Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1229, (15 -21 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Ethiopia’s water projects

Ethiopia’s dam projects pose a grave threat to Egypt’s water security, writes Maghawry Shehata

Al-Ahram Weekly

Ethiopia has 12 river basins with a combined flow of 130 billion cubic metres per year. The country also sits atop vast subterranean water reserves. This huge water wealth needs to be wisely managed and used to support development.

Towards this end, Ethiopia began to shift its attention toward developing its western regions by exploiting the Nile River. Naturally, the projects that the country envisioned for this river have become a source of deep concern for Egypt and Sudan. Both governments fear a grave threat to their water resources if Ethiopia implements the projects originally proposed in the 1960s by the US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR).

On the basis of a comprehensive study of the Blue Nile basin conducted in 1958-1963, the USBR suggested 33 hydraulic projects that would enable the irrigation of 434,000 acres of land and generate 6,965 megawatts (MW) of electricity. The projects would provide about 6.36 million cubic metres of water a year.

Addis Ababa has already completed two of these projects: the Fincha Dam (1972) and the Beles Bridge on the Blue Nile. Both were designed purely as electricity generating projects. Ethiopia has continued to push for other projects on the Blue Nile.

Egypt regards this as potentially harmful to its water needs. It contends that Ethiopia has other alternatives for developing its water resources, and it should explore these instead of focusing on the Blue Nile projects that threaten Egypt and Sudan’s interests.


ETHIOPIAN WATER RESOURCES: Ethiopia’s major rivers include the Abay (Blue Nile) and Tekeze (Atbara). These rivers account for 83 per cent of Ethiopia’s total surface water flow. The area of these river basins represents 33 per cent of Ethiopia’s total land area. They are located in the west and southwest of the country, regions that receive the highest rainfall.

Rainfall is the major source of surface water in Ethiopia, which receives an average of 940 billion cubic metres every year, of which only about three per cent is used. Ethiopia also has 11 freshwater lakes, nine saltwater lakes and 12 swamps and marshlands. As most Ethiopian lakes are enclosed, this increases their salinity. There are no aquifers of note in the country due to its rocky nature and the lack of sedimentation capable of accumulating and storing water.


DAMS IN ETHIOPIA: The availability and control of water supplies in the Nile basin is of prime concern to Ethiopia, Sudan and, above all, Egypt. The environmental and economic factors favouring integration between these countries on water issues appear to outweigh those that might compel conflict.

The gravest problem for these countries is the unpredictability of the quantity of Nile water, especially in the long term. The two waves of severe drought between 1980 and 1987 serve as a constant reminder that the need to secure Nile waters is one of Egypt’s chief strategic concerns. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Egypt continues to adhere to the unity of the Nile Valley on the basis of two principles, in spite of tense relations between Cairo and Khartoum.

Of particular concern to Egypt are the Ethiopian dam projects on the Blue Nile. This tributary of the Nile carries 52 billion cubic metres of the total of 71 billion cubic metres of river water emanating from the Ethiopian heights.

Ethiopia plans to construct a network of dams on this river, of which four are major dams that were outlined in the earlier mentioned study by the USBR. With the support of China and Italy, Ethiopia has already begun the phased construction of these important Blue Nile projects.

The four major dams include the Karadodi Dam on the Guder River, about 385 km from Lake Tana. At a height of 980 metres above sea level at its highest point, it has a maximum reservoir height of 181.5 metres. The lowest height for the water needed to operate the turbines is 116 metres and the intake duct is 102 metres long. With an annual maximum storage capacity of 35.5 billion cubic metres, water flows through its openings at 948 cubic metres per second and it can generate up to 1350 MW when operating at full capacity. Work on this project began in 2000 and was completed in 2007.

The Border Dam is located 175 km from the Ethiopian-Sudanese border on the Albert River. It is 856 metres above sea level at its highest point, with a dam height of 252 metres. The dam is designed for a maximum reservoir height of 181.5 metres; the height necessary to operate the turbines is 116 metres. With an intake duct length of 95.5 metres and a maximum storage capacity of 13.6 billion cubic metres, it can generate 1,200 MW of hydropower when operating at full capacity. Work began on this project in 2014 and is scheduled for completion in 2021.

The Mendaia Dam is located 145 km from Ethiopia’s western border with Sudan, and is 1,134 metres above sea level. With a maximum design height of 164 metres and a maximum reservoir height of 117.4 metres, the minimum water height necessary for operations is 109.8 metres. The intake ducts are 704 metres long and the maximum storage capacity of the reservoir will be 15.9 billion cubic metres a year and it is designed to generate 1,620 MW at full capacity. Work on this project is scheduled to take place from 2021 to 2028.

The Great Millennium Dam is known more familiarly as the Grand Renaissance Dam, and is the most controversial. About 40 km from the Sudanese-Ethiopian border, available information indicates that it will stand at 1,200 metres above sea level at its highest point, that its design height is 84.7 metres, its maximum reservoir height will be 75 metres, and the minimum height necessary to operate the turbines will be 68.4 metres. Also, according to studies, it is to have a maximum reservoir capacity of 12 billion cubic metres per year. With water flowing through its valves at 2,378 cubic metres per second, it will generate 1,400 MW of electricity at full capacity.

Nevertheless, according to Ethiopia’s official figures, the dam will create a reservoir of 63 billion cubic metres a year, the necessary operating height of the reservoir will be 110 metres, and it will be capable of generating 5,300 MW per year, although it will begin with a first phase of production of up to 700 MW. Work was supposed to begin in 2007 and be completed by 2014. However, construction only began in 2011, which means that it should be completed in 2018.

A number of question marks hover over the contradictory information and statements from Ethiopia. The figures and information on Ethiopian dam projects indicate that they will have a total reservoir capacity of 79 billion cubic metres and a combined electricity generating capacity of 5,170 MW. This means that reservoir accumulation behind the dams, which began in 2011, will proceed at the rate of nine to 12 billion cubic metres per year during the rainy season.

In fact, the Renaissance Dam project consists of two dams. The second is an auxiliary dam known as the Saddle Dam, which is 50 metres high and 40 metres long and designed to store 63 billion cubic metres per year. While the main dam is to be constructed out of reinforced concrete, the auxiliary dam will be built from stone.

Naturally, the impact of these dams will be greater in years of lower rainfall and flooding seasons. All estimates are based on the notion that all these dams are designed to generate electricity. A different situation would arise if the dams were modified to also include irrigation purposes.

It is also clear that these dams will have a greater impact when the reservoirs are full enough to operate the turbines. We should note in this regard that Ethiopia does not have the best reputation for adhering to its pledges. Recall that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi stated that Ethiopia would not begin work on the Renaissance Dam until after Egypt elected a new parliament and president (following the January 2011 Revolution).

It also pledged to create a tripartite committee to study everything pertaining to the potential impact of the dam. That committee, which consists of two experts from Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt and four independent foreign experts, is charged with studying all aspects related to the impact of the construction of that dam.

It turned out that these assurances were merely a means to buy time to arrange financing and obtain Egypt and Sudan’s approval for the project, so as to avoid international objections.

The question now to those who had been encouraged by Zenawi’s statements is how are we to defend our water rights in the face of Ethiopia’s determination to press ahead with the project without waiting for the results of the technical studies, or political stability in Egypt.

The time factor is critical. The water capacities and security of the Egyptian people need to be addressed seriously, and in a manner that encourages solidarity in the pursuit of Egyptian welfare without clashing with the interests of others. But how can this occur given the lack of clarity and contradictions that characterise the Ethiopian position?

The key solution is to promote an agreement between Egypt and Sudan, in the event that Addis Ababa presses ahead with its projects, including the Renaissance Dam. Egypt and Sudan should join forces to compel Ethiopia to adhere to certain goals, methods and phases of reservoir accumulation, safety and risk-avoidance guarantees, sharing benefits and the like, all determined on the basis of thorough study.

As for allowing the imposition of a de facto reality, this is unacceptable, all the more so given that we are speaking of international watercourses that provide mutual benefit that can only be realised through scientific, technical, economic, legal and political cooperation.


THE IMPACT OF THE ETHIOPIAN DAMS: Construction of the Ethiopian dams, even though designed to generate electricity, will create large reservoirs that will regulate the flow of Blue Nile waters throughout the year, altering forever the current seasonal flow.

The retention of six billion cubic metres of water up to now has generated a three per cent loss annually due to evaporation and seepage into subterranean reservoirs, which have poor capacities. The regulation of the flow of water from Ethiopia will end the flooding season when water generally reaches the Aswan High Dam. It will also reduce the quantity of water in Lake Nasser by a proportion equivalent to the amount Ethiopia takes.

The construction of the dams on the Blue Nile will give Ethiopia the upper hand in controlling the amounts of water and the times of their arrival to Egypt. Ethiopia has been working towards this end for more than a century.

It is useful, in this regard, to bear in mind the remarks by the Ethiopian minister of water resources and irrigation during the crisis. Egyptian beliefs about the dams were wrong, he said. He pointed to joint Ethiopian-Egyptian efforts to carry out numerous multipurpose projects as evidence that the dams would benefit Egypt and Sudan, as well as Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian minister also stated that Egypt, along with eight other Nile Basin countries, had agreed to the principle of the fair and just use of Nile waters and the need not to pursue actions harmful to other countries, especially downriver ones. He also said that the purpose of the legal framework of the Nile Basin Initiative is to establish principles and criteria, not to set quotas.

This would come later following the creation of a Nile Basin Commission tasked with studying all factors pertaining to Nile resources, discussing the redistribution of quotas in general (although this would naturally embrace Egypt and Sudan’s current shares) and studying ways to fund joint projects.

The Ethiopian water resources and irrigation minister topped this off by wondering why Egypt was so determined to cling to the current quotas (55.5 billion cubic per year for Egypt and 18.5 billion cubic metres for Sudan).


The writer is a former president of Menoufiya University and an expert on Egyptian water issues.

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