(madamasr.com)For those Egyptians who tend to view the Nile as a limitless resource, Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam has been a wake-up call.
In May, Ethiopia announced it would divert the flow of the Nile to make way for the construction of the dam. The news led to a fiery confrontation between Ethiopia and Egypt. But now, those tensions are beginning to ease up.In response to Ethiopia's announcement, then President Mohammed Morsi made a veiled military threat when he said that "all options are open,” while some Egyptian politicians, in a filmed secret meeting in June, suggested the dam be sabotaged. In response, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn vowed that "nothing and no one” would stop the dam's construction.
Although there has been some improvement in relations since the June confrontations, tripartite talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia failed to reach a "mutual agreement” during the third round that took place in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, on December 4. The talks had already been postponed four times before the first round.
"The ball is in Egypt’s court. They have to find a win-win solution for all, and realize that the dam may be an opportunity for increasing cooperation, investment and cross-border relations.”
The US$4.2 billion dam project — which began in 2011 and is set to be Africa’s largest when it is completed in 2017 — is situated 40 km from the Sudanese border in the Ethiopian Highlands on the Blue Nile, one of two tributaries of the river which provides 86 percent of the water reaching Egypt.
The Nile, the world’s longest river at 6,700 km, is a vast resource shared by Egypt and 10 other countries.
Egypt fears that the dam — 30 percent of which has already been constructed — will affect Egypt’s access to water. The 6,000-megawatt dam with a 63-billion-cubic-meter reservoir is expected to generate three times the electricity generated by the Aswan High Dam and hold twice the amount of water held in Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake.
Ethiopia claims that year-long studies conducted by a 10-person International Tripartite Commission — made up of four international experts, two Egyptians, two Sudanese and two Ethiopians — confirm that Egypt’s access to water will not be greatly affected.
However, neither Egypt’s fears nor Ethiopia’s demands are without foundation.
As the most arid country in the Nile basin and with 95 per cent of its 83-million population living by the Nile (compared to 39 per cent in Ethiopia), Egypt is expected to experience extreme water stress by 2050. In contrast, with more poverty and only 17 percent of its population accessing electricity (compared with 99.6 percent in Egypt), Ethiopia could greatly benefit from the dam.
Meanwhile, 85 percent of Egypt’s water is used for agriculture, which represents 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Although there has been controversy over the benefits and risks of the dam amongst hydropower experts and conservationists, most agree that benefits outweigh the risks for Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.
Lama al-Hatow, a hydropower expert and co-founder of the Water Institute of the Nile, a Cairo-based think tank, claims risks are minimal, even in worst-case scenarios, and that Egypt would see a 5 percent reduction in water loss by storing water in the dam’s reservoir, where rainfall is high and evaporation rates are half that of the Lake Nasser reservoir in Egypt.
She also says losses could be minimized in a win-win situation through joint cooperation and management of the dam by all countries, an option being discussed in the talks.
"I can’t see Ethiopia capable of or willing to withhold water resources from Egypt,” says Jennifer Veilleux, a doctoral candidate in geography at Oregon State University, who has done extensive research on the dam. "The Renaissance Dam is not designed to hold back huge amounts of water, but rather to let the water pass for the generation of hydro-electricity.”
However, there remain some fears that climate change will affect the flow of the river in the future. "Since river basins act as a systemic whole, the problems in certain parts of the basin, particularly in the upper part affects the whole basin,” says Abel Teshome-Woldeyes, a sustainable development activist based in Ethiopia. "This is why cooperation is essential for minimizing risks.”
Most hydrologists and conservationists, even Egyptian ones, are in agreement that the dam may provide mutual benefit to all on the condition that there is joint cooperation and management.
Egypt as the region’s hegemon
Greek historian Herodotus famously said in the fifth century BCE that "Egypt is the gift of the Nile,” a resource which became central for the ancient Egyptian civilization and many others which followed.
In the past century, as Egypt freed itself from the shackles of British occupation in 1952, it was viewed throughout the continent as the region’s hegemon, due to its claim of ‘historical rights” in the form of the 1929 and 1959 water treaties. The latter treaty gave both Egypt and Sudan veto power over upstream projects and allocated 55.5 billion cubic meters (BCM) or 66 percent, to Egypt and 18.5 BCM, or 22 percent, to Sudan.
In response, Ethiopia ended its 1,600-year-long marriage with the Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria. Ethiopia and Egypt have had a history of both harmony and discord in relation to Nile water issues. Ethiopian and Sudanese officials claim that they have been threatened by Egyptian intelligence services.
In response to proposals on joint cooperation and management of the dam from former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2008, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he would "destroy the dam.”
But with Ethiopia’s increasing assertiveness and Egypt’s tumultuous transition, this hegemony has been increasingly challenged.
As Egypt continued its own unilateral projects, including the Toskha Canal Project, begun in 1997, it also increasingly vetoed projects by other upstream countries. Failed negotiations by the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in 1999, meant that the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), involving five upstream countries, was signed in 2010.
This was despite Egyptian and Sudanese officials storming out after failing to veto the agreement on claims of undisputed "historic rights” stipulated in the 1929 and 1959 treaties.
While Egypt argues in terms of water security against unilateral action, on the basis of the 1997 United Nations Convention on International Watercourses, Ethiopia and other riparian states argue for their right to equitable water shares, citing the 1996 Helsinki Agreement.
Ethiopia as a rising game player
With the construction of Africa’s biggest hydropower dam, Ethiopia hopes to become the green energy hub of Africa and sell part of the generated electricity to some of its neighbors. Ethiopia has begun exporting power to Sudan, Kenya and Djibouti, aiming for US$100 million in sales of about 170 MW this year.
As its name suggests, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has been branded as a symbol of economic revival, a project which relegates to history the droughts and famines of the 1970s and 1980s which killed 1,000,000 Ethiopians. The famines led to popular pressure to improve water management and development systems.
"The Ethiopian government is partly doing this to stimulate economic growth and reduce poverty,” says Woldeyes. "Most Ethiopians and even embassies abroad are buying bonds because it is being viewed as a source of national pride.”
The government has also engaged in a successful media campaign, and crushed the minimal dissent surrounding the project. State television broadcasts live around-the-clock footage of the dam’s construction, while farmers and other citizens have been interviewed on television, with some claiming they would "give their blood” for the dam’s completion.
Solomon Desalegn, an environmental activist based in Ethiopia, says that in contrast to the divisive past of tribal conflict and feudalism, this project has united Ethiopians from different backgrounds, speaking different languages and from different ethnic tribes. There are approximately 80 ethnic groups and 90 different languages in Ethiopia.
Ana Cascao, program manager at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) believes the project is also being used for nationalistic propaganda. She points to similarities with how Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser built support and consensus around the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s.
Ever since 2005, Ethiopia’s economy has had 8 to 10 percent yearly growth, the benefits of which have not, however, trickled down to its impoverished citizens. But many view the dam as a large national project, which will benefit everyone.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia has been accused by Egyptian authorities of taking advantage of the power vacuum following the January 25, 2011 revolution, and of not halting the dam’s construction while talks are still under way.
Adel Nabhan, an independent political researcher on African affairs, agrees that Ethiopia’s demands are legitimate but believes that "taking unilateral action is in violation of international law.”
Sudan’s shifting alliances
Another crucial and often ignored piece of the puzzle is the increasing loss of an important historical ally for Egypt: Sudan. Previously a mediator between Egypt, Ethiopia and other Nile basin countries, Sudan has recently expressed full support for the dam’s construction.
While both countries previously agreed to a Four Freedoms Agreement in 2004, which would grant both Sudanese and Egyptians freedom of movement, residence, ownership and work in either country, it was never fully realized.
Other unresolved issues, such as disputes over the Halaib Triangle, an area on the border which Sudan claims ownership over and Egypt has occupied militarily since 1995, have caused tensions over the years.
Sudan, which shares a common language and majority Muslim population with Egypt, is a strategic country. The Blue Nile meets the White Nile at its capital, Khartoum. But as the tables have turned, and with Egypt’s bargaining power greatly decreased, Sudan may have realized that an alliance with Egypt is no longer to its benefit.
Cascao claims that Sudan’s support for the dam is partially due to its plans to utilize the water stored in the dam’s reservoir to increase its water usage for future irrigation projects along the Blue Nile, another potential risk to Egypt’s water access. "The big problem for Egypt is not Ethiopia, it’s Sudan,” she says.
Sudan has been forced to turn to the water-intensive agricultural sector following the independence of oil-rich South Sudan in 2011, home to more than 80 percent of Sudan's former oil fields.
But with an increasingly arid climate in the North, Sudan may need the 4 BCM of its total 18.5 BCM right to water. Before the establishment of South Sudan, which is a highly fertile, oil-rich and water-abundant area, Sudan had previously loaned this allocation to Egypt. Sudan has built several dams in the past, including the Merowe Dam and the Roseires Dam and has plans to build more.
Ali Askouri, chairperson of the Council of Merowe Dam-affected People in Sudan, believes that the Islamist-led Sudanese government of President Omar al-Bashir previously had loyalties to the short-lived government of former President Morsi, and now faces new financial pressures from anti-regime protests and turmoil.
While Egypt has little to offer Sudan, Ethiopia already has a $41 million power transmission line already connecting it with Sudan and hopes to sell it electricity generated from the dam.
Wondwosen Michago Seide, water resources consultant at the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an Eastern-African multinational body, believes conflicting "hydro-mentalities” have prevented riparian countries from cooperating. He also believes, however, that the dam can be an opportunity for cooperation and mutual benefit. "There is a need to investigate, understand and come up with proposals to address this widespread problem of perception in solving issues of the Eastern Nile Basin,” he says.
Askouri believes that cooperation and coexistence is not an idealistic proposal, but rather it is the only solution, especially with water wars a distinct possibility in the near future. "The ball is in Egypt’s court,” he says. "They have to find a win-win solution for all, and realize that the dam may be an opportunity for increasing cooperation, investment and cross-border relations.”