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Egypt, Ethiopia continue wrangling over water dam

A dhow sails along the Nile River during sunset, in Luxor.

A dhow sails along the Nile River during sunset, in Luxor.

Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany


By Edmund Bower

Ever since Ethiopia announced the construction of a 6,000-megawatt dam on the Blue Nile, Egyptians have been wringing their hands. Officials predicted it could spur dire sudden water shortages and massive crop failures. In their attempts to dissuade Ethiopia from constructing its Grand Renaissance Dam—which the latter country argues it desperately needs for electricity to power its fast-growing economy—Egyptian officials have resorted to everything from diplomacy and good-will soccer matches to thinly veiled military threats. Local authorities launched complaints against the dam with the United Nations and the African Union, warning that Ethiopia’s “aggressive escalation” in going ahead with the dam could reduce Egypt’s precious few acres of farmland by a fourth. Refugee workers in Cairo even reported an uptick in dam-related acts of resentment directed at Ethiopian immigrants.

The scuffle between the two nations over the dam reached a low point in 2013, when Egyptian officials were unwittingly broadcast on live television suggesting various outlandish plots to pressure Ethiopia to halt construction of the project, including espionage and backing rebels. In a speech in June of that year, President Mohamed Morsi promised to “defend each drop of Nile water with our blood.” The Ethiopians were unmoved. A spokesman for Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told The Guardian: “Nothing is going to stop the Renaissance Dam,” adding that “None of the concerns the Egyptian politicians are making are supported by science. Some of them border on what I would characterise as fortune-telling.”

We’ll soon find out whether or not Egypt’s fears about the dam were overblown. In September, the so-called GERD is expected to be finished, on schedule, though it will be several more years before it provides Egypt’s developing upstream neighbor with the energy it argues it desperately needs to  help alleviate poverty. The dam will be the biggest hydropower plant in Africa; it’s expected to triple Ethiopia’s energy capacity and enable it to export electricity to boot, putting an end to the frequent daily blackouts that are common in the capital city of Addis Ababa to say nothing of the countryside, where much of the population has no access to the central grid. The dam is a key part of Ethiopia’s strategy to become a middle-income country by 2025, a goal it appears well on its way to meeting with annual growth of around 10 percent, making it one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

Egypt and Sudan—which also initially opposed the dam—are still negotiating with Ethiopia on certain sticking points. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has struck a much more conciliatory stance on the dam than his predecessor; he and Prime Minister Hailemariam issued a statement stressing their “commitment to the prevailing cooperative spirit” after meeting on the sidelines of the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa in January. While the outcome of the talks remains to be seen, experts say that the dam is likely to have little impact on Egypt’s long-term water supply. 

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Still, the country’s hysterical response to a megaproject being constructed on a body of water that represents Egypt’s lifeblood is understandable. In addition to being a key part of its national identity and history, the Nile provides Egypt with 97 percent of its water, and at least 60 percent of it flows from the Blue Nile, the tributary that runs through Ethiopia. Egypt is already considered a water-impoverished country, meaning it lacks the resources to provide drinking water, crops and fibers for its people. From around 7 million at the time of the Roman conquest, Egypt’s population has skyrocketed to more than 90 million people today, all drinking from the same fixed pool of water as their ancestors did several millennia ago. Food imports—Egypt is the world’s largest grain importer—eat up much of the country’s depleted foreign currency reserves.

“For thousands of years, the country has depended on the Nile; anything you do on that river system is perceived as a threat,” says Jakob Granit, former director of the Stockholm Environment Institute and an expert on hydropower. However, the Renaissance Dam’s very purpose makes it unlikely to affect water flow into Egypt, argues Granit. Unlike the Aswan Dam, which was completed in 1970 to control Nile flood waters for irrigation, the Renaissance Dam is being built to produce hydroelectricity from the reservoir it creates, a process that doesn’t consume any water once it’s filled. Indeed, the dam is located 20 kilometers from the Sudanese border, in an area with no agriculture to speak of. In order to produce electricity, in fact, the river must continue to flow through the dam’s turbines—and hence downstream to Egypt. “The risk that it will reduce the water flow into Egypt is small,” says Granit.

What could matter to Egypt is how quickly Ethiopia fills the reservoir once the dam is built, a point that is still being negotiated between the two countries along with Sudan, says Emily Hawthorne, an analyst with Stratfor, a U.S.-based geopolitics consultancy. She explains that the faster the reservoir is filled, the higher the risk that Egypt suffers potential adverse effects from a suddenly reduced water supply. Hawthorne says filling the dam is likely to take anywhere from two to seven years. Technically, the reservoir could be filled even faster than that, she adds, which could amount to “a nightmare for Egypt.”

Syria and Iraq faced just such a scenario in 1990, after Turkey began filling the reservoir attached to the newly completed 169-meter high Ataturk Dam with water from the Euphrates, the river that travels south through its Arab neighbors, functioning as a key water source for those downstream countries. Giving them just one year’s notice, Turkey cut the flow of the river by the 75 percent, spurring a feud with the two countries, particularly Iraq, which relies on the river for almost half of its water and threatened to bomb the dam, causing Turkey to mobilize troops on its southern border. In the end, though, Iraq’s posturing had little effect, and Turkey eventually blocked the Euphrates completely for several months to fill the remainder of the reservoir before letting the river resume its natural course. 

But it’s unlikely that Ethiopia would want to spark such a conflict with its upstream neighbors, particularly Egypt, which has Africa’s strongest military and where access to the Nile waters is literally a life or death issue. Egypt’s annual share of the Nile waters is enshrined in a 1959 treaty brokered by Great Britain that granted Egypt and Sudan the rights to the vast majority of the river’s approximately 80 billion cubic meters, with 55.5 billion cubic meters and 18.5 billion cubic meters, respectively. That leaves the other nine Nile Basin countries (now including South Sudan), to make do with other water sources such as seasonal rainfall and groundwater. It’s easy to understand why Ethiopia and its sub-Saharan neighbors have long resented this colonial-era deal. The geopolitical dynamics around the dam reflect Ethiopia’s rising economic status—while Egypt’s international sway has diminished in recent years. Nonetheless, Egypt has what Hawthorne describes as “squatter’s rights” over the Nile, simply because the river is virtually its sole water source. “They can’t undo the dependency of 90 million plus people,” she says. In short, blocking Egypt’s access to Nile waters would amount to disastrous politics and PR. 

On the other hand, Egypt—suffering from a chronic energy shortage—could stand to benefit from having a mammoth new power source two countries away. The 6,000-megawatt finished dam is expected to more than quadruple Ethiopia’s current electricity supply—ultimately producing more power than the country will know what to do with, according to Richard Tutweiler, the director of the Research Institute for a Sustainable Environment at The American University in Cairo. The rest will be sold to neighboring countries. Sudan and Kenya have said they plan to buy 300 megawatts and 400 megawatts of electricity a month, respectively. Egypt—which consumes more than 20 times as much power as Ethiopia despite having a slightly smaller population—is another obvious potential customer for the soon-to-be newly minted power-exporting African nation, though it could take years to build the power lines to transmit electricity 2,000 kilometers to North Africa.  

Even if Ethiopia opts to fill the dam faster than Egypt might like, it could ride out the storm by relying on the water in the Aswan Dam, says Tutweiler. Lake Nasser, its reservoir, holds 130 million cubic meters of water, more than double the annual flow of the Nile through the Aswan Dam and twice as much as the Ethiopians will need to fill the reservoir. The Aswan Dam was built in the 1960s in part to guard against water shortages. “Egypt got through a drought in the 1980s while people were starving to death in Ethiopia,” says Tutweiler, referring to poor rains between 1982 and 1985 that contributed to an Ethiopian famine that killed some 400,000 people.

The one big drawback of Lake Nasser being your single major reservoir is that its location amid the desert of Upper Egypt means that it loses an astonishing amount of water to evaporation. Somewhere between 10 and 16 cubic kilometers of water from the Aswan Dam disappears into the air every year—as much water as it takes to fill Loch Ness, Britain’s largest lake, twice over. If Egypt and its Horn-of-African neighbor managed to forge a cooperative spirit, some experts suggest, Egypt could rely less on Lake Nasser and more on storing water in a cooler, wetter area in Ethiopia with a much lower rate of evaporation. Says Tutweiler: “It would be like discovering a whole new source of water.”

© Business Monthly 2017

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