The Renaissance Dam: Egypt and Sudan have a few hard options

“Thirst is coming.” The words did not leave the mouths of thousands of citizens who realise the danger represented by Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam and its second filling in July. After years of failed negotiations and Ethiopian reluctance, only a few months are remaining before the second filling, which will have negative effects on Egypt and Sudan according to the statements of both countries.

Russia was the last international party Egypt resorted to after Biden’s US administration which showed apathy towards the crisis. However, the statements of Russia’s FM, Sergey Lavrov, during his visit to Cairo days ago, were discreet and asserted the importance of negotiations away from a military solution.

Egypt’s discourse has escalated. Over a week ago, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi announced that Egypt’s water rights are “a red line.” Al-Sisi asserted that any violation of Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water will provoke a strong response that will affect the stability of the entire region.

Al-Sisi’s statements were followed by others made by Sameh Shoukry, who said that Egypt will not accept any harm against the water rights of Egypt and Sudan. Egypt’s FM asserted that Egypt will move if “real harm” was caused by the Renaissance Dam, pointing out that his country has various ways it can protect its water safety.

Shoukry stressed on the absence of Ethiopian will to solve the problem caused by its dam, and admitted for the first time that negotiations had proved to be futile: “Ethiopia attempted to disclaim any obligation, and aborted efforts for agreement in spite of resilience shown by Egypt and Sudan,” said Shoukry.

Mutual escalation

The Egyptian escalation began after the failure of negotiations in Kinshasa. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said that the negotiations over the Renaissance Dam in Kinshasa achieved no progress and ended without an agreement on a new date to resume negotiations.

Ethiopia refused Sudan’s suggestions, which were supported by Egypt, of forming an international quartet with USA, EU, UN and the African Union, led by the Democratic Congo, which is the current chair of the AU. “This undoubtedly confirms the resilience and responsibility Egypt and Sudan demonstrated,” said the statement of Egypt’s Foreign Ministry. “But Ethiopia refused the suggestion, which has led to the failure of the negotiations.”

Later, Egypt’s FM, Sameh Shoukry, sent a letter to the UN Secretary-General, the presidency of UN Security Council and the president of the UN General Assembly, explaining all dimensions of the Renaissance Dam crisis. Shoukry also called António Guterres to update him about the crisis, stressing on Egypt’s constants including the necessity of a binding deal over the rules of operating the dam. Egypt demanded the UN play a role in supporting negotiations for a binding deal, and to support the AU in solving the Renaissance Dam crisis.

On the other side, Ethiopia accused, via the spokesman of its foreign ministry, Dina Mufti, the two downstream countries of planning to internationalise the crisis outside the African framework. Ethiopia blames the failure of the negotiations on Egypt and Sudan. “Sudan does not work for its interests but for the interests of another party,” said Mufti. “This became obvious when both downstream countries refused Ethiopia’s invitation to send operators to the dam for an information exchange.” Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry accused Sudan’s military of linking the negotiations over the Renaissance Dam to the border conflict.

Egypt asserted that Ethiopia’s proposal of an information exchange mechanism conflicts with the decisions of the African summits held on the Renaissance Dam, which stressed on the necessity of a binding deal over the rules of operating the dam. Egypt’s ministry of irrigation considered the Ethiopian suggestion a clear attempt to extract an Egyptian approval on the second filling in absence of a binding deal. Egypt asserted its refusal against any unilateral measures made by Ethiopia to impose the status quo on the two downstream countries.

War drums knock

General Ma’moun Abu Nawwar, military expert and strategist, explained that the Renaissance Dam crisis became an existential threat to Egypt and that the Egyptian people could really face thirst and starvation. “The problem is that all political and diplomatic options available to Egypt and Sudan have been consumed,” said Abu Nawwar in an interview with DW Arabic TV. “There is hard Ethiopian obstinacy and absolute refusal of a binding deal, so the military option stands out.”

Abu Nawwar did not exclude for Egypt and Sudan to go to UN Security Council under articles no. 36 and 38, what could lead to binding decisions on the parties of the conflict, but he expressed his concern regarding the shortage of time, “Egypt and Sudan came under the control of the Ethiopian decision.”

According to Abu Nawwar, Egypt needs to use Sudanese land if it wants to strike the dam. An air strike could be carried out using bouncing bombs that release shockwaves cracking the dam in a calculated dose to protect Sudan from a tsunami flood. The spokesman of the Egyptian armed forces issued a video showing Egypt’s air forces training on such tactics, but Abu Nawwar adds that Egypt is hesitant to wage more wars.

Khaled Alshakrawi, professor of African Studies in Mohamed VI Polytechnic University, outweighed that the conflicting parties could reach a temporary deal, as Ethiopia suffers critical situation in Tigray and tensions in its relations with Eritrea. The expert in African affairs believes that the USA could sponsor a settlement between the three countries, as USA has strong ties with all of them.

The expert of African affairs sees that Ethiopia became weaker with the regression of the Chinese and Emirati influence and Democratic Congo’s assumption of the chair of the AU. On the other hand, Alshakrawi excluded a direct military strike against the dam regarding the several consequences that hinder such an option.

Similarly, Hani Raslan, the expert of African affairs in Al-Ahram Centre of Political and Strategic Studies, excludes a direct war. “Instead, a multi-level conflict with various tools could happen,” said Raslan in a TV interview.

In response, Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry accused Egypt and Sudan of threatening Ethiopia. “Ethiopia also is ready for all options,” said the statement of the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry.

Egypt in danger

Egypt’s Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel Aaty, pointed out that a reduction of only 1 billion cubic metres of Egypt’s share of Nile water, which is estimated at 55 billion cubic metres, will affect the lives of 200,000 families in Egypt, who depend on agriculture. “We have 40 million people living on agriculture,” said Abdel Aaty in a TV interview, “so we will not allow any violation of our rights in Nile water and we are ready for all scenarios.”

Egypt demands filling the dam, which accommodates 74 billion cubic metres of water, over 10 years regarding years of drought, while Ethiopia insists on a period of four to seven years.

Egypt also is warning of the catastrophic effect of any potential collapse of the dam on Sudan. “Our simulation studies say that the collapse of the dam will cause a 26-metre-high wave in Khartoum extending 150 kilometres in wide,” said Abdel Aaty. “This will destroy Sudan entirely.”

According to the ministry of irrigation, Egypt’s water resources provide 60 billion cubic metres annually, while its need amounts to 114 billion cubic metres. Egypt compensates this gap through water desalination and using groundwater along with importing food products.

On the other hand, Ethiopia gets over 935 billion cubic metres of green water from rains annually. Moreover, Ethiopia’s green lands amounts to 94 per cent of its area versus just six per cent for Egypt. Ethiopia gets an annual share of Nile water that is estimated at 150 billion cubic metres, which exceeds its need.

Lake Tana is a huge water resource for Ethiopian agriculture along with 40 billion cubic metres of groundwater that renew annually due to rains and are easily extractable unlike the non-renewable groundwater in Egypt’s deserts, which is difficult to extract.