Egypt is pursuing closer relations with African states as it seeks to resolve ongoing concerns about the Renaissance Dam, writes Doaa El-Bey

“Achieving the interests of all parties and causing no harm should be the governing rule of relations between Nile Basin countries,” Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said in a statement in Kigali following a meeting with his Sudanese counterpart Ibrahim Ghandour.

Working to boost relations and achieve mutual interests governs Egypt’s relations with African states in general, and with Nile Basin states in particular. Egypt’s participation in the African Union (AU) Summit, and in last week’s Nile Basin Initative (NBI) meeting, is part of this ongoing programme. The latter was particularly significant since it took place days before the scheduled signing of the contract with the two consultancy firms that have been contracted to conduct studies of the impact of the Renaissance Dam.

The dam, long a cause of difference between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, was also a subject of discussion at the 27th AU Summit held in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. On Monday President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in Kigali on the sidelines of the summit. Al-Sisi also held bilateral meetings with other African leaders, including the presidents of Sudan and Somalia, in a drive to enhance relations.

The two-day AU Summit officially opened on Sunday. Among the topics discussed were establishing an African free trade zone, African integration and improving the conditions of women.

Egypt’s attendance of the NBI meeting in Uganda signified a shift in recent policy. The NBI is a regional inter-governmental partnership that seeks to develop the River Nile in a cooperative manner, ensuring sustainable socio-economic development and fair use of Nile Basin water resources. Egypt has not attended an NBI meeting since the signing of the Entebbe agreement which Cairo rejects on the grounds that it will deprive both Egypt and Sudan of the water quotas guaranteed in earlier agreements.

Attending multilateral meetings and improving Cairo’s relations with African states, especially Nile Basin states, is now being prioritised given the speed of the construction of the Renaissance Dam, says a diplomat who talked on condition of anonymity.

“Yet unfortunately this new approach has not borne any fruits until now. The technical track is not progressing as quickly as it should. Technical studies of the dam’s impact will not start before the end of this month at the earliest even though the dam will begin partial operation soon. It’s possible the results of the studies will only appear after the dam becomes fully operational in October 2017,” he said.

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are expected to hold a meeting of foreign and irrigation ministers within days to sign the contract with the French consultants BRL and Artelia. The consultancies are being contracted to study the hydraulic, economic and environmental impacts of the dam and its effect on the flow of eater to Sudan and Egypt. The three states are also expected to discuss the operating process of the dam and the timetable for the filling of its reservoir. The studies are expected to take between nine and 12 months to be completed.

The contract, which was due to be signed months ago, has been repeatedly delayed. It was finally initialled in December following several rounds of arduous negotiations conducted by officials from the three countries.

Meghawri Shehata, an expert on water issues, argues priority should now be given to two issues: the initial filling of the reservoir and the annual schedule for the running of the dam.

“These are the two issues that can ease the impact of the initial operating of the dam and ensure Egypt does not face water shortages,” he says.

Ethiopia says the lake behind the dam will reach its capacity in five to seven years. Egypt is seeking to prolong this timetable to 12 years. Cairo argues that if the timetable is implemented as Addis Ababa wants it will reduce the Nile water flowing to Egypt by up to 25 per cent.

The dam has long been a bone of contention between Cairo and Addis Ababa. Egypt has repeatedly expressed its concerns over the dam’s effect on the flow of Nile water. Ethiopia insists the dam’s main purpose is to generate electricity and it will not negatively affect Egypt’s water share.

In December last year Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia signed the Khartoum Agreement which stipulates that work on filling the reservoir can begin only after all technical studies are complete. It also allows field visits to the construction site by Egyptian and Sudanese experts.

In a confidence-building measure in March 2015 Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed a declaration of principles on the dam that included the provision that none of the signatories would harm the interests of the others.

The dam will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant with a storage capacity of 74 billion cubic metres of water. Partial operation is likely to start by the middle of this year.

Egypt depends on the Nile for 95 per cent of its water needs.

Under a treaty agreed in 1959 Egypt receives 55.5 billion cubic metres of Nile water and Sudan 18 billion cubic metres.