Some local media outlets in Egypt, which do not care much about international affairs, have suddenly decided to report how Cape Town, the coastal South African city, is at risk of running out of water and is preparing for “Day Zero” — expected on July 9 — when the city’s system will completely run dry.
This was not limited to press publications, but some institutions with multimedia activities began warning Egyptians through SMS messages and social media platforms of a similar day. They warned the crisis will be caused by the people’s water consumption habits, which waste billions of cubic meters of water, and not by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
The issue of uncontrolled water consumption comes at a time when the Renaissance Dam dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia is escalating and makes a water crisis, as well as an escalation with Ethiopia, inevitable.
This also confirms that the dam will be built despite Egypt’s objections, leaving Cairo one option: Negotiating improved terms for storing water behind the dam and filling the reservoir over a longer period of time so that its negative impact on Egypt is reduced as much as possible.
Egypt is following the situation in Ethiopia after the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and the declaration of a state of emergency amid rising tensions. Cairo hopes that the political situation in Addis Ababa positively affects the progress of the dam negotiations between the two states, but this did not stop Egypt from continuing its campaign for rationalizing water consumption and reducing the amount wasted.
Desalegn became prime minister in 2012 after the death of Meles Zenawi, who came to power in 1991 after toppling the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam.
After Desalegn’s resignation, a state of emergency was declared — the second time since 2016 that Ethiopia has issued an emergency decree. The previous occasion was the product of widespread anti-government protests, which were the largest in 25 years and were met with violent repression, killing at least 940 people, according to the Ethiopia Human Rights Commission.
I met with Desalegn three years ago and comparing him to Zenawi, whom I met five years earlier, was not in his favor. Desalegn was a transitional prime minister from the southern province, representing a minority with little influence. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, founded by the late PM Zenawi, is the one with real influence. It is in fact the party that holds the keys to power in the country.
The resignation of Desalegn makes it seem like he had reached a crossroads with the most powerful people in the Tigrayan Front, which is the most nationalist/fundamentalist party in the Tigray Region trying to maintain its power in the country.
The question raised in Cairo is: Will the prime minister’s resignation directly or indirectly affect the Renaissance Dam negotiations?
The focus in Ethiopia during this period is expected to be on internal affairs and the installation of a new PM, which may lead to more flexibility in the negotiations, especially as Egypt’s demands are not big — at least from an Egyptian point of view.
Cairo has acknowledged the reality of the dam’s construction and is dealing with it as an inevitable fact. All it seeks now is to control the period in which the water will be stored so that it does not affect the Nile’s flow into the country. Egypt is also seeking to have Ethiopia rethink the reservoir’s capacity, which was supposed to be 14 billion cubic meters but rose to 74 billion cubic meters in its latest design.
Cairo hopes political change in Ethiopia will be a positive factor in the Renaissance Dam negotiations, while realizing that a crisis is inevitable and the solution lies in changing Egyptians’ consumption habits.
But there is another point of view that believes there will not be a fundamental change in Ethiopia’s stance. The people of Ethiopia and the organs of the state, especially the army, believe the dam is one of the country’s greatest projects and consider Egypt to be a “non-friendly” country with plans to destroy their national project. Adopters of this point of view explain that, since the days of Zenawi, the Ethiopian government has been promoting the idea that the dam project would save Ethiopia from poverty and turn it into a developed country.
Egypt can only observe the situation and anticipate the outcomes while continuing to communicate with the new government. There may be negative impacts on the dam negotiations because their course will be hindered and may be postponed until the situation is stabilized, while construction work continues.
The first impact was the postponement of the tripartite meeting between the foreign ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, which was set to be held on Feb. 14-15, to a date that will be determined by Ethiopia once matters are stabilized.
The dam negotiations among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan stalled last November and no agreement was reached on the adoption of the introductory report based on the technical studies carried out by French consultants. Sudan and Ethiopia refused to accept the introductory report while Egypt approved it.
Desalegn made his first official visit to Egypt in mid-January to discuss ways of progressing the stalled dam negotiations. Observers said they were positive the visit would result in the resumption of talks.
After that, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi visited Addis Ababa to participate in the 30th African Union summit and hold a meeting with Desalegn and Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir on Jan. 30. After the summit, El-Sisi said: “There will be no harm to the citizens of the three countries regarding the water issue.”
Political unrest in Addis Ababa is recurring, and Egypt must prepare to deal with any changes.
Those who expect Ethiopia’s stance to mellow are suggesting that Desalegn has exhausted the Ethiopians’ finances by initiating the construction of the Renaissance Dam. Ethiopians need projects that serve them and not large ones that are economically burdensome and have no positive outcomes. Therefore Egypt can take advantage of the political situation in Ethiopia and support the country’s people, which will result in unexpected political gains.
However, it seems Cairo has become more realistic in dealing with the current situation and is convinced that a water crisis is inevitable, and that relying on hindering the dam’s construction is useless. Therefore, Cairo continues to prepare for the future.
El-Sisi recently announced that a major wastewater treatment plant is being built to avoid a future crisis, hinting that the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia could affect Egypt’s share of Nile waters. Speaking during the inauguration of infrastructure and housing projects, El-Sisi said: “We will not allow a water problem to materialize in Egypt. Water must be secured for everyone. We are aware (of all the possibilities) and are prepared.”
Egypt hopes that the political changes in Ethiopia will be a positive factor in the Renaissance Dam negotiations but, at the same time, realizes that a water crisis is inevitable and the solution lies in changing Egyptians’ water consumption habits, so that no Egyptian city has to announce its own “Day Zero.”
• Abdellatif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide.