The dam of discord

On the eve of Ramadan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov paid a two-day visit to the Egyptian capital Cairo to meet with Egypt President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. The Egyptian government is set to seek the support of Russia in resolving the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, which has lasted for ten years.

The GERD project, developed by the state-owned Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation, Grand Renaissance Dam, also known as the Millennium Dam, is the construction of a hydroelectric power plant on the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia. Construction, worth $ 5 billion, began back in 2011. The Dam is expected to become operational at the end of 2022 and will become the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa. After commissioning of the planned 16 power units, the 6 GW hydroelectric power plant will generate about 15 000 GW of electricity per year.

Ethiopia’s reasons and interest in this project are quite clear: at present, only 10% of the country’s hydropower potential is used for electricity production, while only 25% of the population has access to electricity. Taking advantage of this project Ethiopia hopes to provide electricity to most of its population and sell the surplus to neighbors.

The Grand Renaissance Dam is considered one of the most controversial dam projects in the world due to differences over water sharing between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia accounts for over 80% of the water surface of the Blue Nile. Egypt is seriously concerned about the construction of a hydroelectric power station, since it is located downstream, is limited of water resources and receives up to 90% of its water from the Nile. In general, it accounts for about 55.5 million cubic metres annually. The country’s water supply is almost entirely dependent on Nile, therefore they fear of drought as a result of the project implementation. Meanwhile, this volume is insufficient to supply the population and meet the needs of industrial production. According to the World Bank classification, water scarcity occurs when there is less than 1,000 cubic metres of fresh water per person a year. In Egypt, each person consumes no more than 550 cubic metres.

Egypt’s concerns about the negative impact of the project are shared by Sudan, which is also located downstream of the Nile River.

Cairo fears that the national security of Egypt may be jeopardized due to the possible shallowing of the “river of life” that feeds the Egyptian economy.

For a long time, Egypt has been unsuccessfully trying to resolve this issue at the diplomatic level: it negotiates with its neighbors, offering various options, involving the African Union, repeatedly appealing to the UN Security Council calling to oblige Ethiopia to refuse of filling the reservoir of the GERD hydroelectric power station until the disputes are resolved.

To resolve these controversial issues, the Egyptian government is betting on Moscow and counting on its support. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said he “hopes for Russian support in this matter, since Russia has privileged relations with all three countries [Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia].” Moreover, Russia, being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, can positively influence its decision, in a way that is beneficial for Egypt. On the eve of the Russian official’s visit, the Egyptian Foreign Minister specified: “Our talks will certainly be a good reason to consider this issue and the role that Russia may play through its membership in the UN Security Council or its position in the international arena in the efforts to resolve this crisis and reach a legally binding agreement on the filling and commissioning of Renaissance Dam”.

The results of Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Egypt did not meet Cairo’s expectations. Head of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Russia offered technical assistance in negotiations on the implementation of the Ethiopian dam, but is not an intermediary. The crisis is to be resolved by the African Union. The press release of the Russian Foreign Ministry on the results of the visit does not cover the “dam issue” at all, focusing on strategic, political and economic partnership.

This position of the Russian government is most likely due to the fact that Moscow simply does not see any further benefits for itself, acting as a mediator in resolving the crisis around the Ethiopian dam. The Kremlin is betting on nuclear power.

The Russian state corporation Rosatom is participating in construction of Egypt’s first nuclear power plant – El Dabaa nuclear power plant. It will consist of four VVER-1200 nuclear reactors. The construction of the nuclear power plant is carried out in accordance with a package of contracts entered into effect on December 11, 2017. They provide for Russia to build the plant, supply Russian nuclear fuel for the entire life cycle of the nuclear power plant, and also undertake to build a special storage facility and supply storage structures for storing spent nuclear fuel. The Russians will also train staff and provide support in the operation and maintenance of the El Dabaa NPP during the first 10 years of its operation.

Egypt fits well into the strategy of increasing the pace of cooperation with developing countries, which Russia has been implementing since the beginning of international isolation that had arisen in response to its gross violation of the international law. At the same time, the Kremlin each time invents new tactics and approaches: it seems that this time it decided not to rely on the political component – the role of a mediator, which, as Egypt hoped, Moscow could play well in resolving the conflict over the dam. Russia has decided to use the economic and energy “hook”, thanks to which it will have leverage over Cairo for many years. And the rest of the problems, according to Russia, are to be solved by the tradition – “… through the efforts of the African countries.”

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