CAIRO (AP) — Angry Egyptian lawmakers accused the country's prime minister and government on Monday of doing nothing to prevent Ethiopia from building a dam that threatens to leave Nile-dependent Egypt with a dangerous water shortage.
Prime Minister Hesham Kandil had just finished addressing parliament about how the government planned to work diplomatically, legally and technically to negotiate with Ethiopia over the dam when the session heated up.
Kandil called the dam's construction an "act of defiance" and stressed that Egypt will not give "a single drop of water," but then hurriedly left the chamber despite calls for clarification over how to handle the situation if Ethiopia rejects overtures.
"Egypt will turn to a graveyard" if the dam is completed, Egyptian lawmaker Khaled Ouda, a geologist, shouted to parliament. "The prime minister didn't provide anything."
The crisis started when Ethiopia diverted the flow of the Blue Nile, one of the Nile's sources, to make way for the dam last month — before a 10-member panel of experts from Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and other countries released a study on the dam's impact. The move took the Egyptian government by surprise. As much as 85 percent of the Nile's water comes from Ethiopia.
Egypt in the past has threatened to go to war over its "historic rights" to the Nile waters. Last week, Egyptian political leaders caused an uproar after proposing to aid rebels against the Ethiopian government or even sabotaging the dam itself. Ethiopia demanded an official explanation.
Egypt faces the prospect of its current water shortage worsening when the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is completed.
Ethiopia's decision challenges a colonial-era agreement that gives downstream Egypt and Sudan rights to the Nile water, with Egypt taking 55.5 billion cubic meters and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic meters of the total of 84 billion cubic meters, with 10 billion lost to evaporation. That agreement, first signed in 1929, took no account of the eight other nations along the 6,700-kilometer (4,160-mile) river and its basin, which have been agitating for a decade for a more equitable accord.
Ethiopia's unilateral action appeared to ignore the 10-nation Nile Basin Initiative, a regional partnership formed in 1999 that seeks to develop the river in a cooperative manner.
Ethiopia is leading a group of five nations threatening to sign a new cooperation agreement known as the Entebbe Agreement without Egypt and Sudan, effectively taking control of the Nile, which serves some 238 million people.
In another blow to Egypt, newly independent South Sudan said it would join the new group.
"South Sudan has no choice but to become a member of the Entebbe Agreement," Foreign Minister Deng Nhial Deng told reporters, adding that his government had informed Egypt of the decision. He said South Sudan is envisioning long-term projects that it expects will face opposition from Egypt.
Experts estimate that Egypt could lose as much as 20 percent of its Nile water in the three to five years needed for Ethiopia to fill a massive reservoir.
Egypt complains that the 10-member panel did not give concrete answers to the impact of the dam, because Ethiopia failed to provide enough updated data to the panel, while Ethiopia said that the report assured that the dam will not harm Egypt. It was not possible to obtain a copy of the report to independently examine its conclusions.
"We need immediate steps day by day but the pace of the government is slow," said Alaa el-Zawahri, a dam engineer at Cairo University and an expert on a national committee studying the ramifications of the Ethiopian dam. "The prime minister's talk should be sharper in the face of Ethiopian government's fiery comments."
Abdullah Badr, who leads the ultraconservative Salafi caucus in parliament, held up a blank notebook after Kandil's speech and said: "I have been taking notes and the page for solutions is blank."
"Where are the studies? Where are the solutions? This is about water security and there are enemies outside and inside — what is the role of the government and what did it do?" he said.
Ethiopian officials have downplayed the effect the dam will have on Egypt, saying it is needed to provide much-needed power for its own development.
Sudanese Ambassador to Egypt Kamal Eddin Hassan said on Sunday that Sudan would benefit from the construction of the dam, but that it would not "abandon" Egypt despite reports in Egyptian media that Egypt's southern neighbor had allied itself with the Ethiopian project.
"There are benefits to Sudan from the dam, but this will not propel it to immediately give its approval," he said, speaking at the Sudanese cultural center in Cairo. He said Sudan expressed reservations related to the safety of the dam and its environmental impact.
Egyptian media, politicians and others have raised conspiracy theories to the effect that Israel is helping Ethiopia to build the dam, reflecting the longstanding tendency to blame Israel for Egypt's troubles.
On Monday, Israel denied any connection to the construction to the dam
"Israel, at this point, is not involved in any way — not officially and not in the private sector. This regards Ethiopia and Egypt exclusively," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. He said private companies might bid for contracts at a later stage.
Associated Press writer Charlton Doki contributed to this report from Juba, South Sudan.