Ethiopia has begun operations to divert a portion of the Blue Nile preparatory to the construction of a major dam. Although this project had been anticipated for many years and in spite of repeated assurances from Addis Ababa that it would not affect Egypt, the Ethiopian decision to commence operations triggered anger and alarm among Egyptian public opinion, reactions reminiscent of the Iraqi and Syrian responses to the Ataturk Dam project many years ago.
The crisis over the diversion of the course of the Nile dates back to May 2010, when six upper riparian countries in the Nile Basin, meeting in Entebbe, signed a new Nile Waters Treaty, giving Cairo and Khartoum a year’s grace period to join. The Entebbe Treaty states that cooperation between the countries of the Nile Basin initiative is founded on the principle of fair and reasonable use on the part of the state parties. Recently, the signatory states began ratification procedures through their parliaments. Once the treaty goes into effect, it will bring an end to Egypt and Sudan’s historic quotas under the 1929 and 1959 Nile Waters Agreements, in accordance with which Egypt obtained 55.5 billion cubic metres a year and Sudan 18.5 billion. The six countries that have signed the new treaty are Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. The Democratic Congo joined Egypt and Sudan’s refusal to sign. In March 2013, the newly independent South Sudan announced that it would join the treaty.
Cairo and Khartoum have charged that the Entebbe Treaty “violates all international agreements” and vowed to alert donor nations to the illegality of funding any water projects on the Nile or its tributaries. They added that they would lobby against the Ethiopian dam project, in particular, which will cost an estimated $4.8 billion, according to the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Ethiopia and the other signatory countries were unfazed by such protests and warnings, and on 1 April 2011, Ethiopia formally inaugurated the Great Millennium Dam project, or the Renaissance Dam, for the production of hydroelectric power for the Benishangul-Gumuz region, which is adjacent to the Sudanese border. The dam, which is due to be completed in 2015, will create a reservoir of approximately 63 billion cubic metres of water.
Following the 25 January 2011 revolution, Egyptian popular leaders pressed the need to address this vital issue, stressing that it had to be handled objectively and in a spirit untainted by the “arrogance that had characterised the approach of the governments of former president Hosni Mubarak”. On 29 April 2011, a “people’s delegation”, consisting of representatives of the revolutionary youth, political parties and other public figures, set off to Addis to discuss the Millennium Dam project. Such actions inaugurated a new climate for handling dam initiatives and other issues related to the Nile waters. Perhaps because of this, Egyptians were all the more shocked by the Ethiopian announcement of its decision to press ahead with the diversion of the Blue Nile within hours of President Morsi’s visit to Addis Ababa to attend the African Summit. On the sidelines of this summit, Morsi met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and raised Egyptian concerns with respect to the dam. Experts on the joint Egyptian-Ethiopian-Sudanese committee on this project found that “the studies that the Ethiopian side had submitted with respect to the dam were insufficient to prove that its construction would not be harmful to Egypt.” In light of this, the tripartite committee will ask for additional studies, which will be undertaken by international experts on the committee. The committee is made up of six local members (two each from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia) and four international experts on dam engineering and hydrology, water resource management and the social, economic and environmental impact of dams.
The construction of the dam on the upper reaches of the Nile poses an enormous challenge to Egyptian agriculture. The consequent water shortage could lead to reduced domestic food production as well as to a reduction by approximately 500 kilowatts per year in the electricity generated by the High Dam and the Aswan Dam. Such a spectre induced the Sudan and Nile Basin Studies Unit of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies to convene a seminar on this question. It hosted Mohamed Allam, former minister of irrigation and water resources, who had been responsible for this issue during one of the tensest periods in Egyptian-Ethiopian relations over a number of essential differences regarding the dam. Allam presented a paper to the forum discussing the various phases of this question, from the Egyptian perspective in particular.
By way of background, Allam underscored a number of weaknesses on the Egyptian side: the scientific and technological lag, the spread of corruption, the deterioration in public services, and economic, social and cultural underdevelopment. He also mentioned the decline in Egypt’s regional and international status and influence. At the same time, important political changes were taking place elsewhere in the Nile Basin. Ethiopia and Uganda were experiencing periods of economic growth and growing international support. In addition, Israeli influence in countries of the upper Nile Basin was increasing, while Egyptian influence remained minimal. Such factors contributed to augmenting the pressures on Egypt on one of its most crucial concerns, namely issues related to the Nile Basin initiative.
Water projects on the Blue Nile, whether in Ethiopian highlands or in Sudan, would have a major impact on Egypt, as the Blue Nile accounts for around 90 per cent of the water that reaches Egypt.
Egypt is heavily dependent on the Nile for its water needs. As Allam pointed out in his paper, the Nile furnishes 55.5 billion cubic metres a year of water (under the current quota), while Egypt receives only a billion cubic metres a year in rainfall, which falls primarily on the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts and parts of the Sinai. There are subterranean water sources, but these are non-renewable. The subterranean reserve in the Western Desert permits for the extraction of no more than three to five billion cubic metres per year over the next 50 to 100 years. Meanwhile, the costs of desalinisation are very high, and the quantities that this method supplies come to only 200 million cubic metres a year.
According to Allam, Egypt’s current water needs amount to over 75 billion cubic metres a year, which is about 30 per cent higher than the available resources. The deficit is made up for by recycling. The per capita share of water is only 700 cubic metres a year. However, by 2050, and given current population growth figures, per capita share of water will decline to 350 cubic metres per year.
Water projects on the upper Nile would further imperil the situation. Large tracts of agricultural land would be lost. Hydroelectric power production would drop sharply and compel increasing reliance on gas-powered generators. Water purification plants and a number of other industries along the Nile would be severely affected, and the quality of irrigation water would deteriorate. In addition, there would be greater seepage of sea water into the northern coastal areas and the quality of the water in the northern freshwater lakes would decline.
TOWARDS A ROADMAP: Sudan and South Sudan are Egypt’s most important partners in the foreseeable future, said Allam. Both need Egyptian support, expertise and investment. They also have water resources that could increase the yield of the Nile, large tracts of land suitable for cultivation and livestock, and mineral wealth. In addition, they offer promising markets for emergent Egyptian industries and skilled Egyptian labour. Politically, their unification would undermine regional and international designs to set the two countries against each other to the detriment of them both. Clearly, they would be well advised to create a joint technical body to examine the potential effects of the Ethiopian barrages on them both and to review the results of the Egyptian-Sudanese studies that had been conducted on this matter in the interest of formulating a unified vision on the dams on the basis of the bilateral agreement of 1959 that governs the Egyptian-Sudanese relationship with respect to the Nile waters.
In his paper, Allam also discussed why Ethiopia attaches such importance to the dam project. It has long been an Ethiopian dream to control the headwaters of the Blue Nile, he said. Ethiopia would reap huge profits from the export of hydroelectric power to neighbouring countries, generating a major source of national revenue that would stimulate a qualitative leap in economic and social development, and enhance Addis Ababa’s influence in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere in the continent. The net profit from the production and export of the electricity from the Mandaya Dam alone exceeds $7 billion a year. The power — and hence income — generating capacity of the Renaissance Dam could be considerably greater. However, Addis also realised that these dams would not have this anticipated economic value unless they received the blessings of Egypt and Sudan, which would translate into the purchase of large quantities of the electricity they produce. Currently, Ethiopia, itself, does not have the domestic infrastructure or market capable of consuming a major portion of the amount of electricity that could be generated, while the only two other major consumers would be Egypt and Sudan. Therefore, Egypt and Sudan’s refusal to participate in a network would delay Ethiopia’s ability to benefit economically from the dams, at least until it develops a sufficient infrastructure and market locally, which would take several decades.
Egypt’s regional and international drives concerning the Renaissance Dam project began in earnest in the middle of last year. Egypt rejected the feasibility studies for their failure to take into consideration the detrimental effects of this project on Sudan and Egypt. It sent its comments in this regard to the secretariat of the Nile Basin Initiative, to the technical bureau of the Eastern Nile Basin Commission, to the World Bank, to the European Market, to the Canadian Advisory Bureau, and to the Norwegian Consultancy Bureau that performed the feasibility and design studies for the project. It has also sustained talks with donor agencies and with China in order to drive home the severe detrimental repercussions of the dam on both Egypt and Sudan. In the course of these talks, Egyptian officials stressed that they are not opposed to the development drive in Ethiopia, but that they are determined to safeguard Egypt’s water rights and their country’s future.
The fact remains that Ethiopia suffers a major water shortage. Indeed, it has the greatest deficiency in water of all the Nile Basin countries in spite of the fact that it is the major contributor to the Nile waters. At the same time, the Ethiopian highlands are not naturally suited to the construction of large dams and water reservoirs, regardless of the technology brought to bear, and even less to the transport of reserved water across its rugged terrain. Therefore, there is little need for the excessive alarm that has been stirred by some segments of the media recently. Still, the problem is not insignificant and there is a rift in Egypt’s relations with other countries of the Nile Basin. In view of these considerations, Egypt needs to sustain a policy towards those countries based on the spirit of African brotherhood and cooperation, as opposed to confrontation and political blackmail. In this spirit, it must continue to offer aid and assistance to African countries, especially those in the Nile Basin, and not just in the realm of water resource development but also in a range of other fields, from agriculture to trade and industry and education.
The key to resolving the current crisis begins with Ethiopia, which should be given priority among the Nile Basin countries, in the construction of water projects. Ethiopia has the lowest rate of electricity consumption in the world — less than 1,000 megawatts (80 per cent of Ethiopians live without electricity). Nor will it affect Egypt and Sudan’s share of Nile water if Ethiopia undertakes small water projects commensurate with its topography, such as electricity generating plants that capitalise on steep inclines or agricultural projects, whether dependent on precipitation or irrigation, which in any case would be relatively limited in view of the ruggedness of the Ethiopian terrain.
However, “Ethiopia can not divert a tributary of an international river shared by nine other nations. This is not just about Egypt and Sudan. International rivers are governed by laws and conventions, in accordance with which any action that affects water quotas requires advanced notice and guarantees against possible harm,” said Allam. Experts predict that by 2050, Egypt will require 21 billion cubic metres of water above its current quota in order meet the needs of its population, which is expected to climb to 150 million by then.
The writer is head of Al-Masryeen Centre for Strategic Studies.