The Declaration of Principles signed in Khartoum by Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia reopened the unresolved dispute over the sharing of Nile water, and raised once more the thorny issue of the Renaissance Dam. The declaration aims to set the main principles that would protect the interests of downstream countries, whose share is expected to be threatened by the completion of the Ethiopian dam.
The declaration has been met with mixed reactions. Many question how binding it is on the Ethiopian side, while others see it as a positive step toward ending a crisis that is detrimental to Egypt’s security.
Amr Hamzawi, professor of political science, said the state opting for negotiating to end the standoff is in itself a promising step. “Establishing this kind of dialogue shows that Egypt respects Ethiopia’s development aspirations as represented by the Renaissance Dam while making sure its own rights are not compromised,” he wrote.
“The declaration also eliminates any possibility of a military conflict between the two countries and instead initiates a stage of cooperation in tandem with Sudan and later other Nile Basin countries as well as foreign parties like the U.S., the EU, China, and international financial organizations.”
However, Hamzawi said there were still reasons for concern. “The state has not been transparent enough about how this declaration can actually save Egypt from the impending danger of losing much of the water it badly needs. We have not been informed of the core of this declaration and several questions are not answered like the capacity of the new dam’s reservoir as well as the bilateral talks between Sudan and Ethiopia and the way the two countries would guarantee not infringing on Egypt’s rights.”
Despite his concerns, Hamzawi criticized political factions that saw objection to the agreement as a way of expressing opposition to the government. “Several parties were quick to condemn the agreement without knowing the details and without proposing any alternative solutions to the problem. Voicing valid objections to some of the regime’s practices is one thing and objecting for the sake of objection is another.”
Hamzawi said opposition forces could still criticize the government while objectively supporting its reasonable steps toward maintaining Egypt’s strategic interests.
Nader Nour al-Din, professor of irrigation and water resources, sees the declaration as a mere formality that jeopardizes rather than guarantees Egypt’s rights. According to Nour al-Din, who said he consulted a renowned international law expert on the matter, Ethiopia is the party that emerged victorious after signing the declaration.
“Through signing the declaration, Egypt is bestowing legitimacy on the Renaissance Dam,” he said. “Now that the three Eastern Nile countries have signed the declaration, all international funding for the dam will resume right away. This means $5.5 billion from the National Bank of China, $1 billion from Italy and $1 billion from South Korea, in addition to support from the World Bank.”
The declaration, he added, does not include guarantees that Egypt’s share will be maintained, since Ethiopia did not commit to a specific amount of water to reach Egypt following the construction of the dam. “With this declaration, Ethiopia took everything and Egypt ended up with nothing.”
Nour al-Din said in earlier statements that the World Bank refused to fund the dam because of the harm it would do to Egypt and Sudan, and because of Ethiopia’s history of violating the water rights of its neighbors.
“Ethiopia harmed Kenya by constructing three dams, thus violating an earlier pledge to construct only one dam,” he said. “This deprived Kenya of huge amounts of water and led to the displacement of 5 million Kenyans.” He says Ethiopia “will betray Egypt and keep all the water.”
Hani Raslan, head of the Water Resources Unit at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the declaration was not binding on any of the parties, but only offered a general framework for future dealings between the signatories. However, he disagrees that the declaration harms Egypt’s interests.
“Nothing in the declaration says that Egypt approves the capacity of the dam’s reservoir since this issue is still being negotiated,” he wrote. “Also, the declaration is not about Egypt’s share of Nile water but only about the dispute over the dam, which means that there is no infringement on Egypt’s historical right to the Nile and the agreements that regulate it.”
Raslan said the declaration is based on the principles of international law and the U.N. Charter, and provides political benefits. “Signing the declaration will improve Egypt’s image on the regional and international levels after the shameful way the Muslim Brotherhood government dealt with the dam issue,” he said.
Raslan was referring to the conference presided over by ousted President Mohamed Mursi and broadcast live without attendees’ knowledge, in which several politicians made derogatory remarks against Ethiopia and suggested hostile ways of dealing with the crisis.
Raslan said the declaration made Ethiopia morally committed before the world to respecting Egypt’s water rights. “At least, Ethiopia is now acknowledging a set of principles that it had earlier denied.”
Water resources expert Ahmed Fawzi refuted claims that signing the declaration means Egypt’s approval of the construction of the Renaissance Dam. “The declaration makes Ethiopia committed to the report that is to be issued by the international consultative office on the impact of the dam on downstream countries,” he said.
Fawzi was referring to the office that is to be chosen by the Tripartite Committee of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, made up of the declaration’s three signatories, and whose findings are to be respected by the three countries as the declaration stipulates. “This is the first time Ethiopia signs an official document that recognizes Egypt’s rights, and the first time it doesn’t contest historical agreements that warrant those rights.”
Political science lecturer Rawia Tawfik said the declaration was a manifestation of “the diplomacy of managing losses.” After Ethiopia’s insistence on going ahead with the construction of the dam, Egypt had no choice but to resort to negotiations, she said. “The balance of power is now in favor of Ethiopia based on its location as an upstream country that controls 85% of Nile water flowing from the Ethiopian Highlands,” she wrote.
Tawfik said it was important to consider that Ethiopia had since the 1950s been against agreements that guaranteed Egypt’s share of Nile water. “Ethiopia has always considered those agreements an insult to its national dignity since being the country that provides the Nile with most of its water it was not consulted in any of them,” she wrote. “Against this backdrop, the declaration seems a step forward.”
However, Tawfik said Ethiopia would benefit from this declaration more than Egypt. “While Ethiopia is seeing its national dream come true, Egypt is only trying to minimize the damage.”