Immediately following President Mohamed Morsi’s meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn Addis Ababa announced that it would begin diverting the course of the Blue Nile. Morsi had met Desalegn on 28 May during the course of the African Union summit to discuss the impact of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam project on Egypt’s share of Nile water. The diversion of the Blue Nile is part of the process required to build the Renaissance Dam which many water experts believe will severely reduce Egypt’s share of Nile water.
The announcement was described by Ethiopian officials as “historic”. Addis Ababa held a celebration on Tuesday morning at the construction site of the Renaissance Dam, planned to be the 10th largest in the world.
Both Egypt and Sudan were surprised by the news, but while Sudan described the decision as “shocking”, believing it will negatively affect their quota of Nile water, Egypt’s presidential spokesman Omar Amer told the press that the decision taken by the Ethiopian government would not impact on Egypt’s share. Meanwhile, Egyptian water experts criticised Egypt’s official reaction and expressed alarm.
Nasreddin Allam, former water resources and irrigation minister, pointed out that the Renaissance Dam is one of four dams which Ethiopia plans to construct on the Blue Nile, one of two main tributaries that provide Egypt with 60 per cent of its annual share of 55.5 billion cubic metres of water.
“The storage capacity of the Renaissance Dam is 200 billion cubic metres. Add to this the capacity of the Takazi Dam work on which began in 2009 and one can foresee a situation in which Ethiopia will control the amount of water coming to Egypt and Sudan,” argues Allam. The Takazi Dam is on the Stet River, the other tributary of the River Nile.
Ethiopia, says Allam, plans to construct four dams for irrigation purposes that are also capable of generating 2,000 megawatts of electricity, nine times the amount produced by Egypt’s High Dam. This is in addition to 25,000 megawatts planned to be produced by other rivers in Ethiopia.
“Ethiopia will be the biggest exporter and controller of energy in East Africa. It will soon be exporting energy to Somalia and Djibouti in the east, Kenya and Uganda in the south, Sudan and South Sudan in the west, and to Egypt and Europe in the north,” said Allam.
Hani Raslan, head of the Sudan and Nile Basin Countries’ Studies Programme at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says that following the Ethiopian announcement, “Egypt can expect to lose at least seven billion cubic metres of its share of water once the Grand Renaissance Dam is finished.”
The River Nile is the confluence of the White Nile, with its source in Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile which springs in the Ethiopian highlands. It provides 90 per cent of the water needs of Egypt’s 90 million inhabitants. Water experts say that even if Egypt’s share remains constant population growth will outstrip existing water supplies by 2017.
Ibrahim Nasreddin of Cairo University’s Institute for African Studies says alarm is unnecessary. The recent decision taken by Addis Ababa will not affect Egypt and Sudan since “the Nile can provide enough water for all of the countries that depend on it.”
“The depth of the Nile’s course in source countries, especially in Ethiopia, is 500 metres deep. This makes it impossible to build anything similar to the High Dam in just 10 months. But without building in such a compressed timetable anything that is constructed will be flushed away by the annual two-month flood.”
Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Bahaaeddin agrees with Nasreddin’s assessment. The construction processwill take a great deal of time, he says. Meanwhile, the diversion process will not stop water from flowing down river to Egypt.
Bahaaeddin adds that this does not mean that Egypt approves of the construction of the dam.
“We are still waiting for the outcome of the tripartite commission,” he says, adding that the commission, mandated to report on the impact of the dam, is due to report in the next few days. Egypt’s position, says Bahaaeddin, is that it opposes the dam’s construction if it is shown it will negatively impact on Egypt’s water share.
Bahaaeddin also stresses the crisis of water management in Egypt. “We cannot afford to waste a single drop of water,” he says.
Egypt’s position, Bahaaeddin reiterated, is that it does not oppose “any development constructed in any Nile Basin country” as long as it does not “damage the downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan”.
A report issued by the National Planning Institute (NBI) calculates that Egypt will need an additional 21 billion cubic metres by 2050 in order to meet the water needs of a population of 150 million.
The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), signed by most Nile Basin countries and opposed only by Egypt and Sudan, ratified a partnership among Nile states for sharing the river’s socio-economic benefits and promoting regional security. The conflict between Sudan and Egypt (downstream states) and the rest of Nile Basin countries (upstream countries) began when Cairo and Khartoum refused to sign the NBI Framework Convention since it did not explicitly guarantee Egypt’s right to 55.5 billion cubic square metres of water annually and did not allow Egypt its traditional veto of upstream projects.
Shares of Nile water are based on several principles. According to Raslan, the share of any country must be in proportion to its population and extent of agricultural land. Nile Basin countries should also desist from harming any neighbouring country.
An international dispute will develop between Egypt and other Nile Basin countries should they refuse to alter their position. According to Raslan, there are not many alternatives. “Other than political and diplomatic negotiations and international arbitration, the only remaining option will be the use of force,” says Raslan.
Egypt has set three conditions before signing the Nile Basin Framework Agreement: water security, being informed in advance of any planned projects on the river banks and making the completion of such projects conditional on Egyptian and Sudanese approval.”
“We have water and won’t need to think about securing outside water till five or six years from now. We have an adequate amount of water to fulfil our needs for now,” says Bahaaeddin.
Sudanese Ambassador to Cairo Kamal Hassan is far less sanguine. He described Ethiopia’s decision to divert the course of Blue Nile as “disastrous”. Egypt and Sudan, he says, might resort to the Arab League to discuss the issue.
“There is continuous communication between Egypt and Sudan over Ethiopia’s shocking decision,” says Hassan.
“The decision was abrupt and traumatising. We are currently discussing the possibility of conducting an Arab League emergency meeting in order to discuss the threat to Egypt and Sudan’s share of Nile water.”