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Ethiopia’s designs on the Nile

Mervat Ayoub

18 Dec 2013 6:41 pm

For almost three years now, Egypt has been in a constant state of upheaval and near-chaos. This has not passed unnoticed by foreign nations, and some have been doing their best to take advantage of the situation.

The most striking example is Ethiopia’s attempt to build its Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, one of the main tributaries of the Nile. Ethiopia claims the dam would allow it to irrigate land and become an exporter of hydroelectric power but experts refute these claims as goals that are glossy on the surface but unfeasible on the ground. Egypt claims the Renaissance Dam would deprive it of up to 20 per cent of its water quota—already rather small given the expanding population of Egypt which depends on the Nile as the sole sustainable source of water in the land. Add to this the fact that, as announced by Ethiopian officials, the original design was changed to drastically raise the dam height so that the capacity of the water reservoir behind it would increase from an original 11 billion cu.m. to some 74 billion cu.m.  No scientific backing exists to support that change; in fact quite the opposite. Experts claim that neither the Ethiopian landscape nor terrain can accommodate that change, meaning that there is real risk the dam might collapse. 

Fait accompli
Because water security is a matter of utmost importance for Egypt, ++Watani++ talked to Abbas Sharaqi, geological expert and professor at the National Research Institute. Dr Sharaqi confirmed the difficulty of building and maintaining a dam of the dimensions and reservoir capacity of the Renaissance Dam in a mountainous terrain like Ethiopia.
The site for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was chosen in 1946 by the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) after an extensive study that determined 26 potential locations for the construction of dams, four of them on the Blue Nile. The project was originally called Border Dam, and the USBR concluded that the dam would have a reservoir capacity ranging between 11.1 and 24.3 billion cu.m.
The Ethiopian government made the project public a few months after Egypt’s 25 January Revolution in 2011, and called the dam the Great Millennium Dam, Dr Sharaqi reminded. It awarded the contract without bidding to the Italian contractor Salini Construttori. The foundation stone was laid on 2 April 2011, and the name was changed to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. 
Dr Sharaqi admits that this step was controversial, especially after new evidence emerged concerning the conflicting construction specifications, when statements by Ethiopian officials suggested reservoir figures amounting to 74 billion cu.m.  
Attempts to force Egypt to accept the dam as a fait accompli began during the year when the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Mursi was president—from June 2012 to June 2013. Following the 30 June Revolution by the millions of Egyptians, which ended with the overthrow of Mursi and his regime, Egyptians are anxiously looking up to their government to fight for the country’s national security as represented in the precious waters of the Nile.
Threatening to water projects
The Ethiopian landscape is mainly highland, and the terrain is rough and mountainous with the highest point at 4,620m above sea level and the lowest at 122m below sea level. Despite Ethiopia’s nine rivers and 40 lakes, including Lake Tana, the annual per capita share of stored water barely reaches 83 cu.m. Rainwater amounts to some 639 billion cu.m. annually, a large amount of which evaporates in the tropical climate and high temperatures. Ethiopia is the only nation in the Nile Basin that receives no water input from outside its land area.
The harsh natural conditions in Ethiopia make the development of agricultural projects difficult. The terrain, which includes steep cliffs and narrow valleys, constitutes a major impediment to irrigation and reduces to 3 per cent the amount of irrigable land. The uneven annual distribution of rain, with rain falling only during the short summer months, makes rain-fed agriculture possible only at that time of year. The uneven geographical distribution of rain creates a huge contrast between the fertile areas in the south and west versus the arid areas in the east. 
Neither is the rock type forming the Ethiopian terrain favourable for water storage projects. Hard material such as igneous rock constitutes almost 75 per cent of the land; this type of rock is easily eroded by heavy rainfall and is highly unsuitable for the construction of dams. The remaining 25 per cent is mainly sedimentary rock not suitable for reservoirs. Even if water reservoirs are built, the steep mountains make the transportation of water from one place to another difficult. Last but definitely not least, the location of Ethiopia along the African Great Rift Valley makes it prone to natural disasters owing to seismic activity, which constitute a major threat to water projects.
Poor record
According to Dr Sharaqi, several of Ethiopia’s previous attempts at dam construction reveal high risk rates and high probability of collapse caused by geological and technical problems. The Tekeze Dam on the Atbara River for instance, one of the smaller rivers connected to the Nile, suffered partial collapse during construction which delayed the project’s opening for an entire year. Another project that has a bad reputation is the water-passage tunnel connecting the Gilgel Gibe 1 Dam to the Omo River. The tunnel’s opening was delayed from 2007 to 2010 because of technical problems, and it collapsed only 10 days after the opening ceremony. The tunnel was built by the Italian contractor Salini, the same company now building the Renaissance Dam. The terms of the contract of the Renaissance Dam clear the contractor of any responsibility after the project is handed to the government.
Cost exceed benefits
The cost of the Renaissance Dam is expected to exceed its projected benefits, in contrast to Egypt’s High Dam which cost around USD1 billion and generated revenues that covered this cost in a year and a half. The High Dam’s numerous benefits include protecting Egypt from the annual flood, providing water for drinking and irrigation, and generating electricity.
The Ethiopian dam will not provide water for the 90 per cent of the population who live in remote mountainous areas, since the process of transporting water is next to impossible. Ethiopia has no flat land suitable for irrigation, meaning that the water of the dam will be useless for agriculture. As for the generation of electricity, Ethiopia has announced that it intends to export the hydroelectric power generated by the dam because the cost of extending electrical grids to mountainous areas will make it unfeasible. Exporting electricity is also hardly a feasible option because Ethiopia’s neighbouring countries are poor and cannot afford to pay for it, Egypt is not willing to pay for electricity in foreign currency, and Sudan is self-sufficient as far as electricity is concerned.
What is the point?
If the Renaissance Dam’s building costs are expected to exceed its benefits, and if it is not of real economic value, then what is the purpose of building it? Dr Sharaqi believes the reason is purely political. The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi wanted to achieve personal glory by building a project for which he would always be remembered, just as Gamal Abdel-Nasser is remembered for building the Aswan High Dam. When the World Bank refused to finance the construction, Mr Zenawi convinced his people that many countries, led by Egypt, were responsible for the refusal. He turned the construction of the dam into a national project, and planned to fund it by means of bonds issued by the government and sold to Ethiopians both at home and abroad. The project was announced in February 2011 under the name Millenium Dam, with a reservoir capacity of 11 billion cu.m. In an attempt to encourage his citizens to participate in his national project, Prime Minister Zenawi kept magnifying the project. In April 2011, it was announced that the dam’s height would reach 145m with a reservoir capacity of 74 billion cu.m. These hasty statements clearly revealed the political intentions of the project.
Outright bribe
Several meetings have been held between representatives from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to resolve the dispute over the Renaissance Dam. The most recent was held in Cairo earlier this month to try to reach an agreement that would protect Egypt’s water rights and halt construction of the dam until conclusive studies could prove or disprove the danger it represents for Egypt. A few days following the meeting, Ethiopia decided to return to Sudan, which was acting as a non-biased intermediary between Egypt and Ethiopia, a 40-feddan swath of land on the Ethiopian Sudanese border, which had for years been disputed between the two countries. Egyptians saw this as a bribe to neutralise any Sudanese endorsement of Egyptian rights, and matters have been further complicated. 
Dr Sharaqi says that Sudan has decided that no harm will come to it because of the dam; in fact Ethiopia may allow it to have a share of the stored water to use for irrigation. That is, of course, if there is no danger of collapse of the dam. An international commission led by a German team that has been tasked with conducting a study on the safety of the dam in its new dimensions has complained that Ethiopia is not supplying it with the necessary data. The data already available, the commission says, gives strong indications that a dam collapse is very likely.
Should the dam collapse, Egypt and Sudan would suffer immeasurably. Ethiopia would not be at much risk owing to the scarcely populated area downstream area, but Egypt and Sudan would literally drown.
Breach of international protocols
Muhammad al-Meneissi, former assistant to the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs and currently a consultant with the ministry, says the Ethiopian dam’s file is currently handled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in addition to the Ministry of Irrigation. If anything, this confirms the political nature of the issue. Dr Meneissi says that the Ethiopian claim to have completed 25 per cent of the construction is highly questionable, since they are facing a shortage in funding because many countries refused to finance the project. 
The claim seems to be an Ethiopian attempt to pressure Egypt into accepting the status quo. The project is a breach of all international protocols regulating the construction of dams on rivers that are shared by several countries. The protocols stipulate that the construction of dams must ensure that downstream countries are not harmed and require these countries’ approval, and this is definitely not the case with the Renaissance Dam. 
Egypt should resort to the international community, Dr Meneissi says, to persuade Ethiopia to go back to the original design of the dam, which Egypt never objected to. The African Union and other international organisations or friendly countries might all be willing to act as mediators. 
Death sentence
Egypt must convey to the international community that it does not oppose the construction of development projects in Ethiopia, Dr Meneissi says; on the contrary, it should stress that it is willing to lend a helping hand provided such projects do not harm Egypt. In fact, Egypt has already done that in case of other riparian States; a case in point being the Owen Falls Dam in Uganda which Egypt helped finance and jointly manages with Uganda. He expects these efforts to bear fruit, especially now that Ethiopia is facing a financing crisis. 
But whether or not an agreement is reached with Ethiopia, Dr Meneissi says, and given Egypt’s expanding population “we must realise we are sure to face water shortage in the future.” This means Egyptians must rationalise water consumption in agriculture and irrigation; any waste of water in the future could be a real disaster, he says. 
But what if Ethiopia decides to go against reason and common sense and proceed with the new dam design? Dr Meneissi believes that resorting to military intervention could be a possible option if diplomatic mediation fails. “Preventing the water from flowing into Egypt could be a death sentence for our nation, and what other good enough reason could there ever be for declaring war?” A resort to such a radical solution, however, could never take place until at least two or three years from now, by which time Egypt would have regained internal stability and restored its international prestige. It should then be clear if Ethiopia will listen to the voice of reason or proceed with its uncharted plan.

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