Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam was the topic of contention yet again this month as Egypt sought assistance from the Gulf countries (headed by Saudi Arabia) in mediating the ongoing talks.
The Dam, whose construction began in October 2011, is still over three years away from being completed (July 2017) and has garnered criticism from its downstream neighbors Sudan and Egypt. Sudan has in fact retracted its once staunch support, opting for neutrality.
This latest effort to internationalize the issue occurred when Egyptian officials visited Italy and Norway. The Italian contractor Salini is in charge of the project and Italy has provided technical support the Dam.
With a reservoir of 63 billion cubic meters the Dam could feasibly serve domestic consumption needs with excess left over to sell to downstream countries, providing Ethiopia with much needed revenue (estimates are in the region of USD 3 million a year).
However, the Dam may lower the Egypt’s water supply when it is filled due to its reservoir, which some reports say is larger than necessary. Egyptian officials worry that the reduced water supply will affect millions of farmers and infringe upon the 1929 and 1959 agreements they singed along with other downstream countries: Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Tanzania and Sudan (the treaties gave Egypt 57% and 66% ownership of the Nile). At the time the agreement was signed Ethiopia was not colonized and as a result was not a party to agreements, # and as a result the nation argues that it is not bound to those terms. Also, as 55% of the Blue Nile (which flows into the main Nile River) is within Ethiopia, it is their assertion that they should be able to utilize it as they wish. Yet, the Nile is of strategic as well as cultural importance to the Egyptians and as such they are heavily dependent on it for their water needs. The Greek historian Herodotus declared that ‘Egypt is the gift of the Nile’, and indeed, with much of Egypt’s historical development being closely linked with the river it’s easy to understand why Egypt is so concerned about the construction of the Renaissance Dam.
The World Bank suggested a more multipurpose water facility be built, one that would reduce the effects of droughts and floods, as construction of the Dam went ahead but despite the recommendations, funding was refused. The USD 4.8 billion project is now being financed through the issuing of Bonds to the Ethiopian public as well as through a number of Chinese banks.
Three rounds of discussions involving Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia concluded unsuccessfully this past January with Egyptian officials withdrawing from the meeting because they viewed their Ethiopian counterparts as being ‘intransigent’. Their grievances occurred when Ethiopian officials were not willing to involve a new group of international experts in the process of assessing the potential impact of the Dam (Sudan deemed this unnecessary as well). They also claimed that the Ethiopians were unwilling to discuss a document entitled ‘principles of confidence-building’. This document guarantees compensation of any damage caused to downstream countries through results of the Dam’s activities.
The escalation of this issue to the international stage will be carried out in two phases; the first will be an ‘educational tour’, whereby Egyptian officials present their case, their fears of water security problems, and possible solutions to governments around the world. This may be followed by a formal complaint to institutions such as the African Union. There has been talk of ICC (International Criminal Court) involvement, this, however, is highly unlikely as no international court dealing with the arbitration of water disputes currently exists.
The issue becomes even more complex once one takes a look at some of the other countries serviced by the Nile (e.g. Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania); they have all been experiencing GDP growth rates in excess of 5% and so are poised to be increasingly heavier consumers of energy and water in the coming years. It wouldn’t be unfathomable to suggest that they may begin to voice Egypt’s concerns sooner or later. However, the downstream countries, particularly Egypt, are simultaneously opposed to the Dam’s large reservoir as it supposedly threatens their own water security but are (or will) be more than keen to import the energy that Ethiopia supplies.
Ethiopia is often referred to as the ‘water tower’ of Africa due to the 14 major rivers that flow off of its high lands. The persistent and crippling droughts over the past 30 years could feasibly be a problem of the past if it were able to manage its abundant resources effectively.
As the economy is primarily an agricultural one (the sector accounts for about 80% of employment), any improvement in water security would increase the living standards of the vast majority of Ethiopians.
It is hard to ascertain what the future will hold for the other Nile countries. This is because any potential benefits for them cannot be empirically studied right now. If Ethiopia is able to produce and sell them more energy that is one advantage but it is hard to speculate what other benefits they would receive. If, as Egypt is stating, there would be a severe and long lasting reduction in the water supply as a result of the Dam, what study is claiming this? How much will the reduction be? And what measures could be taken to mitigate this?
As long as the discussions involving the construction of the Dam are shrouded in name calling and non-transparent reports, that only those in the talks are privy too, the public will be left uninformed. There are too many conflicting figures and statements floating around to come to any educated opinion as to what the costs and benefits of the Dam are. Egypt’s internationalization of the issue is not going to address the problem at hand, which is, namely, coming to an understanding as to the Dam’s effect on all the parties involved. Diplomatic talks based on respect, hard facts and the willingness to see a mutually beneficial outcome appear to be the only way to see this through.