Nile| Ethiopia: Panic over the river ‘diversion’ an Egyptian hoax

(Ministry of Foreign Affairs – weekly bulletin)

In the past few days, Egyptian media has been flooded with fiery rhetoric some of which gives the impression that war between Egypt and Ethiopia is inevitable because of the recent news about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the release of the final report of the International Panel of Experts, set up to study the impact of the Dam and its benefits as well as the harm, if any, on the two downstream countries, Sudan and Egypt.

In fact, the frenzy over the GERD appeared to start when news of the “diversion” of the river was publicized. “Diversion” in this context, of course, is a normal and natural element in the construction of dams. However, to the surprise of viewers, in a live televised national security talk, allegedly televised inadvertently, heavy-weight Egyptian opposition politicians urged the Government of President Morsi, to opt for some violent responses, calling for intelligence and military action, making suggestions of air strikes, of organizing and assisting Ethiopian rebels and even of starting an all-out war. In the long history of the relations between Egypt and Ethiopia, there have been other occasions when Egyptian governments have willfully engaged in war-mongering rhetoric, support for Ethiopia’s enemies and attempts to destabilize Ethiopia. President Morsi did not endorse these comments at the time, but at the beginning of this week in a televised speech he said he would keep “all options” open to defend Egypt’s water supplies from being affected by the GERD, adding “we are not advocates of war, but we will never permit our water security to be threatened.” Prime Minister Qandil told the Shura Council that the issue of access to the Nile water was one of “national security” and “a matter of life and death”.

The outburst of old fashioned war rhetoric and the reaction of the Egyptian government came as a shock to Ethiopia which has been calling for years for cooperation and joint development of the Nile Basin, based on the strong belief, expressed by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, that the Nile is the umbilical cord connecting two great nations. The statements of Egyptian officials and politicians are hardly an acceptable response from any self-respecting government and leadership of a great nation. The attempt to use scare-mongering tactics and intimidation are also misplaced.

What makes the apparently provocative statements from Egypt even more irrelevant was the fact that they were in fact entirely unjustified. Indeed, the absence of a real cause for protest is very apparent to any one who looks at the situation with any care.

To begin with, as already mentioned, the news of the “diversion” of the Nile was given an entirely false ‘spin’ by the media, civic society leaders and politicians. The panic over the news of the “diversion” was however no more than a hoax. The truth is that on May 28th, some days before it was publicized, the flow of the river was diverted by some 500 meters aside from its original bed in order to allow construction of the Dam across the original bed. There was no interruption of any kind to the flow of the river at any point. In other words, what took place on was no more than a mere re-routing of the water, a normal procedure in building a dam and no different from the established norms of the science of dam engineering.

It might be added that this was not a surprise. The three countries which had set up the International Panel of Experts had agreed that the conduct of the Panel’s study would be carried out while the construction of the dam continued. Nor was there any binding obligation on Ethiopia to notify Egypt or any other country of the slight detour in the flow of water which would never have any effect of the amount of water flowing downstream. This sort of brief shifting to allow for construction is something that can occur at any appropriate time during the construction of any dam. The panic that followed the publicity was quite irrational and the outcry that this would mean a reduction in the volume of water reaching Egypt was no more than a complete fiction. The flow of water returns to the old water course after its short detour with the flow unchanged.

Nor did Egypt have any reason to beat war drums over the report of the International Panel of Experts which came out two days after the news of the “diversion”. As any glance at the Panel’s final report makes clear, Egypt should have warmly welcomed the report which finally dispels all concern over potential harm to the downstream countries. As Ethiopia has repeatedly underlined, the establishment of the International Panel of Experts was set up at the initiative of Ethiopia in order to build trust and further consolidate a sense of solidarity among the three countries. As an initiative of the late Prime Minister Meles, the idea behind establishing the Panel was to demonstrate to Egypt and the Sudan the reality of Ethiopia’s commitment to transparency over the GERD. In that sense, the fact that the Panel’s assessment that the Dam will not cause any appreciable harm for downstream countries is a testimony to this commitment. It is also verification of Ethiopia’s repeated assessments showing the GERD’s benefit to all three countries.

The Panel’s final report, as expected, affirmed that the project design met all international standards and offered significant benefits in terms of clean energy, an increase in volume of water from a fall in evaporation, reduced sedimentation reaching the dams of the lower riparian countries and less flooding. More importantly, the report makes it clear that there will be no appreciable harm on the two downstream countries. In these circumstances, it might be expected that the report would have been warmly embraced rather than met with constant attack from Egyptian officials. While Sudan, it might be noted, has fully accepted the report, Egypt has neither made its position clear nor shown any interest in sitting down with the governments of Ethiopia and Sudan to discuss the report as the Panel suggests, in order to conduct further studies in a few areas related to water resources and hydrologic modeling, and otherwise implement its recommendations.

In the final analysis, the only reasonable assessment of the apparent panic in Cairo is that it must be linked to internal domestic political problems. The Egyptian Government has been under fire from a significant part of the population and is apparently trying to use scare tactics to encourage its supporters and keep the growing call for elections at bay. This, however, has the effect of critically undermining its Government’s commitment to equitable utilization of the Nile waters.

Ethiopia has made it very clear that under no circumstances will construction of the GERD be delayed or suspended. If anything, continued efforts at intimidation will only fortify the commitment of the Ethiopian people to the flagship project that they have so warmly embraced.

Indeed, on Wednesday this week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement underlining the Government’s continued commitment to the construction of the GERD. Referring to previous statements on the unhelpful and unnecessary propaganda campaign being carried out by some Egyptian politicians, civil society leaders and political parties about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the Ministry statement noted that “Ethiopia had twice called the Egyptian Ambassador in Addis Ababa to the Foreign Ministry in order to explain the position of his government over these comments, and had indeed requested formal clarification from the Government of Egypt itself. Ethiopia, in turn, made clear its own unshakable belief in friendship, cooperation and mutual benefit as the underlying principles of its relations with all friendly states, including Egypt.

The statement went on “That being said, Ethiopia was deeply frustrated to see further unconstructive propaganda aired about the GERD in the presence of the President, Mohamed Morsi, the Prime Minister, Hisham Qandil, and other high ranking Egyptian officials at the Popular Conference on Egypt’s Rights to Nile Water. Among the baseless allegations aired at the Conference were comments that claimed the Dam posed a danger to the survival of the people of Egypt and malicious suggestions on ways to initiate activities aimed at putting pressure on Ethiopia to halt construction of the GERD. There were, in general, a series of provocative statements attacking both the national interest of Ethiopia and the will of its people to escape poverty. Indeed, a barrage of inaccurate and ill-advised comments, aimed at undermining the report of the International Panel of Experts, were also aired during the Forum. The proposed suggestions of any resort to war or other forms of sabotage are unacceptable and have no place in the 21st century. In this context, Ethiopia would like to make it clear that it expects the Government of Egypt to refrain from all such unacceptable forms of behavior or engagement and work towards greater cooperation between the two countries.”

The statement continued: “Ethiopia affirms that it will not be discouraged by this violent rhetoric. It reiterates in the strongest possible terms that it will not accept any proposal, from Egypt, to halt or delay the construction of the GERD. This apparent attempt to use alleged protests against the GERD as an element of internal domestic politics is against the interests of the people of Egypt. Ethiopia would like to take this opportunity to extend its warmest appreciation to the Government of Sudan for the positive statements it has made about the benefits of the GERD as detailed in the report of the International Panel of Experts. It would hope that others could learn much from the strong stance taken by Sudan in this regard. Ethiopia would like to remind the Government of Egypt that as the report of the International Panel of Experts made very clear; the GERD offers major benefits to Egypt. Ethiopia remains firm in its genuine desire to cooperate with Egypt and foster greater friendship between the two countries.”

As Ethiopia has said again and again, scare tactics are futile. Ethiopia will not bow to such pressure and it will not halt or delay the construction of the GERD. The only way to peace and development for the peoples of the Nile Basin is cooperation; and Ethiopia has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to greater cooperation and dialogued in all matters connected with the Nile Basin, including the GERD.

It is worth noting that the three riparian nations of the Nile account for a gross domestic product (GDP) of 721.3 billion dollars. A large portion (537.8 billion dollars) is contributed by Egypt, while Sudan and Ethiopia run economies with 80.4 billion dollars and 103.1 billion dollars, respectively, but structurally, their economies are largely complementary. The Egyptian economy is driven by a service sector, with a share of GDP ratio of 47.9%, followed by industry (37.4%) and agriculture (14.7%). Ethiopia’s GDP is based on agriculture (46.6%), with services (38.8%) and industry (14.6%). Sudan services provide 43% of GDP, with agriculture (32%) and industry (25%). The Egyptian economy recorded only 2% growth 2011/12 and Sudan saw a fall, while the Ethiopian economy has been at an average of over 10% over the last nine years. There is enough in these economies to create a functional regional economic block and the Nile could serve as a natural link for economic cooperation, based on their respective comparative economic advantages.


Source: A Week in the Horn – the weekly bulletine of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – June 14, 2013 issue, titled “Egypt’s scare tactics: futile and unhelpful”.

Daniel Berhane

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