Ethiopia’s Plan to Dam the Nile Has Egypt Fuming

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Young couple on the banks of the river Nile on the outskirts of Cairo, May 6, 2013.

The heat is stifling but the construction workers and red-hatted engineers don’t let up. Mechanized excavators batter into the mighty, arid peaks on either side of the site of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance dam, set to be the largest in Africa. The foundations are growing. The dark brown waters of the Nile River flow through the site. But the punishing sun and tough terrain aren’t the only challenges facing the dam’s progress. Downstream, Egypt is furious — and some politicians there have talked in private of war. Ethiopia is defiant. “There is nothing that will stop Ethiopia now from realizing our country’s dream,” says Bereket Simon, an Ethiopian government spokesman, as he walked around the site on a recent morning.

The Ethiopian government believes that the dam, which is due to start generating electricity next year and will be paid for from the proceeds of government bond sales, will become an image of national pride and a symbol of the country’s recent development. Egypt, a country whose identity and economy are already inseparable from the Nile, feels deeply threatened by the project. Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi said in a speech in Cairo on June 10, “We will defend each drop of the Nile with our blood,” but he has also said that dialogue is the best means of solving the crisis. Not all of Egypt’s politicians have been so diplomatic; during a cabinet meeting on June 3, which was being broadcast by Egyptian state TV without the knowledge of the political figures attending, several told Morsi that he must destroy the dam through any means available.

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On June 18 tempers seemed to calm a little when the Ethiopian foreign minister met his Egyptian counterpart in Addis Ababa, afterwards saying relations remained “brotherly” and that the two men had agreed to conduct further studies to ascertain the likely future impact of the dam on all countries through which the river flows. But the specter of a regional conflict remains. In February, Saudi Arabia’s deputy defense minister was harshly critical of the dam project. “The Dam is being built close to the Sudanese border for political plotting rather than for economic gain and constitutes a threat to Egyptian and Sudanese national security,” said Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the deputy minister. “Ethiopia is hell-bent on harming Arab peoples.” (Bin Sultan was dismissed by the Saudi king in April; it is unclear whether there is any connection between his dismissal and his comments about the dam). On Ethiopia’s side, both South Sudan and Uganda recently said Egypt should not undermine Ethiopia’s right to the Nile.

The challenge Ethiopia faces is to persuade not just the Egyptian government but a whole nation that appears convinced right now that Ethiopia is about to plug the Nile. There is no geographical feature of Egypt more important to its people. As the Greek historian, Herodotus, put it in 50 B.C., Egypt is the “gift of the Nile.” Extremely arid and lacking in rainfall, Egypt has always relied heavily on the Nile for its freshwater. Following Sudan’s independence, Egypt negotiated with Sudan in 1959 that it would have rights to over 14,500 billion gallons per year of the Nile’s flow, leaving over 488 billion gallons for Sudan, and less for the upstream states — Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi. Ethiopia was not party to these talks, and many Egyptians now see the new dam as a way for Ethiopia to bypass the agreement, control the Nile, and gain leverage over Cairo. For Ethiopia and Egypt, whose populations are predicted to grow steeply in the coming years, the water of the Nile and how they use it could determine whether they can cater for the demands of their fast growing populations.

Experts differ on whether the dam will, in fact, negatively impact the Nile. According to Dia El-Quosy, the former chairman of Egypt’s National Water Research Centre, the dam will reduce water flow anywhere from 1,300 billion gallons to 6,600 billion gallons per year. El-Quosy also argues that the reduction in water flow would increase pollution in the river and harm the fisheries in Egypt, as well as making it difficult for ferries and other boats to navigate the river. Another serious concern, el-Quosy says, is the possible reduction in fertility for farmland along the banks of the river that could be caused by the dam holding back nutrient-rich salts. He claims that every 260 billion gallon reduction in water flow created by the dam will mean half a million farmers lose their farms. “So if we lose 30bn kilolitres (8,000 billion gallons) in water flow, that would mean losing 25% of Egypt’s cultivated land,” he says.

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Not all experts, though, agree that the dam necessarily spells disaster for the downstream states of Sudan and Egypt. According to Professor Dale Whittington, an expert on the Nile’s hydropower potential, hydropower dams do not generally consume water. “After the reservoir behind the Grand Renaissance Dam is filled, the dam will not reduce the total water supply available to Egypt and Sudan,” he says. Whittington also says, however, that Ethiopia needs to recognize that Egypt has legitimate concerns about how Ethiopia will operate the Grand Renaissance Dam. If Ethiopia attempted to fill the dam’s reservoir during years of drought and at a time when there was little water stored in Egypt’s Aswan High Dam Reservoir, for example, this would seriously reduce Egypt’s water supplies at a crucial time. “Similarly, during a multi-year drought in the Nile basin, Egypt needs guarantees that Ethiopia will not act strategically to withhold water, but instead will coordinate the operation of the Grand Renaissance Dam with Egypt’s Aswan High Dam in order to minimize the costs of the drought on all the” countries through which the Nile flows, said Whittington.

Although the Egyptian government has been highly vocal in its opposition to the dam, Sudan appears to support the project. “Our government is mostly positive about the dam,” says Alhajj Hamad, a Khartoum-based political analyst. “There is a small minority of Islamists who feel they should back their Islamist brothers in Cairo but mostly our government is being pragmatic and sees the benefits.” Experts have noted that the dam could reduce sediment flows down the Nile, which would increase the lifespan of hydropower dams in Sudan, of which there are six, mostly built during colonial times. It would also reduce the fertility of Sudan’s farmlands, however. “No one is sure quite yet,” said one Sudanese water official. Although Egypt also has two dams on the Nile, which could coordinate with Ethiopia’s dam to efficiently regulate water flow, it is the size of Ethiopia’s dam that is irking Egypt — and the perceived secrecy by which the dam is being built.

In spite of the uncertainty surrounding the dam project — and its potential to create friction in the region – it could ultimately turn out to bring greater harmony to the countries through which the Nile flows. “If transparency is increased then this dam can be a great opportunity for the region to work together,” says Cleo Paskal, a specialist in water and food security at London’s Chatham House think tank. “Ethiopia will now be a stakeholder of the Nile and it will be in all the countries’ interests to increase dialogue and to protect the river in a way that benefits all.”

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