A dam on the Blue Nile could reconfigure political power in East Africa

The broad shouldered hills echoed a low rumble as explosives tore through the grooved walls of a canyon carved by the torrential flow of the most important tributary of Africa’s greatest river. Men in hard hats scurried across the vast construction site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam that, once complete, will harness the Blue Nile to crank out 6,000 MW of electricity for this energy-starved nation.

The Blue Nile escapes Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands, tumbling thousands of metres westwards through narrow gorges, carrying 86 per cent of the Nile’s eventual flow. At Khartoum, in Sudan, the river joins the White Nile and heads north through the Egyptian desert and drains into the Mediterranean Sea through the Nile Delta that nourishes 60 per cent of Egypt’s estimated 85 million people.

Last month, the construction crew in Ethiopia diverted the course of the river to lay the foundation of the dam, triggering protests in Egypt and unnerving Mohamed Morsy’s embattled government. Once complete, the Renaissance dam shall stand 145 m tall at the head of a 74 billion cubic metre (bcm) reservoir, a volume greater than the Blue Nile’s annual flow.

For power generation

At an all-party meeting in Cairo, Egyptian parliamentarians fussed over Ethiopian control of the Nile and threatened to go to war to safeguard Cairo’s interests. “The lives of the Egyptians are connected around it [the Nile],” said Mr. Morsy [since removed by the Egyptian Army] in a televised address. “If it diminishes by one drop then our blood is the alternative.” Egypt gets 85 per cent of its fresh water from the river.

The Ethiopian government insisted the Nile was safe as the Renaissance dam was intended to generate electricity rather than for irrigation. In the diplomacy that followed the rhetoric, the two countries agreed to deepen existing consultations on the downstream impacts of the dam. Yet, the conversation around the “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” is no longer a technical examination of project parameters, but a reconfiguration of political power along the Nile basin.

Colonial framework

For Ethiopia, the dam has emerged as the symbol of a resurgent nation determined to play its apparently destined role in Africa. The once conflict-torn nation has enjoyed 20 years of relative stability in which its population is estimated at 94 million in 2013, making it the second most populous African country after Nigeria. For Egypt, the inevitability of the construction points to a moment of fragility of a once powerful international force.

For the eight other riparian nations, Burundi, DR Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, the Sudans, Tanzania and Uganda, the dam has triggered a much needed conversation: A colonial water-sharing framework guarantees Egypt almost two thirds of the Nile’s yearly flows, and gives it the power to veto any projects on the river even as it denies all other nations, except Sudan, the right to draw water without prior permission.

“I think it would be important to have discussions… in a new context,” said African Union Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at a recent press conference, “Not in the context of the colonial powers but in the context of pan Africanism and African renaissance.”

“The Sudan,” General Charles Gordon wrote in 1884 as he recommended the British abandon the colony, “is a useless possession, ever was so, and ever will be so.” By 1898, the British were back in the country, eager to secure the Nile waters for their Egyptian assets. In time, the path of the White Nile was secured, but Ethiopia was drawn into a triangular contest between the French in Djibouti, the English in Egypt and the Italians in Somalia. Control of Ethiopia, wrote historian William Langer in 1936, implied control of the Nile, Egypt and the Suez Canal.

In May 1902, the English signed an agreement with Emperor Menelik to not construct any dams across the Blue Nile without British consent but subsequent Ethiopian monarchs claimed the treaty was never ratified. In 1929, the Egyptian protectorate signed an agreement with British Sudan, granting Sudan the right to build an irrigation project on the Nile on the condition that Egypt reserved the right to veto any future projects in any British colony and that her historic claims as the primary user of the river were acknowledged.

But in the interim, in 1927, The New York Times reported that an American company had signed a $20 million contract with Emperor Ras Tafari to build a dam at Lake Tana. The British and Egyptians initially opposed the dam — claiming they weren’t consulted — but by July 1933, the Egyptian Cabinet offered to contribute £50,000 for further studies of the project, much like how the Egyptians are pushing for further studies on the Renaissance dam today.

Two years later the Italians invaded Ethiopia. The Second World War began soon after, and plans for the dam were shelved indefinitely. After the war, Egypt’s revolutionary military government nationalised the Suez Canal and in 1959 signed a water sharing agreement with Sudan. Soon after, Egypt built the Aswan High Dam, and the arrangement has since persisted.

“At the time of the colonial era those agreements were reached…and gave Egypt 55.5 bcm, they gave Sudan 18.5 bcm and the rest was for evaporation. For us, we are to have nothing,” said Uganda’s Ambassador to Ethiopia and the African Union, Mull Sebujja Katende. Uganda — which adjoins Lake Victoria, one of the White Nile sources — gained independence in 1962, after the Nile agreements were signed.

In 1999, the Nile riparian states set up the Nile Basin Initiative as the first step towards creating a Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) that affirms each country’s right to use the river water flowing through its territories in a reasonable manner. The treaty shall enter into force once six nations ratify it. Ethiopia ratified the treaty last month; Uganda, Mr. Katende said, intends to do the same.

“What we were in 1962… is not where we are. Things are changing,” Mr. Katende said, “People are now talking of cooperation, integration and that is a weight you cannot undermine. You may be Egypt, but the others can match you – that is the point.”

Perhaps the most intriguing piece of the Nile puzzle is that, despite building Africa’s largest hydropower project on the river, Ethiopia is the least likely to substantially eat into Egypt’s water supply. The Renaissance dam is 25 km from the Sudan border and so is unlikely to be used for consumptive purposes like irrigation. Egypt’s major headache is how Ethiopia chooses to fill the giant 74 bcm reservoir.

In flood and drought

“Both Egypt and Ethiopia have a legitimate point. The Ethiopian point is correct that this dam will not cut Egypt’s water supply after the Renaissance Dam is completed because Ethiopia will want to release water in order to generate hydropower,” said Dale Whittington, a professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina, U.S., “Egypt has a legitimate concern about how the reservoir is filled and also how the reservoir will be operated during periods of future drought.”

“There is no fixed impoundment date for filling the reservoir,” said Semegnew Bekele, the project manager of the dam, adding that the dam would be complete by 2017 and the reservoir would be filled in tandem. The Ethiopian government has said the reservoir would be filled in five to seven years — which would imply a diversion of between 10 and 15 bcm, or between 20 and 25 per cent, of the Blue Nile’s yearly flow.

If Ethiopia chooses to fill its reservoir in years when the river is high, excess floodwaters can simply be diverted into the reservoir. By contrast, filling the dam during a period of drought shall have serious repercussions for Egypt and Sudan.

Prof. Whittington points out that the Renaissance Dam and Egypt’s Aswan High Dam need to be viewed as two offsetting parts of a larger hydrological system. “It is a subtle message to convey but is very important,” he said. “The Aswan High Dam reservoir will gradually fall over the period as Ethiopians fill their dam, but it will build back up once the Renaissance Dam is full.”

At current levels, the reservoir at Aswan loses about 14 bcm a year to evaporation.

Once the Renaissance dam is filled, the Aswan reservoir will run at a lower level, losing less water through evaporation and will compensate for evaporation losses from the reservoir behind the Grand Renaissance Dam. Evaporation losses from the Renaissance reservoir will be lower than at Aswan because the surface area is less and the climate is somewhat cooler.

The fallout of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam can be managed by close coordination between the two countries, but Egypt will find it much harder to accommodate the demands of the countries along the White Nile.

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