Seen by Ethiopia as crucial to its development and viewed by Egypt as an imminent water security threat, the Renaissance dam is triggering an alarming water dispute on the shores of the world’s longest river. (Global Risk Insights)
Over the last few weeks, the waves of dispute have been disturbing the otherwise calm waters of the Nile river. Ethiopia, one of the source countries of the river, has started diverting the Blue Nile, a tributary which supplies most of the river’s waters, in order to proceed with the Renaissance mega dam project.
The sudden move, following the return of the Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi from Addis Ababa, led to a heated debate in Egypt and sparked a war of words between the two countries. Although, the project is not new, the river’s two most populous nations have failed to reach consensus, both politically and regarding the technical aspects of the dam. Seen by Ethiopia as crucial to its development and viewed by Egypt as an imminent water security threat, the Renaissance dam is triggering an alarming water dispute on the shores of the world’s longest river.
The Ethiopian government’s decision to divert the Blue Nile is a preparatory step to build its national project known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The decision comes before a tripartite committee, consisting of Ethiopian, Sudanese, Egyptian and international experts, will announce the findings of its dam assessment study, including an evaluation of the project’s impact on the two downstream countries Sudan and Egypt. Situated only 40 kilometers away from the Sudanese border, the dam is expected to generate about 5,250 megawatts of electricity after its expected completion in four years.
The Grand Dam means a lot to the East African nation that seeks to be the continent’s first electricity exporter. It is the biggest project in a development plan comprising 33 dams in total, which will improve Ethiopia’s irrigation system and produce electricity. The GERD is not only the most important of these dams at a cost of $4.8 billion, but also the most problematic. For years, Ethiopia’s plan to build such mega projects by the Nile has faced objections from the Nile’s downstream riparian countries, Sudan and Egypt, which regard the dams as a threat to their water share, set by historic international treaties and agreements.
Indeed, the water share of the Nile Basin countries is a complicated issue, the roots of which date back to the mid 20th century. Measuring the average annual flow of the Nile water, Sudan and Egypt signed an agreement in 1959 to allocate the 84 billion cubic meters that reach them, at 18.5 and 55.5 billion cubic meters, respectively, while the remaining 10 billion cubic meters is lost through evaporation.
But as the world’s largest river, the Nile means much more than these numbers. The amount of rain falling within the Nile Basin is estimated at an annual 1,660 billion cubic meters. However, only about 4 percent is used, including Egypt’s large quota. The Sudanese government discovered that the dam may be beneficial in terms of regulating the water flow and thus minimise the impact of the annual summer season floods. Ethiopia has also promised to sell Sudan electricity at base cost.
Egypt has therefore found itself on its own and in discord with another populous nation, whose interests in development contradicts its national and water security interests. In fact, each of the two countries has its own needs, solutions, perspectives and challenges.
Ethiopia’s tributaries supply about 85 percent of the waters of the Nile through the Blue Nile, known locally as the Abay River. Located on a large hill, the country is full of waterfalls through which the water flows north towards Sudan and Egypt. Yet the country suffers from primitive infrastructure, especially when it comes to electricity. According to the World Bank, in 2010 only 17 percent of the country’s 84.7 million people had access to electricity.
The Ethiopian government has established an ambitious plan not only to provide 100% of the population with electricity by 2018, but also to be the continent’s first hydropower exporter. Launching the GERD project in April 2011, the late Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, proposed the establishment of a Tripartite Committee, including experts from the three countries, as a goodwill gesture to build trust. As a response to concerns raised by Egypt and Sudan, the committee, which started its work in May 2011, aimed at assessing the dam’s impacts over them.
The issue has sparked intense debate in Ethiopia. On the one hand, the media highlights the country’s right to develop its own resources. Sometimes a comparison is made between Egypt’s High Dam project in Aswan built in the 1960s and the GERD project to point out how long Egypt has been solely benefiting from the Nile and inciting a change to this “unfair” situation.
On the other hand, as much as the GERD might seem like a national project, it is not subject to unanimity. In fact, in order for the government to proceed with its dam building projects, over half a million indigenous people who lived in the dam’s building areas had to be relocated. The project has not gained unanimous support of the environmentalist organisations either, which have warned against the dam’s ecological impact.
The construction of the GERD began in April 2011, only two months after the fall of the Mubarak regime and in the middle of political unrest. It was considered a slap in the face of a weakening Egyptian state that was drowning in its own internal problems. In addition, the Ethiopian government declared the diversion of the Blue Nile upon the return of an Egyptian delegation headed by the president from Addis Ababa.
All these elements have led to a mounting discourse of war on both the official and public level. In a scandalous ‘inadvertently’ aired meeting, between the president and the chiefs of several political parties, many of the proposed solutions to the ‘Nile Crisis’ were about military intervention or destabilizing Ethiopia by the General Intelligence Service units. As shocking as the meeting and the proposals were, many Egyptians do support military intervention, bearing in mind that the threatening tone of the previous president and his predecessors was what halted the Ethiopian projects for decades.
Already burdened with the frequent power cuts that started few months ago, the tired Egyptian population does not want to add water shortage to the list of its daily concerns. As the topic became more politicized domestically, the Egyptian president declared that “all options are possible,” sparking a war of words between the Egyptian government and its Ethiopian counterpart, and even the Ugandan government supporting of Ethiopia.
The current tension between Egypt and Ethiopia shows the difficulty in reaching a future agreement on allocation of the Nile’s waters between all of its 10 riparian states. It also shows how the contradictions between development and water security can easily transform into tomorrow’s water conflicts.
Although still unclear, the steps adopted by each country will determine how future disputes among the Nile basin countries can be regulated, whether by using force or by resorting to international law and arbitration. Egypt has many cards to play before military intervention and Ethiopia certainly can correspond to Egypt’s technical considerations on the project. Resource scarcity can trigger conflict, but it can also be a driving force for mutual cooperation and development.