Grand Designs North Africa: Impact of Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam

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Grand Designs North Africa

If successful, a new mega dam project on the Nile could hold 63 billion cubic meters of water to reinvigorate Ethiopia. Yet downstream of the river, Egypt could see the flow stopped to its 55 billion cubic metres a year share it has relied upon to build the country. Is this the start of water-wars?

By Jeremy Josephs

It was in the colonial-era 1959 when Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser successfully negotiated the Nile Waters Agreement between Egypt and Sudan. The signing weighted massively in his country's favour, allocating almost three-quarters of the Nile's waters to Egypt.

Many a commentator has pointed out that without the waters of the Nile there would have been no food, no state, no historical monuments and no pyramids – in short, no Egypt.

Fast forward almost 60 years and a major project in the region could have major implications on the agreement. For the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, due for completion in 2017, is set to change both the geo and hydro politics of the Blue Nile River.

With the Nile being synonymous with Egypt's very heart and soul it comes as no surprise that the country's leaders might look with some displeasure at the project.

Which no doubt helps to explain the words of the late President Sadat, Nasser's successor, when he said that "any action that would endanger the waters of the Blue Nile will be faced with a firm reaction on the part of Egypt, even if that action should lead to war".

The nation state upon which Egyptian wrath is currently being vented is the impoverished but emerging Ethiopia. While Egypt does not share a border with Ethiopia – one of the most populated landlocked country in the world - yet it does share the Nile.

In fact Ethiopia was not at all impressed with the 1959 Agreement. It allocated Egypt 55.5 billion cubic meters of water annually while Sudan was allowed 18.5. Those 79 billion cubic meters represented no less than 99% of the calculated average annual river flow.

Egypt's industrialisation

The treaty also allowed for the construction of the Aswan High Dam, which was duly completed in 1970, and now stands proudly across the Nile in Aswan, Egypt. Its ability to control floods, provide water for irrigation and generate hydroelectricity has been so successful that it is rightly recognised as being pivotal to Egypt's industrialization. Egyptians celebrate the anniversary of its construction on January 9th of each year.

As part of the 1959 agreement, Egypt takes 55.5 billion cubic meters of water annually while Sudan takes18.5
As part of the 1959 agreement, Egypt takes 55.5 billion cubic meters of water annually while Sudan takes18.5

Ethiopia saw it differently. Emperor Haile Selassie was so offended by Nasser's exclusion of Ethiopia from the 1959 agreement that he organised a divorce of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church from the Orthodox Church in Alexandria, ending some 1600 years of institutional marriage.

As the former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi once protested: "While Egypt is taking the Nile water to transform the Sahara Desert into something green, we in Ethiopia – who are the source of 85% of that water – are denied the possibility of using it to feed ourselves."

Such a plea did not change Egypt's thoughts on the matter, nor the flow of the Nile. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam however – as its name implies – is likely to do precisely that.

Students at Good Hope Academy in Southern Sudan
Students at Good Hope Academy in Southern Sudan

Grand proposals, grand reservoiR Based in Ethiopia's Benishangul-Gumuz region, the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contract worth $4.7 billion was awarded to the private Rome-based mega-project company Salini Costruttori. Now almost 25% complete, at 6,000 MW dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa and its reservoir at 63 billion cubic meters will be one of the continent's largest too.

The dam will be a roller-compacted concrete (CRC) gravity-type comprising two power stations, three spillways and a saddle dam. It will be 150m in height and 1,800m in length and also serve as a bridge across the Blue Nile. Some 12,000 jobs have been or will be created directly and indirectly.

Ethiopia president Dr Mulatu Teshome (middle). Regulated flow from the dam is hoped to improve agriculture in the country
Ethiopia president Dr Mulatu Teshome (middle). Regulated flow from the dam is hoped to improve agriculture in the country

Owned by the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCO), financed by Ethiopia and China, it is aimed primarily at generating power but will also be capable of handling a flood of 19,370 m//second. The regulated flow of water from the dam is hoped to improve agriculture in Ethiopia - a country which has suffered repeatedly and recently from droughts and famines alike - in addition to reducing about 40 km of flooding in neighbouring Sudan.

In fact in the autumn of 2012 the international press reported on a Wikileaks document acquired from the Texas security company Stratfor, revealing Egyptian plans to build an airstrip for bombing the dam – reports which were of course promptly denied in Cairo.

While Mohammad Morsi is no longer in power - having done a 'reverse Mandela' in going from President to prisoner - in June of last year he was party to a discussion about the International Panel of Experts report on the dam with Egyptian political leaders.

Here it again suggested that methods of destroying the dam be considered, including support for anti-government rebels. Had this discussion remained private that might have been the end of the matter. Yet, unbeknown to those attending, the discussions on the various options were being broadcast live on national TV.

Morsi's top aide promptly apologised for any "unintended embarrassment" and issued a press release in which words such as "good neighbourliness" and "mutual respect" were used. The trouble for Egyptian is that it has come to find itself increasingly isolated. For Sudan has switched sides and chosen to support the dam.

Harry Verhoeven, who teaches African politics at the University of Oxford, points out that Sudan understands that the dam is "in its interests, not least because it will be able to import the cheap energy it desperately needs."

Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir has announced his support for the project: "backing the dam project is not a political stance, but rather a belief in its benefits for all Nile Basin states," he claims.

Egypt's reluctance to join in the celebrations of these shifting sands of regional alliances is understandable enough.

Environmental impacts

Alaa al-Zawahiri, a member of the Egyptian National Panel of Experts studying the effects of the Renaissance Dam says that Ethiopia's construction of a dam able to hold 74 billion cubic meters of water was a catastrophe for his country, which would end up losing 60% of its agricultural land.

And he adds, almost in passing, that a collapse of the Renaissance Dam could in turn lead to the collapse of the Aswan Dam, in effect devastating the whole of Egypt. Questions have also been asked over what will happen while the reservoir behind the dam is filling up, when water flow may be reduced by 25% for three years or more? And once it is filled what will happen when rains fall in the Ethiopian highlands? Who will get the water first? Whose hand is on the tap? If the dam is successful, then it will be Ethiopia's.

Another challenge will be population growth. The question of control over the Nile waters has been sensitive in previous centuries when Egypt's population was 10 million or less. So if the country's population grows to ten times this amount, such a question is likely to become more prominent. Help might not be at hand from other African nations.

Indeed some analysts consider that Egypt is now paying the price for having been so preoccupied with attempting to secure its dominant position in the Arab world.

Uganda's president, Yoweri Musevini, for one, has little time for the Egyptian predicament: "Egypt cannot continue to hurt black Africa and the countries of the tropics of Africa", no doubt mindful of old treaties which excluded the likes of Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania – not to mention his own country – from enjoying the benefit of the Nile's waters which also originate on their lands.

There might not be any easy answer to the thorny issue as to who owns the Nile but what is clear that the days of Egypt's almost monopoly like enjoyment of it are finally coming to a close. "Egypt needs to wake up to the new world", the University of Oxford's Verhoeven argues.

It's a painful awakening, for sure. How painful that is going to be is, of course, for the Egyptian government and people to decide.

Geostrategist Brahman Chellaney published his book "Water, Peace and War" last year. One can only hope and pray that as competition for this precious resource continues to grow that all stakeholders – in Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and elsewhere – will come to embrace the water part of this title.


Jeremy Josephs is a freelance contributor to WWi magazine. For more information, email: tomf@pennwell.com

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