(Borzou Daragahi and Katrina Manson)
Egypt’s premier has described his country’s access to its share of the river Nile as a matter of “national security” and called Ethiopia’s construction of a hydroelectric dam “an act of defiance”, heightening tensions between the two nations.
In an address on Monday to the upper house of parliament broadcast live on television, Hisham Qandil, the prime minister, said his government would not give up “a single drop” of Nile water. He said he would use “diplomatic, legal and other solutions to defend its water security” in the face of construction of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam project, which many Egyptians fear will divert water from their largely desert country.
“It is a project that challenges Egypt,” Mr Qandil said. “And at no point have we denied other Nile basin countries their rights. On the contrary, we have proven many times that we uphold our brother countries’ interests. However, no one should imagine that we will not act once someone tries to take our water resources.”
Egyptians have protested against the $4.8bn dam project, which they fear will reduce the country’s water supply, damage its fragile agrarian sector and ignite more social unrest in a country that has already undergone a tumultuous revolution.
The main tributaries, the Blue Nile and the White Nile, rise in the highlands of sub-Saharan African nations and eventually converge at Khartoum in Sudan to form the giant river that cuts through Egypt to the Mediterranean. The Blue Nile and the other rivers rising in the Ethiopian highlands contribute between 80 and 90 per cent of the Nile’s flow. Nearly 95 per cent of Egyptians live along the Nile; its waters have a special hold on the nation’s psyche.
Egypt and Sudan signed a 1959 agreement dividing the use of Nile waters between them. Cairo has resisted any subsequent change to the agreement, to which upstream states were not signatories, and when Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania in 2010 signed an accord seeking more access to the Nile it was staunchly opposed by Egypt and Sudan.
Ethiopia has argued the dam will not affect water flow downstream and may even assist downstream neighbours Sudan and Egypt by regulating water flow, reducing siltation and generating power. The hydropower dam is intended to produce 6,000MW, some it for sale to other nations. Sudan is already buying power from Ethiopia.
The Egyptians’ debate of the dam project has reached fever pitch, especially after Ethiopians diverted part of the Blue Nile in preparation for the dam project . Many Egyptians accuse Israel and the US of being behind the dam, which is being built by the Italian engineering company Salini.
Last week politicians consulting President Mohamed Morsi on the matter began characterising the dam as an act of war and suggested that Egypt sabotage it.
“If diplomacy fails to change the situation, we shall resort to international law and if this is unsuccessful we will resort to any option you can imagine,” said Saad Kataatni, a leader of Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement and its Freedom and Justice party.
Ethiopian officials asked Egypt’s ambassador to explain such “hostile remarks” and have vowed to continue with the project, to which civil servants and many others lend a month of their wages every year.
Mr Qandil, a loyalist to Islamist Mr Morsi, called for co-operation and diplomacy rather than conflict with other Nile nations over the river’s bounty of water and mineral resources. “Our co-operation should be based on mutual benefit,” he said.
The contents of a report on the dam’s impact conducted by a tripartite commission of Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian officials have yet to be fully disclosed. Mr Qandil said Egyptian studies concluded that the dam project would adversely affect the country’s agricultural and electricity sectors. He said Ethiopia had failed to provide enough data, conduct necessary environmental impact studies or assess the potential consequences of the dam’s collapse.
“The fact that the construction is still going on, despite the lack of enough studies, raises deep concerns and worries that make us disagree with the construction,” Mr Qandil said. “Egypt when dealing with other Nile basin countries understands their need for development but they also balance that with not harming Egypt’s water security.”
* Originally published on the Financial Timeson June 10, 2013, titled “Egypt’s PM raises stakes over Ethiopia’s new dam on the Nile”, authored by Borzou Daragahi and Katrina Manson.
[A reader of this blog made this article available for Ethiopian readers]