The Egyptian–Austrian relations are historically distinctive and have been strengthened in the past few years on different levels, including politics and economics. Aiming to strengthen the relations between the two countries, an Austrian delegation of 10 companies working in the water sector, headed by Georg Stillfried, the Austrian Ambassador to Egypt, and Carmen Goby, the Vice President of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce, visited Cairo on 3-5 October 2022 to showcase how they can support the development of the Egyptian water and wastewater sectors.
On this occasion, Daily News Egypt interviewed the Austrian ambassador to learn more about the outcomes of the visit and the level of cooperation between the two sides in the water affair. The ambassador also highlighted his country’s interest to participate in the upcoming climate summit COP27 in Egypt next November. The interview also touched on the GERD dispute.
How do you evaluate the relations between Egypt and Austria?
The relations between Austria and Egypt are long-standing and historic relations. We have been having really very good relations with Egypt since the 19th century. Some of the Egyptian ruling family studied in Vienna, and we also have a lot of Egyptians living in Austria, many of them have become Austrian citizens. So, apart from the political and business contacts, there is a huge People to People contact, which is the cultural contact that is extremely deep. We increasingly profit from that because people with Egyptian roots living in Austria are of course an asset to our relationship with Egypt because they have a bridge-building function.
Could you elaborate on the diplomatic relations between the two countries and the common foreign policy goals?
The political relationships with Egypt are excellent. We don’t have any major issues with each other. In the international forum, we tend to support each other. We share a lot of things, and the visits between our politicians at all levels are a lot and they are quite active.
One fundamental issue where we have strong commonalities is that Austria is a solid supporter of the Rule of International law. We are not a country that is militarily powerful. We’re not even part of a military organization like NATO. So for us, it’s very important that the rule of international law is kept because if we enter into a world where the law of the jungle applies, that would be very bad for small and medium-sized countries. I think we share this with Egypt as Egypt also has a history of respecting international law.
When you look at the recent developments in Europe, Russia is trying to change borders by force. This is something that anybody who prefers stability should be very anxious about. We have to uphold these things. In general, Egypt in the region here has also always played a very constructive part and also tried to uphold standards of international law. So, Egypt is very much close to Austria in very basic elementary aspects of foreign policy.
After two centuries of being neutral, Sweden and Finland thought about joining NATO, so why did not Austria also think about joining NATO?
I think the reason for that mostly goes back to geography because we’re in the middle of Europe, surrounded by countries that are not threatening us. If you look at the geography of Finland and Sweden, Finland has a very long border with Russia. The main threat to military peace in Europe emanates from Russia at the moment. They are being expansionist. They are the ones that are actually invading another country. So, if you’re an immediate neighbour, with a long border and a history of violence with Russia, then you are in a different situation than a country like Austria that is surrounded by friends. So I think in the case of Austria the risk is much less, and the population’s anxiety is also less.
What are the expected outcomes of the current visit of the Austrian delegation from the water sector? And how can Egypt and Austria cooperate more in the water sector?
The cooperation with Egypt in the field of water is long-standing and we are already cooperating a lot in the water sector, this is not something new. An Austrian company was leading the turbines of the High Dam at the time of building it.
In my opinion, what is new in Egypt is the increasing scarcity of water. This is not due to less water than before but more population than before. Egypt needs to do something with its water and there are plenty of opportunities, one aspect is saving water, as it has tremendous leakage like in many other countries that is water is just being wasted because the pipes leak. In some places, this is up to 30% of the water, which is huge. So this is something one can fix.
In the field of irrigation in agriculture, there are smarter ways than flood irrigation. They’re more expensive, but they use water more wisely. Egypt is starting to implement that.
What has changed is the Egyptian need for water expertise, and this is where we can help a lot because we have developed various systems for saving water, treating wastewater, and reusing water. If you can reuse water more times you also save it because you don’t need new water. Desalination is another aspect, where Austria could help also.
The idea of this initiative is to bring 10 of our top water companies to Egypt. Many of these companies have already been dealing with Egypt. This is not something new, but now there are many new projects.
To explain further, Egypt wants to build 40 new desalination plants and they want to build them fast. So the state may need a lot of different companies with different specializations to help. This is what’s happening. It’s not something totally new. There is a need for them now, and for the foreseeable future, the need is going to be higher.
As the delegation is from the water sector, how do you see the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) dispute? And how can Austria support Egypt in this issue?
The talks between the Egyptians and Ethiopians have been going on for several years, and they don’t seem to be leading to satisfying results.
What is clear from our perspective as Austria is that we need a just legally binding agreement between the two countries on the filling and operation of the dam.
We offered our expertise to both countries because we have experience with river systems as we have the Danube, a system that goes through several Western and Eastern European countries to several western countries.
But even during the cold war when Europe was divided between East and West, we managed with all these countries to keep the Danube out of political arguments. This worked, and although the countries were not necessarily friendly, in all other aspects, they all realized the need to have an understanding of how to run something as important as the main river running through their respective countries.
We offered the expertise of the Danube Commission which is an international organization and suggested a fact-finding mission by experts from Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia to see how this works in Europe. We also offered Vienna as a venue for talks in case the parties concerned thought it helpful to meet on neutral ground.
In addition, we also tried behind the scenes not as Austria only but as part of the EU which acts as an observer of the talks.
We don’t want to be totally disengaged from this, but at the same time, of course, the main players are the ones in Africa, they need to sort it out for themselves. You can’t impose something from outside, so it has to be a regional solution, but we need to support it as much as we can.
I think the problem of the Danube River was technically different from that of the GERD as there were floods right?
Yes, you are right, the problem of the Danube is never drought. The problem is the opposite. The problem is floods, maybe too much water. So the technical problem is a different one. But the political problem is the same. You share one river and what one country does will affect another country and therefore the two countries or three or eight need to cooperate. That’s the main issue and you need some mechanism for that.
It doesn’t have to be the same as the Danube, but there has to be some kind of mechanism. I think this is a point that the Egyptians keep making. We have a lot of sympathy for this idea because of our own experience. You can come to an agreement that is beneficial to both sides. It is possible even among countries that are not the best of friends.
As we are only one month ahead of COP27, what are the expected outcomes from this conference, and how can Austria contribute to COP27?
We are going to be represented in the high-level segment by our president who will attend the event. The topic of COP27 is very close to Austria`s president’s political heart, as he is a member of the environmentalist party. He is very interested and concerned about the topic of climate change and very knowledgeable about it.
It’s a marathon and not a sprint. So it’s not that we’re going to find a solution in 2022 in Sharm el Sheikh, and if we don’t find the solution there, it’s going to be the end. No, that’s not how this works. It’s one step followed by another step.
For COP27 itself I think it is interesting that it will take place in an African country for the first time, which I think is a good step because Africa is a place geographically that suffers or feels the consequences of climate change potentially a lot more than other areas in the world. At the same time, this is not a region that contributes most of the emissions.
Africa is underrepresented in the production of greenhouse gases and overrepresented in the possible damage. A reason behind that is the economic situation. If you’re richer, you find solutions more easily, or you can implement solutions more easily, but if you struggle to secure basic needs, then another problem on top of that is a bigger problem than it would be in a country that is more affluent.
I am sure that Egypt intends to play a leading role in giving this a voice.
Why do you believe that COP27 would be important for Egypt?
For a country that already suffers from water scarcity and other problems that have to do with producing enough to nourish itself, the idea that you have to do something against a hotter climate is almost obvious, as drought may hit you in a strong way if it ever happens. And if the world is increasingly getting warmer on average droughts should become more common. Eventually, that’s not good for Egypt. It’s not good for anybody but in a country that already doesn’t have a super abundance of water that’s a particular issue of concern so of course, it’s important for Egypt.