Egypt, Ethiopia at loggerheads over Nile River
Cairo worries Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a $4-billion hydroelectric project, could choke the downstream flow of Nile River.
WASHINGTON—Egypt’s musical-chairs government faces enough challenges. So why is a construction project almost 3,000 kilometres from Cairo provoking fears over Egypt’s national survival?
Egypt and Ethiopia are butting heads over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a $4-billion hydroelectric project that Ethiopia is building on the headwaters of the Blue Nile, near the border between Ethiopia and Sudan.
Cairo worries the megaproject, which began construction in 2011 and is scheduled to be finished by 2017, could choke the downstream flow of the Nile River right when it expects its needs for fresh water to increase.
Brandishing a pair of colonial-era treaties, Egypt argues the Nile’s waters largely belong to it and that it has veto power over dams and other upstream projects.
Ethiopia, for its part, sees a chance to finally take advantage of the world’s longest river, and says the 6,000 megawatts of electricity the dam will produce will be a key spur to maintaining Africa’s highest economic growth rate and for growth in energy-starved neighbours.
The dispute has heated up again, after a fresh effort to iron out the differences at the negotiating table collapsed. Egypt has sought to get the United Nations to intervene, and reportedly asked Ethiopia to halt construction on the dam until the two sides can work out an agreement, which Ethiopian officials rebuffed.
A former Egyptian irrigation minister said this week that Egypt is doing too little to forestall the dam, and highlighted the risks to the country’s water supply. Italy’s ambassador to Egypt has reportedly offered Italian help in mediating the showdown; an Italian firm is constructing the dam.
The dam has been a glimmer in Ethiopia’s eye since U.S. scientists surveyed the site in the 1950s. A lack of cash and Egypt’s strength forestalled any development — but that appears to have changed in the wake of the Arab Spring and Egypt’s three years of domestic political upheaval.
For most of the 20th century, Egypt and Sudan divvied up the Nile’s water between them. A 1929 treaty with British African colonial possessions gave Egypt the right to more than half the river’s flow; a 1959 treaty upped Egypt’s share to about 66 per cent. The rest was allocated to Sudan. Ethiopia, whose highlands are the fount of most of the Nile’s waters, was excluded from discussions.
“It is only Egypt and the Republic of Sudan that consider the 1929 and 1959 agreements as legally binding on all the Nile River riparian states,” John Mbaku of the Brookings Institute Africa Growth Initiative, said in an interview.
“The Ethiopians may have undertaken what appears to be unilateral action because of Cairo’s unwillingness to join other riparian states in renegotiating” those accords, he said.
Ethiopia began pushing back seriously after concluding its own water rights deal with other upstream nations, such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in 2010. It laid the first stone on the construction project in the spring of 2011 and says the dam is now about one-third complete.
“With all of the chaos in Egypt, Ethiopia caught a break. It has clearly benefitted from the distractions of the government in Cairo,” said David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia.
In 2012, Sudan threw its weight behind the project, driving a wedge between the two downstream users of the river and complicating Cairo’s hopes to block construction.
Egypt’s fears stem from the dam’s possible impacts on the Nile as it flows downstream through Sudan and eventually to the Mediterranean. The Nile provides both water for Egyptian agriculture, and also electricity through Egypt’s own Aswan dam.
The big problem: there has been no public discussion of the downstream impacts of the Ethiopian project. An international panel of experts, including representatives from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, presented a report last summer to the three governments, but it has not been made public.
Leaks of the report suggested that Egyptian power generation could indeed suffer — but the lack of clarity muddies the issue even for water experts, because it is unclear just how quickly Ethiopia might move to fill the dam’s reservoir after construction is finished.
Filling it sooner would choke water flows downstream, but would enable power generation more quickly; filling it gradually would push back the potential benefits of the dam for decades.
Jennifer Veilleux, a PhD candidate at Oregon State University who has done extensive field work on the impacts of the Blue Nile dam, notes that Egyptian fretting about the dam’s impact on agriculture tends to focus on poor farmers.
But Egypt has used the abundant Nile waters to become a major exporter of water-thirsty crops, such as cotton, which in turn has given Egypt the highest level of economic development among all Nile Basin countries.
“Why does Egypt have the right to use the Nile for economic development, yet the Ethiopians don’t?” she asks.
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