Whose Nile River is it?

Tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia have grown at an alarming rate since Addis Ababa announced its plans to construct the Grand Renaissance Dam across part of the Nile, 40 km from the Sudanese boarder, on April 2, 2011. The dam is big enough to be the largest in Africa, estimated to cost about 80 billion Ethiopian Birr (~about 4.8 billion USD). Egypt claims the dam could lower the river’s level in a country that is mainly desert and reduce cultivated farmland that could cause catastrophic tragedy. Ethiopian government officials say none of Egypt’s worries are scientifically based.

Though both countries could find ways to benefit from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, neither has displayed exemplary conflict-management skills. Rather, after Ethiopia announced the diversion of the river course for construction purposes on the May 28, 2013, politicians in Egypt held a meeting with President Mohamed Morsi and suggested destroying the dam on live TV, which  escalated the issue to further tensions. Now as of  June 18, 2013,  the two countries’ foreign ministers met in Addis Ababa and agreed to more dialogue to resolve their conflicting interests.

(Photo: Deutsche wellie)

Nile, the north flowing river in northeastern Africa crossing ten countries*, has been being utilized for  irrigation, fishing, hydro power and like economic advantages merely by  Egypt and Sudan for almost a century long. These two countries with Britain’s facilitation divided it based on agreements signed in 1929 and 1959, which guaranteed exclusive use of the water resource for only both of them with the lion’s share going to Egypt.

As time went on and the environmental situation worsened, population increased, demand for energy reached its extreme, the remaining countries have begun to claim shared use of the common  resource. The leading country with this claim is Ethiopia. As Ethiopia’s economy has been growing for the last solid ten years with double digit growth averaging 11% a year, the country has set out a strategic plan, which will shift its economic structure from agricultural led into industry based. To realize this plan, power is a prior challenge – being a non-oil country. Bearing the geographic features of the country, hydro power is really its comparative advantage. This led to initiate  construction of  hydro power dams including this one along the Nile river basin.

To put its dam construction plan in action, Ethiopia called for all riparian countries to have fair usage over their common resource –  The Nile. Accordingly, in May 2010, five upstream states signed a Cooperative Framework Agreement to seek more water from the River Nile — a move strongly opposed by Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania were original signatories with Burundi signing in February 2011. The Democratic Republic of Congo is also expected to sign. Representatives of upstream countries said they were “tired of first getting permission from Egypt before using water from the Nile for any development project like irrigation,” as required by a treaty signed during the colonial era between Egypt and Britain in the period mentioned above.

April 2, 2013, shows the construction of the dam in Asosa Region Ethiopia. Ethiopia started to divert the flow of the Blue Nile river to construct a giant dam on Tuesday, according to its state media, in a move that could impact the Nile-dependent Egypt. Downstream nations Egypt and Sudan have objected to the construction, saying it violates a colonial-era agreement which reportedly gives Egypt nearly 70 percent of Nile River waters. (Photo : AP Photo/Elias Asmare)

The Great Ethiopian Renaissance dam is  to be the 13th largest in the world. It is a 170 m (558 ft) tall, 1,800 m (5,906 ft) long gravity-type composed of roller-compacted concrete and will have two power houses, three spillways and a saddle dam. The dam’s reservoir will have a volume of 63,000,000,000 m3 and will be able to generate 6000 MW electricity.

Yet, due to disputes between riparian nations, organizations such as the World Bank and IMF have rejected offering loans for any projects along the Nile. As a result, the Ethiopian government has stated that it intends to fund the entire cost of the dam by Ethiopians; 14% by the public and the rest by the government itself. Accordingly, the government has issued bonds targeted at Ethiopians in the country and abroad. The bond price ranges from 50 Ethiopian Birr (~ less than 3 USD) to hundred of thousands. The willingness and passion of the people to see the dam being constructed is so great that government employees have been promising one to two months of their salary for bond purchase and the business sector of the society has been promising good amounts of bond purchases, some without interest rates. Artists including musicians, poets, and actors/actresses have been mobilized and are contributing through income generating activities. They have promoted the project so well  that by this time one can say no Ethiopian citizen is unaware of this giant project construction in one way or another. Most of the people believe that the construction of this dam is a great mark that makes the present generation alike to the previous ones who constructed the Monarch of Lalibela, the monument of Axum, the Palace of Fasiledes and other incredible architectures which have been registered by UNESCO as world heritages. The project being financed by Ethiopians has made the construction of the dam more popular and has drawn more attention.  The construction of the dam is being undertaken by an Italian company Salini Construttori, which has experienced building 20 huge dams including other dams  in Ethiopia  and  across the globe.

On the dam’s construction official launch ceremony, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi stated Ethiopia’s stance that the dam is a common resource that would not only help Ethiopia fight poverty but also strengthen solidarity and ensure sustainable economic development for the three of the countries: Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. In line with this, the prime minister revealed that the study of the dam construction has showed that its positive impact outweighs some possible contrary impacts. According to the study made prior to the construction, the dam will relieve, particularly Sudan, from centuries of flooding, and will increase the amount of water resources available by reducing the current evaporation of more than 10 billion cubic meters per year. There will be steady amount of water flow throughout the year. Over and above, the dam will retain silt which will increase the useful lifetime of dams in the downstream countries.

However, Egypt and Sudan did not welcome Ethiopia’s plan. Generally speaking, the fear of the downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, is one – of temporary reduction of water availability due to the filling of the dam; and two, a permanent reduction because of evaporation from the reservoir. After a meeting between the Ministers of Water of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in March 2012, Sudan’s President Bashir said that he supported the building of the dam; however Sudan did not sign the agreement.

Later on, by the initiation of Ethiopia with the aim to develop trust between the three countries (Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan), they established an International Panel of Experts to review and assess the study reports of the dam made by Ethiopia. The panel consists of 10 members: 6 from the three countries and 4 international members in the fields of water resources and hydro logic modeling, dam engineering, socioeconomic, and environmental. Accordingly, the panel submitted its preliminary report to the respective governments at the end of May 2013 even though the full report has not been made public. Following the report, the Ethiopian government stated that, according to the report, “the design of the dam is based on international standards and principles” without naming those standards and principles. It also said that the dam “offers high benefits for all three countries and would not cause significant harm on both lower riparian countries.” According to the Egyptian government, after the report, it recommended “changing and amending of dimensions and the size of the dam.” Sudan fully supported the dam and promised possible aid for its completion.

On June 3, 2013, while discussing the International Panel of Experts report with President Mohammad Mursi, Egyptian political leaders suggested methods to destroy the dam, including support for anti-government rebels in Ethiopia. Unbeknownst to those at the meeting, the discussion was televised live according to BBC and Voice of America (Washington, DC)  on June 4, 2013. Ethiopia requested that the Egyptian Ambassador explain the meeting. President Mursi’s top aide apologized for the “unintended embarrassment” and his cabinet released a statement promoting “good neighborliness, mutual respect and the pursuit of joint interests without either party harm the other.” An aide to the Ethiopian Prime Minister stated that Egypt is “…entitled to day dreaming” and cited Egypt’s past of trying to destabilize Ethiopia. President Mursi reportedly believes that it is better to engage Ethiopia rather than attempt to force it. However, on  June 10, 2013, BBC showed him saying that “all options are open” because “Egypt’s water security cannot be violated at all,” clarifying that he was “not calling for war,” but that he would not allow Egypt’s water supply to be endangered.

Few weeks later, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Arab Republic of Egypt, Mohamed Kamel Amr and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met in Addis Ababa on Tuesday June 18, 2013 and agreed, as per the Terms of Reference of the International Panel of Experts, to immediately initiate consultations among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, on how to move forward with the implementation of its recommendations. Right after this, Uganda announced its hydro power dam project construction agreement, which according to CCTV costs 1.6 USD to be build by a Chinese company. Similarly, South Sudan  announced 16 potential sites for construction of hydro power dams along the Nile river across its territory according to Ethiopian News Agency.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Arab Republic of Egypt, Mohamed Kamel Amr (left) and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, During Press Release

Now as of Wednesday July 16, 2013, the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project work has reached 24% according to the Ethiopian Electric Power Authority minister at a local news press conference.

*The Nile is a major north-flowing river in northeastern Africa, generally regarded as the longest river in the world. It is 6,650 km (4,130 miles) long. And it is an “international” river as its water resources are shared by ten countries, namely, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt. The Nile has two major tributaries: the White Nile and Blue Nile. The two rivers meet near the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, flowing through the deserts of Sudan and Egypt and ending in a large delta that empties into the Mediterranean Sea. One of the tributaries called the White Nile flows north through Tanzania, Lake Victoria, Uganda and South Sudan. And the second one – called the Blue Nile is the source of most of the water accounting for 86% and it begins at Lake Tana in Ethiopia.

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