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Egypt concerned as Ethiopia diverts Nile to build dam

By Mahmoud Fouly (Xinhua)

08:28, May 29, 2013

CAIRO, May 28 (Xinhua) -- As Ethiopia started Tuesday diverting a tributary of the River Nile as a first preparatory step for building its aspired Grand Renaissance Dam, the move raised concerns in Egypt, a downstream Nile Basin country, over its share of river water.

Egypt's presidency said Tuesday that the Ethiopian move "would not negatively affect Egypt's share of Nile water," which was reaffirmed by the irrigation ministry, while Egypt's ambassador to Ethiopia said the dam was "a reality" that Egypt had to cope with.

Although the Egyptian official reactions sound calm, experts believe the Ethiopian move posts real threats to Egypt's share of Nile water and relevant development projects.

"The Ethiopian dam would cause Egypt great harm, including shortage of Nile water, drying agricultural lands, increasing Nile Delta soil salinity and reducing Egypt's High Dam power generation, " said Hani Raslan, head of Sudan and Nile Basin studies department at Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

The expert in African affairs told Xinhua that the design of Ethiopia's intended dam was modified three times, "each time including an increase in the dam height and the capacity of its reservoir."

Raslan warned that the Grand Renaissance Dam, or the Millennium Dam, was part of "an old Ethiopian dream" to impose control over Nile water.

"The Ethiopian actions show that the upstream country has political and strategic ambitions beyond the dam as a development project," Raslan said.

Raslan lamented Egypt's official reaction as "weak and droopy," arguing that the current political leadership attempted to downplay the perils of the dam to avoid major actions to resolve the crisis. "The leadership is currently more busy with political issues," he criticized.

In May 2010, six out of 10 Nile Basin countries signed a controversial agreement for the redistribution of Nile water shares, which was rejected by two downstream states Egypt and Sudan.

Using the agreement, Ethiopia started preparing for construction work of the dam, risking Egypt's and Sudan's annual shares of Nile water (55.5 billion cubic meters and 18.5 billion cubic meters respectively).

The Ethiopian action surprised most Egyptians as it came just a few hours after Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi held talks with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in Addis Ababa on the sidelines of an African summit.

Ahmed Haggag, ex-diplomat and current chairman of the African Society in Cairo, described Ethiopia's diversion of the Blue Nile, one of the River Nile's two basic tributaries, as "a weird and unexpected development," which came after Morsi's meeting with Desalegn and the reassurance of Ethiopia's State Minister for Foreign Affairs Berhane Gebre-Christos that his country would not harm Egypt's share of Nile water.

Haggag argued that Ethiopia should have delayed such a controversial step until it had consultations with the two downstream countries Egypt and Sudan.

"All steps should have waited for the final results of the Egypt-Sudan-Ethiopia tripartite committee that will determine whether or not the dam will greatly harm downstream states," Haggag told Xinhua, noting that the committee included unbiased worldwide senior scientists and experts in the field.

For his part, Robert Iskandar, Egypt's former ambassador to Addis Ababa, said that it was "surprising" that Ethiopia starts building the dam before reaching an understanding with the concerned countries.

He noted that experts differed on the effect of the intended Grand Renaissance Dam on Egypt's share of Nile water.

"Some believe it would cause Egypt a loss of 10 billion cubic meters of its annual share of 55.5 billion cubic meters, while others believe it will not harm Egypt at all," Iskandar told Xinhua.

Egyptian presidency described Tuesday Ethiopia's diversion of the Blue Nile as "a normal step," noting that Egypt was waiting for a report from the tripartite committee on Wednesday, according to which the country would announce its official position.

In 1993, Egypt and Ethiopia signed an agreement regarding the use of Nile water to avoid any activities that might harm each other's interests.

In the 1970s, Ethiopia attempted to build 26 dams and reservoirs on the Blue Nile to save 5.4 billion cubic meters of Nile water but Egypt vetoed the project according to a 1929 treaty.

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