Ethiopia’s $4.8bn plan to dam Africa’s longest river has infuriated states downstream
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The master of ceremonies was not holding back. “Now is the time for our renaissance!” he boomed. “[This is] part of the continual dream of reclaiming our greatness.”
Behind him, a coral-brown gash had been cut into the green hillside. Yellow Caterpillar earthmoving trucks rumbled across the construction site while the assembled dignitaries stood under a glaring sun, fanning themselves with brochures promoting the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Damproject.
The Blue Nile streams through the moved earth, rushing towards Sudan 14km farther west, then onwards to Egypt and the Mediterranean. If the Ethiopians have their way, $4.8bn of concrete and engineering works will cover these foundations within the next four years, damming the Nile and generating 6,000 megawatts – much of it for export. Apart from producing electricity, the dam would realise a centuries-old dream of east Africans: mastering the mighty Nile.
But the river – and Ethiopia’s costly effort to dam it – is also at the heart of a regional dispute. The issue has inflamed national rivalries and deepened a diplomatic conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia that reflects a shift in power between a resurgent sub-Saharan Africa and weakened Arab states to the north. It is a struggle over water resources that has elicited threats of proxy wars and missile attacks and raised fears of economic meltdown.
“Until recent times, there were these colonial treaties to guarantee Egypt most of the water,” says Dan Morrison, author of The Black Nile . “Then came decades of war and famine in Upper Nile states. There were no opportunities to develop. Now these countries are at peace and are developing and Egypt has not been prepared over the past few years to acknowledge that they have a seat at the table.”
Ethiopian officials from the prime minister to the lowliest bureaucrat repeat the mantra that the project is “win-win”. But Egyptians vehemently disagree. Several politicians were caught on live television in Cairo this month saying it might be better to bomb the dam or to arm Ethiopian guerrillas to pressure the government in Addis Ababa. Mohamed Morsi, president of Egypt, said in a later television appearance that “all options are open”.
Officials in Egypt, which relies on the Nile for power generation, irrigation, recreation and even its national identity, say repeatedly that Ethiopia may not take “a single drop” of Egypt’s share of the river.
Ethiopia, which has watched for centuries as Egypt has made use of the Nile – 86 per cent of which rises in Ethiopia’s highlands – is convinced the dam can revive an ancient civilisation that has been hollowed out by poverty and famine. Officials say the dam can make Ethiopia the biggest power exporter in Africa and transform it into a middle-income country.
Ethiopia’s is only the loudest and most tangible claim to the Nile’s resources. Ten countries make up its basin, with 238m people reliant on its waters and verdant banks. Only Egypt and Sudan, however, claim exclusive rights to its use and object to anything that might affect the river.
“I think we feel [Egypt’s objection] is insane and . . . they have to see the benefit of [the dam],” says Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia’s prime minister. “They just want to see that they are the only owner of the Nile river, while Ethiopia contributes 86 per cent of the water.”
Egypt’s dominance of the Nile is rooted in the region’s colonial past. In 1929, Cairo and Sudan’s British colonial ruler exchanged two letters that recognised Egypt’s “historical and natural rights” over the Nile.
Three decades later, as Egypt sought to secure water for its own hydroelectric dam at Aswan, it signed a treaty with then-independent Sudan divvying up use of the Nile solely between the two.
“It’s an agreement, an international agreement. International agreements are valid for ever,” a senior Egyptian diplomat told the Financial Times.
. . .
Since it was never party to the agreements, Ethiopia argues it is not breaking any law. Today the eight upstream riparian countries are trying to secure more “equitable” access to the Nile as part of a 14-year negotiation among water ministers with support from the Nile Basin Initiative, backed by the World Bank. When Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda signed the Cooperative Framework Agreement in 2010, it was staunchly opposed by Egypt – which twice delayed proceedings from 2007 – and Sudan. When Burundi added its signature in 2011, it gave the agreement the two-thirds majority it needed to go ahead, but not all parties have ratified the treaty.
Ethiopia has ploughed ahead with its mission against what has been termed “waterlordism”. More than 4,500 contractors are working on the project. Miheret Debebe, chief executive of Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation, says that construction is “nearly 21 per cent complete”.
This month experts from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan delivered their findings on the likely impact of the dam on the three countries. It was an attempt for private dialogue to supplant public controversy. So far Ethiopia has said it is satisfied with their work but Egypt says Addis Ababa has not provided enough information and that more research on the effects of the dam is needed.
“The water is enough for all of us and we have no intention at all to harm significantly Egypt or Sudan,” says Mr Hailemariam. “We have to co-operate.”
Egyptian officials say they have offered Ethiopia a number of counterproposals to the Grand Renaissance project. Khalid Wassif at the ministry of water resources and irrigation says his government has urged Ethiopia to build three or four smaller dams instead. He says he also proposed the idea of joint management of the project by Addis Ababa, Cairo and Khartoum.
“In general, we are ready for negotiations and discussions and we are not against benefit to Ethiopia on the one condition [that they do] not harm the current water flow,” says Mr Wassif.
This latest development in Nile dynamics might say more about a shift in regional politics than it does about competing claims to a finite environmental resource.
“This is about Egypt being weakened and Ethiopia becoming stronger in comparison,” says Cleo Paskal, a water security expert at Chatham House, the London think-tank.
Politicians close to Mr Morsi, who has faced stiffening opposition to his Islamist government’s policies, have been whipping up fears of losing access to the Nile to unify a fragmented public.
“Morsi is being seen as incompetent and ineffectual, and his enemies are looking to get him,” says Salman Salman, a Sudanese former World Bank adviser who is now a fellow at the International Water Resources Association in Paris. “There is nothing stronger than the Nile. In the past it was Israel. The Nile is the one thing that can bring all Egyptians together.”
Many Egyptians also accuse Ethiopia and other Upper Nile states of exploiting the power vacuum that followed the January 2011 uprising. Ethiopia announced enhanced plans for the dam just weeks after the protests began in Tahrir Square, Cairo.
In Ethiopia, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a national obsession that is emptying the nation’s pockets. The dam is costing the government $800m a year, a 10th of the national budget.
Every civil servant, most earning monthly wages of less than $100, gives a month’s salary to a national bond to fund it. The civil servant donations are part of the national push driven by the memory of Meles Zenawi, the late prime minister who championed the project and expanded it as Egypt fell apart.
“They give you the option for a bond with interest or without interest – in the end it’s not really a choice,” says a business owner. Broadcasts show bus drivers, pensioners and schoolchildren at grand dinners abroad giving up cash for the project. The nationwide campaign has raised about $300m, says Bereket Simon, head of fundraising.
“This is a voluntary act of citizens – people are contributing to the project out of their meagre revenues,” says Mr Bereket. “This has been a dream for every Ethiopian for thousands of years.” But contributions are slowing down.
The $4.8bn cost – combined with a lack of donor support for the project – may slow down the construction. So far it has garnered only 15 per cent of the financing and the International Monetary Fund says Ethiopia should slow spending because it is sucking money out of the rest of the economy.
Slowing down construction could ease regional tensions. And the impact on Lower Nile countries might be minimised if Ethiopia extends the period for water collection in the reservoir from the seven years now planned to between 15 and 20 years, say scientists.
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But even without international financing, Ethiopia might still pull it off. “In the long run this is what will transform the Ethiopian economy,” says Donald Kaberuka, African Development Bank president. The Grand Renaissance dam project “is really a model. They’ve approached power from the viewpoint of energy security but also as an export sector”.
Salini, an Italian contractor, signed a €3.35bn contract in 2011 for the project, touted as the largest dam in Africa. But Mr Miheret of Eepco says it will be one of the cheapest hydropower projects in the world, and will finance itself by generating small amounts of power from 2015. Ethiopia started exporting power to Sudan and Kenya this year, in addition to Djibouti, aiming for $100m in sales of about 170MW this year, up from $35m last year.
In the longer term, competition for a finite regional resource will probably necessitate a painful economic overhaul. Even if Egypt were to maintain its rights to the Nile it may run out of water because of domestic population growth and the use of large amounts for cotton and rice production. It is already recycling water from its allocation while Sudan claims it is not using its full quota.
A solution to the stand-off may lie in a co-operative, negotiated regional approach to water management as advocated by the Nile Basin Initiative. This week, Mohamed Kamel Amr, Egypt’s foreign minister, attempted to cool the rhetoric and spoke of a potential deal during a joint press conference with Tedros Adhanom, his Ethiopian counterpart, in Addis Ababa.
But a piecemeal approach will not resolve the deeper regional imbalances. “This colonial-era paradigm is locking conflict into the system,” Ms Paskal says. “Unless it’s broken out of, it will just get worse and worse.”
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International law: Egyptian response muddies the legal waters
When Egypt finally awoke to the reality that Ethiopia was building a dam on the Nile – billed as the largest in Africa – its politicians cried foul. But they also cited a relatively novel concept that puzzled and alarmed seasoned observers: water security, writes Borzou Daragahi.
“Egypt’s water security cannot be violated at all,” Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s president, said in a television appearance this month.
Jurists, diplomats and scholars have long wrestled with rights afforded to nations along waterways. They have generally struggled to reconcile two legal concepts: the equitable and reasonable distribution of water with an obligation not to harm other riparian states.
“We, the lawyers, have been struggling over how to work out something in the middle between the two,” says Salman Salman, an international water expert and former World Bank adviser on the Nile.
In the dispute over construction of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam project, Egyptians point to Upper Nile nations’ obligation to do no harm while Addis Ababa naturally clings to the right of equitable and reasonable distribution.
Ethiopia may be able to take heart from precedent, at least as far as international law is concerned. Mr Salman and other jurists point to a landmark case along the Danube river involving Hungary and Slovakia.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 1997 that both countries had breached their obligations, but that Bratislava’s insistence on its share of the river’s resources, in constructing the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros dam project, trumped Budapest’s worries about the potential harm it could do.
That may explain why Egypt felt the need to argue the concept of water security, which Mr Salman says muddies the waters (so to speak) by bringing in a third legal concept.
But “water security” also carries military and national security connotations, ratcheting up tensions in a region already rife with conflict, warlords and weapons. For, while a nation might be able to share water resources, what government would compromise on its people’s “water security”?