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Egypt caught between two renaissances

Mervat Ayoub

24 May 2013 3:24 pm

While the Muslim Brother’s regime in Egypt sticks to its Renaissance project, Ethiopia builds its Renaissance Dam

News of the numerous dam projects in Ethiopia first came to light in 1992 when the late Rushdy Said, the “father of Egyptian geology”, published his book The River Nile: Geology, Hydrology and Utilisation.  
The prominent geologist gave a full list of these dams, some 33 of them to serve the purposes of irrigation and hydropower generation. The information was based on a study by the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) between 1959 and 1964 in response to a request by the Ethiopian government. The American administration had then encouraged the initiative in retaliation to the pro-Soviet policy adopted by Egypt’s then president Gamal Abdel-Nasser who had embarked on the Aswan High Dam project with Soviet financing and expertise. 
So many dams
According to Dr Said, Egyptians always thought that building a dam on the Blue Nile would be a highly difficult and costly task involving risks related to the terrain’s elevation and to complications resulting from rapid siltation. 
Today, however, dams are being built on the Blue Nile and on several rivers in Ethiopia. The most important is the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, formerly known as the Millennium dam, built on the Blue Nile River not far from the Ethiopian-Sudanese border. The construction of the Renaissance Dam began in April 2011 and is expected to be completed by 2018. 
Other dams on the course of the Blue Nile include Beles, completed in 2010; Fincha Amerti Nesse (FAN), completed in 2012; and Chemoga Yeda, to be completed in 2013. On the Omo River, the Gilgel Gibe III and Gilgel Gibe IV dams should be completed by 2013 and 2014 respectively. 
The Takizawa Dam, which was built in 2009 on the Atbara River, could prevent some six billion cubic metres of water from reaching Egypt. The second Takizawa Dam currently under construction can delay the timely annual water influx to Egypt.
Hard times ahead for Egypt
It is the Renaissance Dam, however, which poses the biggest threat to Egypt’s water security.
Experts refute Ethiopian declarations that Egypt’s water supply will not be affected by the Ethiopian dams; all indications confirm that Egypt’s water quota of the Nile will decrease by at least 20 per cent, a decrease bound to take a heavy toll on life in Egypt. 
If Egypt’s water quota goes down, it will have to regress on all its land reform projects and go back to the days when the Nile Valley and the Delta were the only cultivable lands. The country will incur excessive expenses on desalination of seawater, the only alternative available to Egypt to fill the water deficiency gap, given that the country has no underground water to speak of. This, in addition to the shortfall in the energy generated from the High Dam, which can range between 20 and 40 per cent.
Filling the reservoir
Former Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Nasr Eddin Allam says that two factors play a primordial role in the negative implications the Renaissance Dam can have on Egypt: reservoir capacity and the amount of water needed for irrigation. The water stored in the Ethiopian dam reservoir will be deducted from the water stored in the Aswan High Dam reservoir; as a result, Egypt may expect severe water shortage and even drought during years when the annual flood is low. The water used for irrigation in Ethiopia will constitute a direct deduction from the annual water shares of Egypt and, to a lesser degree, Sudan.
Another factor which plays no less an important role is the dams’ operating policy. After the phase of dam construction comes the phase of filling the reservoir with water. Recent Egyptian studies of the Ethiopian dams show that even if the filling process is slowed down to some 40 years, this will entail a water deficit in the downstream countries during the filling years. The deficit would occur at least every four years, causing a maximum yearly water deficit of 8 billion cu.m. in Egypt’s share. As a consequence, the electricity generated by the High Dam and the Aswan Reservoir will be reduced by almost 20 per cent (600 MW) every year. In extreme cases, the water deficit in Egypt’s share may reach 14 to 19 billion cu.m. entailing a yearly reduction in electricity generation ranging from 500 to 1000MW. 
Dam hazards
Apart from the undoubted disadvantages to be incurred by Egypt on account of the Renaissance Dam, a lot of talk has been going on about the dam and the hazards it poses to Ethiopia itself.  
“There is very little information at hand on the Renaissance Dam, since Ethiopia has not made available any data about it,” Dr Meghawri Shehata, professor of water resources and former president of Menoufiya University told Watani. “We only know that the dam is some 200 metres high and is built on the volcanic soil of a hill with very steep cliffs. This poses a serious peril to Ethiopia should the dam collapse—a not-at-all-remote probability given the steep elevation of the terrain and the nature of the soil—and represents a very serious threat.”
Ethiopia sees its dams as a golden opportunity to generate electric power and export it to neighbouring countries, increasing thus its national income and maximising its political role in the African Horn and Nile Basin. 
But the facts on the ground indicate that, without the blessing of Egypt and Sudan and their purchase of a large part of the electricity generated by the dams, none of this economic benefit can be achieved. Ethiopia lacks the necessary infrastructure and grids to carry the electricity generated, which can then only be transported to other countries via the Egyptian and Sudanese grids. So without Egypt and Sudan, all the plans of Ethiopia to export electrical energy are doomed; the benefit of the new dams will be stalled for decades until the construction of the required infrastructure. 
Feeding Ethiopia at Egypt’s expense
But does Ethiopia really need these dams, or are there political dimensions to the matter? Watani asked Dr Shehata. “Dams are built by rulers,” Dr Shehata said, “but it is the people who pay the price.” 
Ethiopia aims to expand agricultural projects in order to provide the nation’s nutritional needs in view of the very high population growth rate. Many regions in Ethiopia depend on rainwater for cultivation, and it is expected that the dry areas that formerly had insufficient rainfall, leading to famine, would benefit from the dams. 
Dr Shehata said about 40 per cent of Ethiopia’s forested areas had been removed, and that aided by China, some European countries, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, these huge areas were being turned into agricultural land. This seriously threatens Egypt’s water security.
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Water rights
According to the prominent water resources expert, Egypt’s former Water Resources Minister Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, the Renaissance Dam is now a fait accompli; it is a national Ethiopian project touted to bring in huge benefit to the nation. “Our only chance to save the situation for Egypt,” Dr Abu-Zeid says, “is to hold negotiations with Ethiopia to secure an Ethiopian pledge that the dam reservoir will be filled over an extended period of time.”
Egypt must also try to secure the right for its engineers to share in the operation of the dam for the benefit of both countries. Such an arrangement is not new; Dr Abu-Zeid reminds that in 1945, Egypt financed the construction of the Owen Falls Dam on Lake Victoria in Uganda, and has ever since contributed to its annual operational expenses. Egyptian engineers are there permanently to supervise the operation of the dam in favour of both countries. In 1991, Egypt helped expand the hydroelectric power station at the Owen reservoir.
Dr Abu-Zeid reminds that Egypt has rejected the feasibility studies of the Ethiopian dams because they did not take into consideration the negative implications on the downstream countries. Egypt’s remarks were last year sent to the Nile Basin Initiative Secretariat, the technical bureau of the East Nile, the World Bank and representatives of the European Union. 
“If Ethiopia persists in single-handedly building and operating the Renaissance Dam while excluding Egypt and other Nile Basin countries, it would be defying all international and regional norms and protocols concerning the sharing of common water resources,” Dr Abu-Zeid said.
International mediation
Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former UN Secretary-General and also former Egyptian State Minister for Foreign Affairs who is an authority on African affairs, advised international mediation between Egypt and Ethiopia on the issue of the Ethiopian dams. Dr Abu-Zeid cannot agree more; they both propose that the UN, the European Union, the Organisation of African Unity, or individual African nations may work as mediators to bring closer Egyptian and Ethiopian viewpoints. 
Surprisingly though, the Egyptian current Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Bahaa’ Eddine said that several European and African nations did offer to act as mediators, but that the Egyptian government thanked them for their goodwill and would have no mediation.
Ironically, we can’t help but notice that the great Ethiopian dam carries the same name as the slogan of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime in Egypt (al Nahda, literally ‘renaissance’). Between the Ethiopian Renaissance and the MB’s Renaissance, Egypt finds itself on the horns of a dilemma.
WATANI International
26 May 2013


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