Last week, before the ink had dried on the “new agreement” on the so-called Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Egyptian President General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi told Egyptians during the inauguration of a national farmland project, “I totally understand the concern of Egyptians as water is a matter of life or death. We already agree with our brothers [the Ethiopians] that they want to live as we want to live. I have not led you astray before and I will not lead you astray now.”
Is that military-speak for something?
“Water is a matter of life and death?” “They want to live as we want to live?” “I will not lead you astray now?”
When generals (even in civilian suits) speak about “life and death” and “living” and not “leading astray”, I get really concerned. I may be biased but I think generals say they will not lead their people astray because they only know one path, the warpath. This kind of talk coming from generals really freaks me out. Am I being oversensitive?
Generals often speak with forked-tongue. They will not come out and say, “We are going to bomb this or that.” They will talk about an “air campaign on targets”. Generals won’t talk about “torture”. They will talk about “coercive interrogations”. They talk about “collateral damage” or “friendly fire” but never about how “we killed our own soldiers or people by mistake or negligence.” Generals don’t talk about a “blitzkrieg” (lightening war) but “shock and awe”.
El-Sisi does not seem to be mincing words here. To me he is saying something very profound. But what exactly is he saying?
To be precise, what exactly is El-Sisi telling (assuring) the Egyptian people?
What exactly is he messaging the regime of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) when he says for Egyptians the Nile water is a “matter of life and death”?
What is El-Sisi telling his “Ethiopian brothers” when he says “they want to live as we want to live”. If we don’t live, they don’t live?!
What is he telling the regional neighbors? What is he telling the American and European powers that be?
Is El-Sisi saying that he knows what he is doing now and in the future and that the Egyptian people should not worry?
El-Sisi’s comments have prompted me to probe into his strategic intentions and capabilities and examine what appears to me to be brinksmanship military-speak. I hear El-Sisi saying the so-called Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be built when the Nile freezes and the devil goes ice skating.
In the interest of full disclosure, I need to make certain clarifications.
First, I do not agree with President El-Sisi on a wide variety of human rights issues. I agree with Human Rights Watch’s assessment that under El-Sisi, Egypt “has overseen a reversal of the human rights gains that followed the 2011 uprising.”
On the other hand, El-Sisi has been “Ethiopia’s Friend in Need”. I must give credit when it is deserved.
When El-Sisi first heard of the beheading of 30 young Ethiopian migrants in Libya in April 2015 by the ruthless self-styled terrorist group ISIS, because they were Christian, he came out immediately and expressed his condolences on behalf of the Egyptian people who were “pained by the gruesome beheading of innocent Ethiopians in Libya.”
El-Sisi was the man who sent Egyptian troops to Libya to rescue the remaining Ethiopians from certain beheadings and bring them back to Egypt safely on a chartered plane.
When the TPLF leaders heard of the Libya beheadings, they did not even want to acknowledge the occurrence of the inhuman acts.
Redwan Hussein, a TPLF spokesman said, “It’s being widely reported that ISIS purportedly shot, killed and beheaded Ethiopians. The Ethiopian government is doing its level best to confirm whether the victims were Ethiopians.”
El-Sisi rose to the occasion as the TPLF sat on its duff on the sidelines looking all bewildered, powerless and helpless, twiddling its thumbs and scratching its head.
El-Sisi stood at the head of a red carpet reception line at the Cairo Airport and greeted the rescued Ethiopians one by one, giving them encouraging words. Not one TPLF representative showed up at the receiving line.
Some may suggest that El-Sisi took advantage of a public relations opportunity and maxed it out.
My answer is simple: “A man who is drowning does not care who tosses him a rope!” A man facing certain beheading does not care who rescues him or the reasons his life is saved!
The simple fact is that President El-Sisi ordered the rescue of the young Ethiopians because he wanted to; because he could; because he believed it is the right thing to do; because he believed in the brotherhood and sisterhood of the people of Egypt and Ethiopia; because he cared about Ethiopians Christians as Christians and as human beings who deserve to be treated with justice and dignity.
President El-Sisi, by acting courageously and swiftly to rescue the kidnapped Ethiopians in Libya, cemented the millennia old friendship and sisterhood between two of the world’s oldest civilizations.
I say the foregoing to say the following : I do not believe El-Sisi wishes harm to the Ethiopian people. I do not believe he wants war with Ethiopia. I believe El-Sisi will do his level best to find diplomatic and technical solutions to the myriad problems anticipated in the construction of the so-called Grand Renaissance Dam. I believe El-Sisi will try to reason with the TPLF leaders to come up with a fair resolution to the problems.
I also believe El-Sisi’s diplomatic efforts with the TPLF will fail totally and completely, not for lack of trying or good faith on El-Sisi’s part, but because of the ignorant arrogance of the TPLF leaders.
I believe that if push comes to shove and there is any depletion in Nile water flow to Egypt, El-Sisi will have no option but to resort to military means to ensure the so-called Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will not harm or threaten to harm existing Egyptian farmlands, hydroelectric power production and reclamation of land for future farming purposes to feed the rising Egyptian population.
My view is that what El-Sisi said after the “new agreement” must be examined in historical context and scrutinized for strategic intentions and capabilities. Simply stated, going forward, I believe there are only two questions that need to be answered with clarity and certainty:
1) Has El-Sisi ruled out war or other military action to protect the 97 percent of all water Egypt gets from the Blue Nile and rely exclusively on diplomatic means to resolve all outstanding issues?
2) Does El-Sisi now, or will he in the intermediate future have the military capability to make sure the status quo on water flow to Egypt continues?
In my analysis, there is no question that El-Sisi and his military chiefs have come to the irreversible conclusion that the so-called Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a total and complete existential threat to Egypt and that the only solution to deal with the threat is a military one.
This position is not something El-Sisi developed in a vacuum. The military option has always been the core strategic option of successive Egyptian regimes who have regarded any dam construction on the Nile is an imminent existential threat to Egypt which must and will be resisted by any and all means necessary.
I believe all of the diplomatic dance and do-see-do that we see today amounts to nothing more than delaying The Inevitable.
Since the onset of the Arab Spring in early 2011, the TPLF has sought to capitalize on Egypt’s political instability, fragility and regime change. The TPLF leaders thought they could take advantage of Egypt’s internal problems to forge ahead with their construction and diversion of water from the Nile without much Egyptian push-back.
El-Sisi and his generals understood their own political vulnerabilities and played along with the diplomatic game for the last three years.
El-Sisi and his generals were biding their time with diplomacy. As Will Rogers said, “Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘Nice doggie’ until you can find a rock.”
My analysis of the situation is that El-Sisi is in a much stronger position than he was two years ago. The instability and turmoil that gripped Egypt between January 2011 and June 2013 is no longer a factor. There are no mass protests threatening to overthrow El-Sisi’s government. El-Sisi has consolidated power and his military regime is internally unified. The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, I suspect, has wide support among the elites, the military, the bureaucracy and other civil institutions. There even appears to be broad consensus among the elites that El-Sisi is likely their man to prevent Egypt’s descent into civil strife and religious conflict.
El-Sisi today is confident enough to tell Egyptians not to worry about the Dam. He will not lead them astray. He knows exactly the path he will be taking when push comes to shove. He is not going to let them down. The “Ethiopian brothers” are not dumb enough to present Egypt with an existential threat by damming the Nile because “they want to live as Egyptians want to live”.
In other words, El-Sisi today has found his Rogerian rock. He does not have to say ‘Nice doggie’ to the TPLF anymore. The only question is when El-Sisi will roll with his rock!
My analysis is that El-Sisi and his military planners have set on a multi-phasic and step-wise progression to the Inevitable.
I believe the strategic intention of the Egyptians is to go to war over the so-called Grand Renaissance Dam only as a last resort. They believe they have the military capability now or could easily obtain it in the future to neutralize any threat from the Dam. They see no need to take preemptive use of military force now.
I believe the Egyptian strategy will proceed along the following lines though not in this order.
First, there is substantial evidence to show that the Egyptians have lobbied the international loaners and donors not to give money to the TPLF for the construction of the Dam. Egypt has launched such a campaign along two tracks: 1) by having “Egypt’s ministers of water and foreign relations meet with their counterparts in countries with influence in the Nile Basin” and 2) by having Egypt’s ambassadors lobby against funding in these countries. This strategy has been successful as the TPLF has not been able to get loans or other financial support for the construction of the Dam.
Second, I believe El-Sisi will undertake efforts to delay construction of the Dam by requiring the completion of an endless series of technical studies and analysis. The “agreement” last week to have further technical studies on the Dam’s impact to start in February 2016 and take up to 15 months is just the latest example of such tactics. Undoubtedly, more studies will be requested in the future. I also believe findings from the technical studies will reveal evidence and conclusions (as various studies to date have shown) that the Dam will adversely impact Egypt in a variety of ways. I believe in the end El-Sisi and his generals will use these technical and engineering studies as casus belli (cause justifying military action).
Third, through delays and other means, El-Sisi will aim to incur massive cost overruns in the construction of the Dam, eventually making it financially impractical to build and maintain.
Cost overruns in the construction of large dams are common in the ordinary course of events. In the largest and most comprehensive scientific study on the economic viability of large dams ever done, Oxford University researchers Atif Ansar, Bent Flyvbjerg, Alexander Budzier and Daniel Lunn analyzed all large dams which were built between 1934 and 2007 for which reliable costs and schedule figures are available. That study concluded large dams suffered average cost overruns of 96% in constant local currency terms. Project implementation suffered an average delay of 44%.
Cost overruns in dam construction in Ethiopia are commonplace. For instance, the Tekeze hydroelectric dam on the Tekeze River, a Nile tributary, in northern Ethiopia was initially estimated to cost USD$224 million, but when it was completed seven years later in 2008, its cost skyrocketed to USD$360 million. Structural problems caused by poor engineering and substandard materials in dam construction are also commonplace. Gilgel Gibe II Dam on the Omo River in February 2010 experienced “tunnel collapse [which] closed the largest hydropower plant operating in Ethiopia, only 10 days after its inauguration.”
Fourth, I believe El-Sisi will insist on the longest possible time to fill the reservoir if the Dam is ever completed and thereby delaying power production while increasing the operating cost for the TPLF. According to a Norwegian engineering study, it will take seven years to fill the reservoir with 67 billion cubic meters of water assuming all goes according to plan. Few things go according to plan. The super-secretive TPLF has not published its plans for the initial reservoir filling to meet its power production targets. Regardless, initial reservoir filling and evaporation after the reservoir is said to result in significant reduction of water flow to Egypt.
I am informed by experts that the reservoir filling process is a critical phase which must be handled with extreme care. Reservoir filling is affected by a whole host of factors including determination of filling rate, seasonal changes in water volume, means of controlling the rate of reservoir rise, remediation of problems that might develop during initial filling, placement of elaborate surveillance technology to detect problems during filling, planning for dam inspection and variable impact on downstream areas prior to and during filling, and so on. The reservoir filling period is likely to be a high-magnitude flash point between Ethiopia and Egypt.
Fifth, if the Dam is ever completed, El-Sisi will undertake efforts to limit its financial viability by denying it a market. According to the TPLF, the power from the “Grand Renaissance Dam” is to be sold to the Sudan, Egypt and the Arabian peninsula once construction is complete.
According to an October 2015 report, Azeb Asnake, “CEO” of “Ethiopian Electric Power” said “Ethiopian Electric Power spends nine US cents to generate one kwh of energy but sells it at a price of six US cents.”
“Ethiopian Electric Power” is currently selling power at a 33 percent loss. At that rate, the so-called Grand Renaissance Dam will be profitable only on Planet TPLF where they practice the voodoo economics of their late master Meles Zenawi.
Various studies have shown that electricity costs in Africa could be reduced substantially if there is regional integration and cross-regional collaboration in power production. The problem has been that such collaboration has been undermined by the absence of trust among African countries not only in cost sharing but also in the control and management of dams for mutual long-term benefits.
The tragic irony is that in the current dispute between the TPLF and Egypt over the Dam, there is absolutely no trust. There is no evidence to support the view that the three neighboring countries will ever collaborate as development partners to build a reliable power sector. That is just a fact!
Sixth, if the Dam should be completed and become operational, it is highly likely El-Sisi will take tactical short-term action to disable power grids, transmission and distribution lines, substations and the like. Such actions could result not only in prolonged and severe power outages and disruptions but also in the degradation of the Dam’s infrastructure and performance capacity.
Seventh, I believe El-Sisi will exhaust every diplomatic and legal approach including mediation, arbitration, judicial proceedings and U.N. intervention to protect what he considers to be an existential threat to Egypt before resorting to military action.
Eighth, if the Dam should be completed and become operational, I do not believe El-Sisi will wait for any adverse economic effect to occur in Egypt before taking action. I believe he will go after the Dam with everything he has got within days of the completion of the project in a lightning strike. I have no doubts about that!
Ninth, there is one undeniable fact all must accept: There is no question whatsoever that the so-called Grand Renaissance Dam will have a significant and adverse impact on the water flow to Egypt. Egypt today is facing water shortages amid a growing population. It needs more water, not less. The Dam will result in significant loss of water flow to Egypt.
According to the United Nations, “Egypt is already below the United Nations’ water poverty threshold, and by 2025 the UN predicts it will be approaching a state of “absolute water crisis”. Simply stated, Egypt could run out of water by 2025! Any reduction in Nile water flow will be catastrophic on Egypt.
A Stratfor Global Intelligence report last week concluded that the “removal of volume from [Nile River] into the reservoir — which could take up to six years — could greatly reduce water supplies into Egypt. Eventually, the static water in the reservoir will also lead to a reduction in volume because of evaporation, which could deteriorate water quality.”
According to a 2012 Norwegian study, during the seven year period it will take to fill the reservoir with 67 billion cubic meters of water, the Nile flow into Egypt could be cut by 25%. Such a reduction in water flow will be catastrophic for Egypt. Once the reservoir is filled, there could be up to a 50 percent reduction in the flow of water to Egypt.
A 2014 report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that it was a pipedream for the parties to find a solution to the various problems created by the Dam:
Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are currently hoping that a team of international consultants can quickly find technical solutions to these challenging problems to which they can agree. From our perspective, this is likely wishful thinking. The hard negotiations ahead will require that foreign policy and water experts from each of the three countries have a shared understanding of the technical issues and a willingness to compromise while hammering out detailed agreements on reservoir operation policy, power trade agreements, dam safety, and salinization control.
I believe the die is cast.
Today’s rumors of war on the Nile will prove to be water wars on the Nile tomorrow. I believe that is foreordained and inevitable so long as the TPLF is determined to deprive Egypt significant water flow from the Nile despite protestations to the contrary.
The Egyptians have long said water is a matter of life and death for them. By 2025, it will literally be a matter of life and death for them!
In 1979, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat said, “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.” Reduce Egypt’s water by 25 percent and there will be war.
In 2010, President Hosni Mubarak presumably made a deal with the Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir for the construction of a small air base to be used as a staging point for a military assault on hydroelectric facilities. Reduce Egypt’s water by 25 percent and there will be a major airbase on Egypt’s southern border.
In June 2013, then-President Mohammad Morsi said, “Egypt’s water security cannot be violated in any way. As head of state, I confirm to you that all options are open. We are not calling for war, but we will never permit our water security … to be threatened. If it loses one drop, our blood is the alternative.” Reduce Egypt’s water by 25 percent (or “one drop”) and there will be war.
In June 2014, Egyptian Major General Talaat Mosallam said, “Now the options are very few. Diplomacy is the first, but Egypt’s leverage is ‘at rock bottom,’ and if talks fail, Egyptian military commanders may decide that ‘it is better to die in battle than to die in thirst.’” Reduce Egypt’s water by 25 percent and Egyptian military commanders will decide that ‘it is better to die in battle than to die in thirst.
Some leading Egyptian political leaders have suggested various methods of destroying the Dam, including support for anti-TPLF elements.
According to “credible” intelligence sources, Egypt has military plans to deal with any dam built on the Nile “after all diplomacy options fail”:
“If it comes to a crisis, we will send a jet to bomb the dam and come back in one day, simple as that. Or we can send our special forces in to block/sabotage the dam. But we aren’t going for the military option now. This is just contingency planning. Look back to an operation Egypt did in the mid-late 1970s, I think 1976, when Ethiopia was trying to build a large dam. We blew up the equipment while it was traveling by sea to Ethiopia. A useful case study.”
Reduce Egypt’s water by 25 percent and El –Sisi will send his jets to “bomb the dam” or “send his special forces in to block/sabotage the dam.”
Tenth, in my view, the construction of the Dam for the Egyptians is, under no circumstances, a matter of negotiation, dialogue, mediation, arbitration, etc. for Egypt. Think about it. How can Egypt negotiate on a “matter of life and death”?
The late head honcho of the TPLF, Meles Zenawi said, “I am not worried that the Egyptians will suddenly invade Ethiopia. Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story.”
I am not sure Egypt, as Meles must have anticipated, has a land invasion plan for Ethiopia if the Dam is completed. I would venture to guess that El-Sisi would opt for surgical air strikes and covert commando operations.
There are some analysts who suggest that an Egyptian military operation against the Dam could be difficult as Egypt may not have the military capability (e.g. in-flight refueling capability for its jets) to strike over a long distance. It would appear Egyptian military planners would factor for such contingencies.
It is definitely worth noting that in September 2015, El Sisi ordered the purchase of two French aircraft carriers and 24 “omnirole” Dassault Rafale fighters with a range of 1,850 km and a service ceiling of 50 thousand feet.
It worth considering how El-Sisi could exploit regional dynamics to his advantage in any strategic or tactical moves he may wish to make.
I have stated clearly my personal views on the Dam in my commentary, “The Dam Dammed by Cash Flow?”.
I am not against the construction of dams in principle. But I proudly wear the tag “Tree Hugger.” I wholeheartedly believe in environmental protection and conservation anywhere in the world. I believe smaller dams are better than large ones. My view is supported by a substantial body of scientific research.
I recently had opportunity to visit one of the most impressive dams on the Colorado River. It was a great learning experience for me. I believe constructing and operating a large hydroelectric dam is an extraordinarily demanding task which carries substantial risks. I am not sure that those who are incapable of running Gilgel Gibe III could manage a dam that is going to be the largest in Africa.
As I stated in my April 2014 commentary, “Dam! White Elephants in Ethiopia?”, the “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” is a white elephant that does not make economic sense. Development Today, the independent journal on aid, specializing in political, business and environmental issues related to Nordic and multilateral development assistance, called the Dam a “highly politicized prestige project of the late Prime Minister”.
The “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”, formerly the “Millennium Dam”, was the brain child of Meles Zenawi who, like all of his predecessor African dictators, suffered from delusions of grandeur. The Aswan High Dam in Egypt stood as a monument to Gamal Abdel Nasser. Meles wanted to have a concrete memorial that could immortalize and glorify him as the little “Big Man” of Africa.
I believe the Dam will be a flashpoint for water wars between Ethiopia and Egypt.
I would like to be proven wrong in my analysis here because I do not wish to see water wars or any other conflict in the region. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than seeing regional integration and cross-regional collaboration in power production between Ethiopia, the Sudan and Egypt. Such collaboration is likely to be found in the world of fantasy, not in Northeastern Africa.
Those who disagree with my analysis should consult the report issued by Stratfor Global Intelligence last week:
“… As long as the region remains divided on the dam, actual construction could be disrupted at any time. The dam is reported to be about 50 percent complete right now, and water is being diverted around the construction site. Still, even though construction is far along, Ethiopia has been unable to secure foreign investment for the project, and less than 30 percent of the total $4.8 billion price tag to complete the dam has been secured. Unless Ethiopia manages to secure the required funding, completion of the dam could easily be delayed by several years. This is precisely why negotiations are so important: The better negotiations go, the better Ethiopia’s chances for obtaining funding.”
What happens to the Dam is not in El-Sisi’s hands. It is in TPLF hands to make the Blue Nile red.
Damn! After all, it may all be much ado about nothing!
No dam money, no damned dam!
— Addis fortune (@addis_fortune) January 4, 2016