The Nile, on whose banks lives 90 per cent of Egypt’s population, is under threat. Egypt has no substantial precipitation, of only about 15mm per year, and as a result the 1.3 billion cubic metres we use of rain water, along with the six billion cubic metre per year of underground water, constitute only a fraction of our needs. The bulk of Egypt’s needs for water come from the Nile, which provides 55.5 billion cubic metre of water per year.
However, this situation may change radically if Ethiopia goes ahead with its project to create a major dam, or series of dams, in an area close to the Sudanese border.
The Nile water that Egypt relies on comes from two sources. The first, and most important, is the Ethiopian Plateau, which supplies the country with nearly 85 per cent of its needs. Some 65 per cent of these come from the Blue Nile, and the remaining 20 per cent comes from the Atbarah River. The second source is the Great Lakes region of Africa, which provides about 15 per cent of Egypt’s needs.
In 2009, the upstream countries on the Nile began demanding what they called a more equal distribution of water, which strictly speaking would give Egypt only five per cent of the Nile’s water. Egypt’s arguments, based on the equitable distribution of water and its historical rights, were largely ignored. Questions arose in Egypt over this sudden change of heart in the upstream countries, and speculation was rife on whether Israel, the US, China or India was behind the emergence of these new demands.
As Egypt, in which the demand for water is rising, contemplated its options, the upstream countries took further steps. On 14 May 2010, six of the upstream countries signed the Entebbe Agreement that cancelled the privileges Egypt had had in the past, including the right to scrutinise and approve water projects south of its borders. The Entebbe Agreement flouted international laws which protect downstream countries from arbitrary actions by upstream nations.
The agreement also changed the rules of the game with regard to decisions involving the Nile’s water. From now on, water projects would be approved by the majority of the countries concerned, not by unanimous vote, as had been the case before. A few months after the Entebbe Agreement was signed, the 25 January Revolution erupted in Egypt, giving Ethiopia the chance to launch a major project on the Blue Nile without fearing Egyptian opposition.
When Ethiopia’s Hidase Dam, also known as the Renaissance Dam, was planned, it was supposed to create a lake that would store 14 billion cubic metre of water, but then the lake’s capacity went up to 74 billion cubic metre. Acting without Egypt’s approval, Ethiopia laid the foundation stone for the dam in April 2012.
With Egypt and Sudan voicing strong objections to the project, the late Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi agreed to form an international committee of experts to assess the situation. The committee included two experts each from Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, plus four international experts from Germany, the UK, France and South Africa specialising in dams, water resources and the environment.
But the committee’s work ran into difficulties, especially since the Ethiopians were reluctant to supply its members with official data. After a full year, the committee issued its final report on 1 June 2013. While Ethiopia demanded a media blackout of the report, reports in the UK, US, German, Swiss and Dutch press pointed out that the Renaissance Dam would be nothing short of catastrophic for Egypt.
While it is understandable that Ethiopia should demand a blackout of the report, what is harder to understand is why Egypt and Sudan agreed not to publish it even though it was in their favour and proved that Ethiopia’s actions were harmful to their interests.
Suspicions emerged about a deal between the Islamists in Egypt and Sudan on the one hand and Israel and some of its allies on the other, allowing the dam to be built in exchange for international backing of the Islamists in Egypt and Sudan. Such suspicions were fuelled by the actions of Egypt’s leaders at the time, with ousted former president Mohamed Morsi going to Ethiopia for talks, and, as soon as he left, Ethiopia announcing that it would divert the Blue Nile to start building the dam.
When Morsi came back to Egypt, he held a news conference in which he played down the damage caused by the dam and proposed alternative sources for electricity and water in Egypt. The prime minister at the time, who had also served as minister of irrigation, started talking about Egypt’s taking part in running the dam, instead of stopping it altogether.
Could the Muslim Brotherhood, the rulers of Egypt at the time, have been part of a conspiracy against the country? At one point, Essam Al-Haddad, Morsi’s assistant for foreign affairs, sent an official envoy to demand an urgent meeting with certain experts, the present writer included, who had spoken out against the dam and described its catastrophic impact on Egypt.
The envoy had one demand for us, which was to stop talking about the harmful effects of the dam and to quit criticising the presidency and the cabinet over the matter. In return, he promised, we would be appointed to official committees affiliated with the presidency, where we would be allowed to write our comments in private but prevented from talking to the media.
THE FULL STORY: It was puzzling to see this Ethiopian dam, built only five kilometres away from Sudan’s borders, going from having a lake that could hold 14 billion cubic metre before the Egyptian revolution to one that could hold 74 billion cubic metre afterwards. This increase in size contrasted with Ethiopia’s declared goal of building the dam to supply the country with hydroelectric power. In hydroelectric dams, the lakes are usually less than 14 billion cubic metre in capacity.
The massive capacity of the lake suggests that a power game is afoot. Whoever is in control of the dam will also control the Blue Nile. And whoever controls the Blue Nile, the old saying goes, will also control Egypt.
The Italian company building the dam has released little information aside from some preliminary studies about its design and environmental impact. It has provided no answer as to why the lake grew six times in volume during the months following the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak in the 25 January Revolution.
Moreover, the Italian company is, curiously enough, handling the project as a turnkey. This contrasts with the standard procedure for building dams. Usually, the country in question decides upon the specifications of the project and then has an international company work out the details.
Yet, sources within the Italian company have said that they received no specifications from the Ethiopians at first. The only instruction they received from Ethiopia were two words attributed to then president Zenawi, who supposedly said that he wanted a dam that was “great and huge”.
Unbelievable as this may be, it suggests one thing: Ethiopia didn’t care about either electricity or irrigation. What it wanted was to have a dam large enough to keep Egypt and Sudan under its thumb. And while the Sudanese cannot afford to pick a fight with Ethiopia, on which they depend for mediating many unresolved issues with the fledgling state of South Sudan, it has been up to Egypt to speak out.
A summary of the report of the international committee of experts contains one bewildering phrase, suggesting that the dam will be built first and its environmental impact assessed afterwards. Moreover, the report has not been published in full, and the available parts indicate that the dam is not one structure, but a series of dams, something which the previous Egyptian government also refrained from divulging.
There is a technical reason for the proliferation of dams. The first dam, which will be built at a distance of five kilometres from the borders of Sudan, is expected to receive all the silt coming from the plateau of around 240 million cubic metres per year. The silt will fill up the proposed lake within 50-70 years. Therefore, the company intends to build three other dams on the Blue Nile to reduce the silting of the final lake.
Behind each dam, a lake will therefore emerge, leading the total amount of reserved water to be about 200 billion cubic metre, a quantity that spells death for both Egypt and Sudan.
This is not all. The original dam, built near the Sudanese border, was supposed to hold originally 14 billion cubic metre of water, which is enough to generate electricity. This should not have been a big problem, and Egypt may have consented to such a project. But Ethiopia, perhaps with Israeli advice, decided to increase the height of the dam in order to store more water.
Once the height had been increased, experts discovered that there were two mountains close to the Dam, with an aperture in the middle that would send the stored water back into the Blue Nile. Therefore, they decided to build another dam, technically described as a “saddle dam”, that would block the aperture between the two mountains and thereby hold nearly 60 billion cubic metre of water behind it. This saddle dam is not meant to generate electricity but only to hold water.
As a result, for the first time in history we find a secondary dam that is four times as large as the original dam. This only goes to show that the aim of the project is not to generate electricity or to store water, but to use the dam as a way to control Egypt.
Another point of interest has to do with geology. The first dam is going to be built between two mountains that are supposed to offer it structural support by acting as “shoulders” for it. However, geological research shows that the two mountains in question contain fragile rocks that cannot bear the structural pressure. So instead of the dam leaning on the mountains, the mountains lean on the dam. And the dam leans forward on the turbine areas, which increases the risk of collapse.
The chances of the Ethiopian dam collapsing as a result of this unusual design have been put at 95 per cent during the first 20 years of its life. American experts give the dam a security rating of 1.5, compared to the security rating of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, which is eight. If the dam collapses, an unspeakable ecological disaster will hit both Sudan and Egypt.
IF THE DAM COLLAPSES: Working with colleagues in the hydraulics department at Cairo University, the present writer has run a simulation model to assess the damage that would happen in the event of the dam collapsing.
According to this simulation, nearly 74 billion cubic metre of water would rush north, annihilating Khartoum completely with a tidal wave 9-18 metres high. All cities north of Khartoum, up to the Egyptian borders, would also cease to exist.
When the water hits Lake Nasser at the Aswan High Dam, there are two possibilities. If the lake is low, the High Dam might not collapse. The lake would fill with the incoming water, the Toshka Reservoir would be filled, and the remaining water would flow over the High Dam. The flow of water, estimated at four times the average, or about one billion cubic metre per day, would lead to the collapse of all the other dams and bridges along the river, as well as most buildings on its banks.
However, if Lake Nasser is full, the consequences will be more dire. The Aswan High Dam would be likely to collapse, and all of Egypt, up to the Delta perhaps, would be inundated.
There is another ecological consequence. A lake of such magnitude in Ethiopia would become the main receptacle of the Nile waters, not the Mediterranean as is the case at present. The change in the water’s speed and oxygen content would be so dramatic that all marine life in the river would be likely to disappear, at least until the Ethiopian lake was filled.
The stunning detail about the design of this dam is that it has no alternative course allowing the river water to flow to Egypt and Sudan until the Ethiopian lake is filled with 74 billion cubic metre of water. It is therefore not true that Ethiopia will be able to fill the lake over a number of years, or that it would allow flood water to go through.
Those who have made such claims have not seen the design of the dam, which does not allow any alternative course for the water except through a nearby mountain, and only at a level higher than the body of the dam itself. As a result, once the dam is built, the Ethiopian lake will need to be filled first before any water comes through to Egypt and Sudan. Before the lake is filled, there is no way of diverting water downstream.
What all this means is that Egypt may remain without water for at least two years until the lake is filled. If we add to this the fact that further dams will be built to slow down the silting of the northernmost dam, this time is multiplied.
In addition, there are no openings in the dam to allow for the water to move forwards in case the electricity turbines stop working. If the high-voltage cables transmitting electricity from the dam are damaged for any reason, the turbines will have to be shut down, which means that the water will need to travel in another course, an eventuality not taken into account by the designers.
If this were to happen, Egypt and Sudan would remain without water for months, or until the turbines were fixed.
To appreciate the seriousness of such a scenario, one must note that the Nile water takes nearly 17 days to journey from Aswan to the Delta, which means that a disruption in the flow of the Nile water could not be anything less than catastrophic.
To top it all, the dam is being built in the hottest part of Africa, where the evaporation rate is phenomenal. The area of the dam is equivalent to the Gulf States, and the evaporation will be many times larger than that taking place off Egypt’s Lake Nasser.
The Ethiopians claim that the evaporation rate in Ethiopia is only three per cent. This figure may be true for certain areas of the Ethiopian Plateau, which are 700 metres higher than the location of the dam. But behind the dam itself, the evaporation rate will be 12-15 per cent, as compared to 10 per cent for Egypt’s Aswan High Dam. This means that nearly 10 billion cubic metre of water will be evaporated annually.
ROCK FORMATIONS: The rock formations that underlie this massive weight of water and other structures should also be examined. In Egypt’s case, Lake Nasser bears 162 billion cubic metre of water, distributed over 500km in Egypt and Sudan. The Ethiopian dam’s lake will hold 74 billion cubic metre of water, but this weight will be dispersed over a distance of less than 30km.
The nature of the rock formations supporting this weight, mostly volcanic rocks containing granite and metal ores, is rather unstable, thus allowing large amounts of water to leak downwards. A geological committee that examined the site of the dam found major cracks and fissures in the future basin of the lake, leading it to expect leakages of up to 25 per cent of the stored water. This, adding to the evaporation, means that the lake will need 110 billion cubic metre of water, much more than the 74 billion cubic metre it is supposed to store.
The geological pressures caused by this shift in weight could lead to tremors and quakes, thus raising the possibility that the dam will collapse and flood both Sudan and Egypt. The water leakage may also weaken the body of the dam, for the great amounts of water that are likely to leak from the lake are going to move forward towards Sudan, passing underneath the rock formations bearing the dam and potentially weakening it to the point of collapse.
Aside from the environmental impact on Egypt, the production of electricity at the Aswan High Dam is likely to drop by almost 40 per cent should the Ethiopian dam be built. During the filling of the Ethiopian lake, the Nile in Egypt will become practically a canal, its level being decided by Ethiopia’s needs and the contracts it gets for the export of electricity.
The High Dam in Egypt will thus become superfluous, as water will come in only tiny amounts from Ethiopia and will be used on a day-by-day basis. There will be no further need to store water in Egypt, as the flood, on which Egypt depends to fill Lake Nasser with up to 162 billion cubic metre of water, will cease to occur.
As a result, the pollution level in the Nile will increase, and the sea water from the Mediterranean will flow inland, raising the salinity in the land of the Delta. Several crops, such as rice and sugarcane that require plenty of water, will disappear from Egypt.
The writer is a professor of agricultural resources at Cairo University.