Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1181, (23 - 29 January 2014)
Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Issue 1181, (23 - 29 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Of dams and droughts

The danger posed to Egypt’s water security with the building of Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam is a fact, not the invention of alarmist theories, writes Maghawry Shehata Diab

Al-Ahram Weekly

 Egypt has a total water supply of 68 billion cubic metres. Of this, 55.5 billion cubic metres derives from the Nile, four billion cubic metres from subterranean sources in the Delta and Western Desert, eight billion cubic metres from treated agricultural drainage water, about half a billion cubic metres of rainwater, and some 300,000 cubic metres of desalinised water from Sinai. On the basis of global water poverty rates and in light of increasing population figures, Egypt already suffers a water deficit and this could reach the degree of drought by 2025.
In order to forestall such a deterioration in water security and, simultaneously, in order to further development plans, Egypt developed a framework for cooperation with the 10 other Nile Basin countries that would promote the interests and welfare of all. Various agreements and conventions have been signed within this framework, some before and some after those countries obtained independence. In addition, Egypt has carried out many joint projects with upper riparian countries, involving the construction of dams (Uganda and Sudan), digging wells (Kenya and South Sudan) and training technicians in irrigation, agriculture and health.
The most significant development in this regard was the Nile Basin Initiative, which sought to promote bilateral and multilateral cooperation among all Nile Basin countries. However, the aim and spirit of this initiative were undermined by a drive by upper riparian countries to formulate a legal framework, known as the Entebbe Agreement (2010), with which they wanted to replace all previous international agreements that guaranteed Egypt and Sudan’s rights to Nile waters and to their established quotas of these waters. In addition to this flagrant denial of Egypt and Sudan’s historical water rights, the drive extended to denying the right to prior notification of any hydraulic projects that might harm other countries along an international river course, a right that had been guaranteed under the framework agreement for the Nile and its tributaries signed in 1997. Moreover, instead of the principle of unanimity in decision-making, which is only logical in view of the nature of international river courses, the upper riparian countries insisted on the majority vote mechanism for the Entebbe Agreement, a majority that they have claimed now that seven countries signed that agreement.
Ethiopia, as the self-appointed leader of the upper riparian Nile Basin countries, did more than encourage them to put paid to all previous international agreements and principles. It began to implement a number of dam construction projects on the Blue Nile, as part of a mammoth waterworks programme that calls for 33 projects recommended by the US Bureau of Reclamation in 1964. Foremost of these projects is the Renaissance Dam project that Addis Ababa initiated on 2 April 2011.
Naturally, the Ethiopian action triggered an outcry in Egypt in view of the threat that project poses to Egyptian water security and all the more so in light of the impending conclusion of the Entebbe Agreement, which aims to redistribute water quotas among the countries of the Nile Basin and which introduces restrictions on swamp drainage or water-loss projects that can attract waters to Egypt and Sudan.
The Renaissance Dam project, in fact, consists of two dams. The major dam, made of reinforced concrete and used to generate electricity, is now envisioned to be 1,800 metres long and 145 metres high. The second is an auxiliary or “saddle” dam, constructed from stone and rubble directly on Ethiopia’s border with Sudan. It will be 4,800 metres long and 50 metres high and have an annual reservoir capacity of 74 billion cubic metres.
This is a remarkable and sudden development on the specifications of that border dam as recommended by the US Bureau of Reclamation in 1964. In those days, the envisioned reservoir capacity was 11 billion cubic metres per year. However, this capacity quickly climbed to 14.6 billion, 63 billion, and now 74 billion cubic metres per year. The dam can be heightened further to generate a reservoir capacity of 100 billion cubic metres per year and increase its electrical power output to 700 megawatts, which would enable Ethiopia to become an energy exporter to its neighbours.
The objections voiced by Egyptian experts of all relevant disciplines to this dam were not based on vague and alarmist speculations. Rather, they were informed by scientific, economic and engineering facts and figures that are set out in a report by the tripartite technical committee (made up of two experts each from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia and four impartial international experts). The experts stressed the following points:
- The information and data supplied by Ethiopia is insufficient to judge the benefits of the dam.
- Potential dangers can arise due to the fact that the geo-mechanical studies, in particular, are incomplete with respect to the geological and mechanical properties of the site of the dam in light of its new specifications.
- Studies on the auxiliary dam have not been performed and, on the basis of the information supplied by Ethiopia, the conditions for securing it are insufficient.
- The calculating models used to design the dam are rudimentary and inappropriate as a basis for constructing a dam of those specifications.
- There are water and environmental dangers that will arise from the construction of the dam.
In view of the foregoing, Ethiopia should take the following steps:
- Halt construction of the dam for an agreed upon period so that the reservations of the technical committee can be addressed.
- Supply accurate and transparent statistics to enable the technical committee to assess potential dangers and devise solutions to avert them.
- Commit to implementing the recommendations of the joint technical committees, especially that advising Ethiopia to build several smaller dams which, combined, can insure its electricity needs while not endangering the water security of other countries, particularly Egypt, which is the most vulnerable to the dangers of reductions in the flow of water.
- To reach a tripartite agreement with Egypt and Sudan, backed by international guarantees, to regulate the construction of dams in Ethiopia and Sudan, on the Blue Nile in particular, in a manner that is not prejudicial to Egypt’s rights and the Egyptian people’s right to life.
Egypt has a water deficit of 23 billion cubic metres a year. This is a concrete fact. The urgent question, therefore, is how to compensate for the deficit. If this challenge is already formidable in view of the mounting pressures that population growth would place on our water supplies with existing quotas, imagine how formidable it would be if the deficit is further magnified by the following factors:
- The creation of a commission under the Entebbe Agreement of 2010 whose chief task will be to work out a new redistribution of Nile waters, which will jettison the historical quota system that had assured Egypt and Sudan 84 billion cubic metres per year, of which Egypt obtained 55.5 billion cubic metres per year.
- The shortages in Egypt’s Nile water resources as a result of the construction of Ethiopian dams and the creation of a large enough reservoir to generate electricity which, in itself, is a complex question (what systems and mechanisms will be used to guarantee the flow of water to Sudan and Egypt, even at currently existing levels?).
Surely such scientific and technological facts should have convinced Ethiopia that it should not push ahead with a hydraulic project of that scale, given the certain dangers it poses to Sudan and Egypt. However, Addis Ababa has remained stubbornly uncooperative. In the negotiating rounds on 4 November and 8 December 2013, and 4 January 2014, it rejected all Egyptian confidence-building proposals as well as the offer of partnership in the dam on the condition of danger aversion. Cairo was thus forced to declare these rounds a failure and suspend talks until Ethiopia produces something positive. As for the Sudanese position, that is another subject entirely.

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

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