the downstream effects, as the Blue Nile supplies the Nile with about 85 percent of its water.
Both sides say they seek a negotiated solution, but they remain at loggerheads, with negotiations stalled. Ethiopia insists the dispute must be resolved through negotiations between the two parties, with Mahamoud Dirir, the ambassador to Egypt, noting in a statement last month that “there are only two… countries in the entire world which are well-placed to mediate between Egypt and Ethiopia.”
Egypt, meanwhile, is quietly lobbying the international community for support against what it says is a violation of international law, diplomatic sources confirmed to Al Jazeera.
“Egypt plans to take actions to escalate the situation against Ethiopia,” said a western diplomat in Cairo, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But the exact implications of these actions [are] still unclear.”
Egypt’s main concern is water security, as the country faces a future of increasing scarcity. Nearly all of Egypt’s water comes from the Nile, and its population of 83 million is growing at nearly two percent annually.
Already, water shortages cause problems. The most common response is the reuse of wastewater in agriculture, often untreated. The 2005 UNDP Human Development Report for Egypt stated that “poor water quality affects both health and land productivity with damage costs estimated to have reached LE 5.35 billion [$7.7m] or 1.8 percent of GDP.”
The Ethiopian dam is an issue that can bear no compromises.
Doaa Ezzat Zaki al-Agha, a water management specialist conducting research in the Nile delta, said five members of her family died from liver disease, which she believes resulted from poor drinking water. “They have no other choices, only the Nile water,” she said.
Mohamed Abdel Wahab, a farmer from a small village of 300 families near the delta city of Alexandria, an area that regularly experiences water shortages, believes the government should be “more strict with Egypt’s sovereign right to water” – and his view reflects that of many Egyptians. Any threat to the country’s water supply is treated as an existential threat. Accordingly, Egypt has long opposed upstream development projects on the Nile. In the past this prevented Ethiopia from receiving money from international organisations like the World Bank, which has a “no objection” rule for projects it funds. Now, Ethiopia is funding the $4.8bn project itself.
Tensions peaked in May 2013 when Ethiopia began diverting the Blue Nile. Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi told a national conference: “We will defend each drop of Nile water with our blood if necessary.”
Today, statements from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry are more conciliatory, with spokesperson Badr Abdelatty saying he hoped the situation could be resolved through “cooperation”. A recent statement by Abdelatty on the State Information Service website, however, adds: “The Ethiopian dam is an issue that can bear no compromises.”
The last negotiations in Addis Ababa in February stalled over whether international experts should be included in a technical committee being formed to implement the recommendations of a May 2013 report on the dam. Written by an international panel of experts (IPOE), the report proposed more extensive assessment of the dam’s potential transboundary environmental and social impacts. “We must have an international member on the committee and the Ethiopians refused this,” said Khaled Wasif, a spokesperson for the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources.
As construction of the dam progresses – it is already 30 percent complete – Ethiopia has less incentive to negotiate and Egypt has less leverage. With negotiations at an impasse, Egypt is petitioning other countries for support, sources say. By referring to supposed breaches of international law, Egypt hopes to pressure donor communities who have investments in or influence on Ethiopia, according to the western diplomat in Cairo.
Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy has toured Africa and Europe in recent months and Nile water has been on the agenda. During a trip to Italy at the start of February, Fahmy asked the Italian company contracted to build the dam to halt construction. A Foreign Ministry letter to the Salini Construttori company, obtained by Al Jazeera, states: “The government of Egypt calls upon the EU Commission, and the esteemed European governments, to give due consideration to the accountability of business enterprise of European nationality for their conduct in supporting Ethiopia’s projects affecting the Nile river downstream states.”
It continues: “Egypt also calls upon the government of Italy, to invite Salini construttori to suspend construction works at the GERDP [Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project] until the recommendations of the IPOE Report are implemented.”
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry, the EU delegation in Cairo and the Italian embassy in Cairo declined to comment on the note. A spokesman for the Italian embassy said: “On this aspect we don’t feel like replying on their behalf [of the Egyptian foreign ministry]. If they don’t want to talk about it, it is fine for us as well.”
Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan should all agree on the principles which they agree on before trying to take refuge or shelter from the principles of international water law.
According to the diplomat in Cairo, Egypt has also lobbied the US, China, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Japan, as well as international organisations such as the World Bank. Spokespeople for all of these governments and organisations declined to comment, with the exception of the Japanese embassy in Cairo, which denied being approached by Egypt on the issue.
Until recently, Egypt has relied on a “historic right” and colonial-era treaties to defend its water share.
“This position is absolutely untenable,” said Owen McIntyre, a professor of international water law at University College Cork, noting the colonial-era agreements “completely ignore upper riparian states”.
Today, Egypt’s position has evolved, with the government quoting “widely respected” principles of international law. “International watercourses are governed by a set of agreed legal rules and principles,” Abdelatty said. “Among these widely respected rules and principles is that of the equitable and reasonable utilisation of the river, the ‘no harm’ rule, and the prior notification rule.”
However, Egypt’s interpretation differs from that of its neighbour and much of the international community, McIntyre said, noting the principle is generally formulated in terms of “significant harm”.
The May 2013 IPOE report concluded that despite more studies being needed, long-term effects of the dam were unlikely to harm Egypt. In the short term, however, less water will reach Egypt as the reservoir fills.
While Ethiopia says it is open to negotiating the period over which it fills the reservoir, Egypt insists it will be harmed regardless. A country’s dependence on water is the primary factor by which harm is evaluated, McIntyre said, and Egypt insists it is a water-scarce country. “The problem is that when you look at Egypt’s use of Nile water, it is actually rather wasteful,” McIntyre said.
The harm principle is just one factor to be considered alongside the obligation on states to cooperate in the reasonable and equitable utilisation of transboundary watercourses, he added.
Egypt’s history of cooperation is not strong. The Nile Basin Initiative, a partnership of Nile riparian states formed in 1999 and supported by the World Bank, aimed to create a cooperative framework agreement for the management of Nile water. But Egypt refused to sign any agreement that did not guarantee its current share of Nile water.
In addition, Egypt previously objected to the very principles it now advocates. It did not support the UN Watercourses Convention 1997, which codified the principles of transboundary water management. “Egypt cannot get help through international water law as Egypt herself did not acknowledge these principles historically,” said Muhammad Mizanur Rahaman, a professor of international water law at Asia Pacific University in Bangladesh.
By acting unilaterally, “Ethiopia is now, ironically, following the same path as Egypt did before” when it constructed the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, Rahaman noted. “Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan should all agree on the principles which they agree on before trying to take refuge or shelter from the principles of international water law.”