Egypt Studies Implications Of Ethiopian Nile Dam

The controversy of Ethiopia’s plans to build the Renaissance Dam on the Nile sheds new light on the geopolitical implications of Egypt’s reliance on the Nile waters.

al-monitor Boys play on the bank of the river Nile at the outskirts of Giza governorate, Jan. 20, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih.

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renaissance dam, water security, water, security, muslim brotherhood, ethiopia, egyptian muslim brotherhood, egyptian foreign policy, egypt, blue nile

Jun 4, 2013

Maintaining Egypt’s acquired and historical rights to the Nile waters and preserving its right over the implementation of projects for the development of the river resources in the upstream countries are at the forefront of Egypt’s priorities to meet the requirements of the population growth and economic development plans — in  light of its reliance on the Nile to fulfill its water requirements, since it is the country most dependent on the Nile water among all of the riparian countries.

Therefore, it is only natural that the Nile basin’s main headwaters — whether in the Ethiopian highlands or the tropical highlands — figure into Egyptian water security, since any act by any riparian country that may affect Egypt's annual water share of 55.5 billion cubic meters is deemed a violation of Egyptian national security.

Yet, the situation on the ground confirms that currently, Egypt's water security situation is witnessing negative developments. Upstream countries are exploiting Egypt’s political instability following the January 25 Revolution to pass the Entebbe Agreement for resharing Nile waters, without taking into account Egyptian concerns relating to this agreement. It should be noted that Ethiopia had announced in mid-March last year its intention to refer the agreement to the Ethiopian parliament for its ratification and entry into force. Moreover, upstream countries have strengthened their coordination relationships to face the two downstream countries (Egypt and Sudan).

On a different note, Ethiopia succeeded in convincing the Nile basin southern riparian countries to accept it as a full-fledged member among them, even if it is not in the south [part of the Nile basin] — which provides them with some kind of support for the implementation of development projects in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, it is worth mentioning that Egypt and Sudan were refused membership in this group.

The situation is further exacerbated by South Sudan’s announcement of its objection to the 1959 Nile agreement between Egypt and Sudan, while it intends to join the Framework Agreement, which was signed by Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in 2010, and by Burundi in 2011.

The most prominent challenge is that Ethiopia is proceeding with the implementation of the Renaissance Dam that represents the greatest threat to Egypt’s water security, in light of the available information on the dam. The Renaissance Dam is located on the Blue Nile in western Ethiopia in the Benishangul region, about 40 kilometers [25 miles] from the Sudanese border and 740 kilometers [460 miles] from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The dam will produce approximately 6,000 megawatts of electrical energy, with a total cost of approximately $1 billion. It is estimated that the construction of the dam, which was awarded to the Italian company Salini, will take between four and five years. The main part of the dam is 145 meters [476 feet] high and 1,780 meters [5,840 feet] long, and a secondary dam will be constructed at a height of 60 meters [197 feet] and a length of 4.8 meters [15.7 feet] to increase the dam’s storage capacity to 74 billion cubic meters.

A dam with such specifications has catastrophic effects on Egypt. The dam filling process (which takes up to six years), will cause Egypt to sustain a huge water share deficit, estimated at around 10 to 20 billion cubic meters. Such a dam will also cause the cessation of agricultural expansion, a possible reduction of the currently cultivated area, an increase of salinity in the northern part of the Delta in such a way that prevents cultivation of those lands and their fallow lands, damage to potable water stations, the collapse of canals and drains, and environmental destabilization in the northern part of Egypt (Alexandria and the north coast). Furthermore, it is possible that this dam would prevent water from reaching the coastline, affect navigation on the river and cause a reduction by an estimated 20% in the electricity production generated from the High Dam [in Aswan].

On the other hand, if the Renaissance Dam were to collapse, an area of 16-20 square kms stretching from the site of the dam all the way to Khartoum would be flooded and destroyed. Furthermore, a huge influx of water would pour into Lake Nasser. This could lead to the collapse of the High Dam in southern Egypt, if the lake was already full, given that there is no mechanism for draining excess water from the lake. In that case, this would destroy all of the cities located in the vicinity of the dam and extending to Cairo, and would flood the Delta. This possibility remains weak, but if Lake Nasser is not full before the influx of the water flow, this will produce a water surplus equivalent to three times the river course water, which would put all of the facilities on the river banks underwater.

US support

Numerous international and regional changes contributed to the escalation of the Nile water crisis, including, for example, unlimited US support for Ethiopian policies and the United States’ exploitation of Ethiopia as a tool to implement its agenda, whether in East Africa or in the Nile water crisis, while Washington shows an increased interest in this crisis.

On the other hand, the European position is more favorable to the upstream countries but excludes direct intervention in the crisis, considering the position of upstream countries on the Framework Agreement a sovereign matter that must be respected. They have asserted that Europe will only intervene to solve the crisis if a consensus is reached by the parties in this respect.

It is worth mentioning that the West is getting more and more involved in Africa in general, and in the Nile Basin region in particular. Western nations consider it a vital region in terms of agricultural investments to confront food scarcity, in light of climate change. European companies, like the Italian company Salini, are seeking to acquire the right to implement major projects along the river.

Moreover, China and India, whose presence is increasing in Africa in general and in the Nile Basin region in particular, are competing against European countries over agricultural investments in the riparian countries. 

Additionally, the Ethiopian role has intensified regionally. Addis Ababa succeeded in laying out the policies of the upstream countries to the detriment of Egypt’s water interests, in the sense that Ethiopia took unilateral decisions to build a significant number of dams on its land in violation of the laws on international rivers, benefitting from international support. Moreover, the majority of Gulf countries tend to invest agriculturally in the Nile basin countries to fill the food gap caused by the scarcity of water [in their own countries]. Additionally, the Israeli presence is further highlighted in the Nile basin countries. Israel tends to espouse competitive policies toward Egypt in the fields of technical cooperation, irrigation, agriculture and water resources management and is using these policies against the interests of Egypt in order to create a fertile ground to reap prospective benefits from the water of the Nile.

Furthermore, Israel is seeking to cripple the Islamic movements in Africa, especially after the Muslim Brotherhood took over the seat of power in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia through setting up a new counter axis comprising the countries of the Horn of Africa and East Africa — namely Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan and Tanzania. All of these developments coincide with a decline in Egypt’s leading role in Africa in general and in the Nile basin in particular. The upstream countries are aware that Egypt’s role, as well as its regional and international influence, waned during the last phase of Hosni Mubarak’s rule and in the wake of the January 25 Revolution and the transitional phase toward establishing the state, due to the political and security instability that came along.

Despite all the challenges, the Egyptian way of dealing with the developments has not matched the severity of the pending dangers. All intensive Egyptian efforts in this regard have been an exercise in futility as they failed to placate the Egyptian concerns regarding the Framework Agreement, particularly given the fact that the negotiations about it were postponed more than once, while the upstream countries are speeding toward ratifying it without taking into consideration the interests of the downstream countries. Until this point, the Egyptian efforts have been unable to halt the construction of the Renaissance Dam or at least reduce the effects. Egypt did not even receive any detailed information in regard to the structure of the Dam until Ethiopia announced its construction in April 2011.

Even the Tripartite Commission charged with studying the effects of the Renaissance Dam on Egypt and Sudan was not set up by Egypt. The late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi called for establishing the commission during his visit to Cairo in September 2011. In addition to that, the decisions of the commission are not binding, which gives the impression that it is merely an Ethiopian trick to procrastinate, gain time, impose the facts on the ground and to acquire the needed funding to construct the dam by giving the illusion that they have come to an agreement with the downstream countries, since the donor countries require unanimous consent over the development projects in the upstream countries.

Taking a look at the contemporary and modern history of Egypt, we note that the Nile has always been a top priority. Mohamad Ali Pasha encouraged the European voyagers to discover its riverheads in 1863, because he knew that the stability of his rule was related to the Nile. The deep interest in the river continued until the era of Ismail Pasha, who raised the Egyptian flag near the equator in 1871. Also, late President Anwar Sadat threatened to bombard any water project Ethiopia might construct on the Nile, after Addis Ababa announced its intention to construct projects on the river’s headwaters to provide around 6 billion cubic meters of water to irrigate 18,000 hectares. Even the colonialists were aware of the importance of the Nile for Egypt, as mentioned in the book by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, "The River War", in which he affirmed that the Nile was the main reason behind the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 between the British army and the forces of the Mahdist Sudan.

In light of the importance of the Nile for Egypt, Egyptian national interests must prevail without consideration for any other matter. An aware, strong political will must come into being and take bold decisions to halt Ethiopia from constructing the Renaissance Dam according to current specifications. The storage capacity must be reduced to lessen the damage to Egypt, or at least come to an agreement with Ethiopia on operational rules, in order to spare Egypt the negative effects. Additionally, it must be rendered clear that the dam is constructed for electricity production and not agriculture purposes. Egypt should coordinate with Sudan to tackle the points of contention within the Framework Agreement, in a way that favor the interests of both countries and bridges the gap between the upstream and downstream countries. Moreover, unconventional ideas of cooperation should be set forth with the countries of the Nile basin: for example, and given the energy needs of the upstream countries, Egypt can implement energy projects in these countries while fulfilling its water needs. Additionally, projects to minimize water loss should be sought in South Sudan (the Jonglei Canal, the Bahr al-Ghazal river project and the Mashar Project), which will provide Egypt with around 9 billion cubic meters of water.

Egypt should also refer to donor countries and international circles to clarify its point of view, including Egypt’s need for the Nile’s waters and its refusal of any projects that reduce its share, especially given that Egypt is under the water poverty line. In addition, Egypt must study the possibility of obtaining a part of the Congo River water, which is wasted in the Atlantic ocean, through a canal that links the Congo River to the Nile, a project that would provide Egypt with around 60 billion cubic meters of water, as well as its share in the Nile. It is worth noting that the Congo River dumps around 1,000 billion cubic meters of freshwater in the Atlantic, to the extent that the water goes as far as 30 kilometers into the sea.

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