A political crisis is a poor time to negotiate water

The building of a new massive dam in Ethiopia could lead to "political, economic and social instability" in Egypt thanks to decades of irresponsible leadership.

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Last year, when Ethiopia announced plans to build a massive dam on the Blue Nile River, Egypt described it as a threat to national security. It wouldn't be the only threat. Amid economic stagnation, an uncertain relationship with its neighbours and a chaotic political scene, negotiated rights to the Nile River may not be at the top of the agenda.

It's an oversight that could come back to haunt every stakeholder. Egypt is not the only country that depends on the Nile as the lifeblood of agriculture. In theory, the Nile Basin Initiative of 1999 was meant to provide a forum to reconcile these interests, and renegotiate terms left by British colonialists more than a century ago. In practice, it has been a forum mostly for bickering.

In part because of Cairo's inflexibility in negotiations, seven upstream countries - Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo - signed another agreement last year that favoured their interests at the expense of Egypt and Sudan.

As The National's foreign correspondent Bradley Hope reported over the past two days, Egypt's vital agricultural sector faces serious challenges, not least from the new dam, rather ambitiously called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. "It would lead to political, economic and social instability," said Mohamed Nasr El Din Allam, a former Egyptian minister of water and irrigation. "Millions of people would go hungry."

The dam would deprive Egypt, which relies on the river for 90 per cent of its water, of more than 17 billion cubic metres of water per year. But some experts say that amount of water is already wasted in different ways. On the other hand, construction might actually have positive outcomes for Egypt and Sudan by preventing floods. But that's a pretty big "if" for downstream countries to take on faith.

Better agricultural policies have topped the agendas of almost all of Egypt's presidential candidates. The construction of this dam, and associated unresolved water rights, show the difference between campaigning and policymaking. The inability to reach an agreement on water rights for more than a decade boils down to a lack of leadership. The former Egyptian regime failed to present a cohesive strategy on how to regulate water usage, arrogating itself the colonial-era veto on upstream decisions, and the country is now in a quandary.

This is just one, admittedly massive, of the dams that are being built and planned on the Upper Nile. Each country needs to come back to the negotiating table, not just to settle rights, but to cooperate on management. Whether an Egypt in turmoil can do so remains to be seen.