The water politics of Egypt and Ethiopia

EGY damCAIRO – Anxiety over water is growing in Egypt as Ethiopian leaders press forward with plans to build a massive dam that would block the flow of the Blue Nile.

Addis Ababa started construction of the massive Grand Renaissance Dam in 2011 when Cairo was consumed with the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak.

Slated for completion in 2022 – four years behind schedule – the $4.8 billion-dollar dam would be the seventh largest dam in the world and Africa's largest hydroelectric power plant.

"It's one of the most important flagship projects for Ethiopia," said Seleshi Bekele, the country's minister of water, irrigation and electricity.

But the 510-foot-tall, 5,840-foot-long structure would give Ethiopia control over the headwaters of the Blue Nile, the source of 80 percent of Egypt’s water.

Egyptian concerns about potential water shortages have put the regional powers at loggerheads, said Mustafa Kamal, an analyst at the government-affiliated Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

“The negotiations have been sputtered and diplomats have not made any progress for almost nine years because Ethiopia will not back down from filling the reservoir and continues to move forward with the project without considering the concerns of the Egyptian side,” Kamal said.

Egyptian officials insist that international agreements signed in 1929 and 1959 give Egypt rights to 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water per year. Sudan, which lies between the two countries, receives 18.5 billion cubic meters annually under the agreements. The Blue and White Nile Rivers combine in Sudan, forming the Nile River that empties into the Mediterranean Sea.

Those agreements also gave Egypt a veto on any projects proposed on the river. Egyptians are angry that Ethiopia moved forward in 2011 without consulting them during the most turbulent year of the Arab Spring.

“It was upsetting to see the last Ethiopian Prime Minister take advantage of the chaos in Egypt to push ahead with this project at a time he knew there could be no consultation with anyone in Cairo,” said Ahmed Noubi, who owns a sugar cane farm south of Luxor.

The timetable for filling the reservoir is the most critical problem for Egypt. The faster Ethiopia fills the dam, the less water will flow to Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia could theoretically fill the reservoir to full capacity in three years. But Egypt is insisting on a prolonged timetable of up to a decade.

Egypt is already near the United Nations’ threshold of water poverty, or only 1,000 cubic meters per person.

“In light of the continuous population increase in Egypt, it is certain that we will face many difficulties and a water disaster is in store during the period that Ethiopia fills the dam reservoir,” Kamal added.

But Ethiopian leaders asserted that the dam is necessary to power their fast-growing economy. Three-quarters of Ethiopia lacks electricity.

"It's not about control of the flow but providing opportunity for us to develop ourselves through energy development,” said Bekele. “It has a lot of benefit for the downstream countries."

Noubi agreed but said Ethiopia could have acted differently.

“Ethiopia has a right to electricity, but they could have built a series of smaller dams and we would not be looking at years of drought as they fill the huge reservoir behind the Grand Renaissance Dam,” Noubi said.

Scandals have dogged the project in the past year.

In May, a Nigerian executive and two employees of the company providing cement for the dam died in a roadside shooting as they were driving to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The project’s former chief engineer, Semegnew Bekele, was found shot dead inside his car in July. Around the same time, inspectors found defects in power turbines installed by the Metal and Engineering Corporation, a company owned by Ethiopia’s military.

The Egyptian public has reveled in the setbacks.

“Allah is generous, this is a gift from God to the Egyptians,” exclaimed popular TV talk show host Amr Adib recently. “I tell our brothers in Ethiopia take your time and be patient, no hurry. Even better, dismantle the whole dam, we can send you engineers from here to do it.”

Meanwhile, Cairo has enacted stringent new water saving measures.

Last week, President Abdel Fattah El Sisi inaugurated several greenhouse projects with the ambitious aim of increasing Egypt’s agricultural output fourfold while reducing water consumption by about 60 percent. In October, Egypt’s Housing Ministry signed a contract with the US-based Fluence Corporation to build three small seawater desalination plants for $7.6 million. Sisi has also reduced water to rice and sugarcane field, two staples of local agriculture.

“I think the government is trying to do its very best,” said Hany Hamroush, professor of geology and geochemistry at the American University in Cairo.

Hamroush was worried about how Egypt would replace water that the dam might restrict. But he was also concerned about the stability of the dam, which lies near a fault line.

“Recent studies indicate that the rate of accumulation of mud in the reservoir behind the dam can be really very high and that eventually a huge amount of sediments can accumulate,” said Hamroush. “The accumulation of mud will exert real pressure on the base of the dam. This will make it a risk factor if, God forbid, there is an earthquake.”

Photo: Screenshot from a drone video of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam under construction in November 2017.
Credit: Courtesy of the Ethiopian Embassy in the United Kingdom YouTube Channel. (11/09/17)

Story/photo publish date: 01/02/2019

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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