Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Controversy over the division of the Nile waters is noting new; it goes back to the last century, and saw significant development during the 1950s and 1960s. However, it remained theoretical until 2011, when the crisis exploded between the upstream countries in Central Africa—led by Ethiopia—and the downstream countries, Sudan and Egypt. Sudan eventually came to see that the Ethiopian plan, which has angered Egypt, could in fact benefit Khartoum, and so the game is now playing out between Addis Ababa and Cairo.
Ethiopia is seeking to construct a massive dam at the source of the Nile river in order to generate electricity. Egyptians’ fears about the Renaissance Dam revolve around two issues. First, billions of cubic meters of water will be held behind the dam, leading to a decrease in Egypt’s share of Nile water resources. Second, Cairo has doubts regarding the Ethiopian dam’s construction process and resilience, fearing that it could collapse and cause a disastrous and potentially life-threatening flood.
The Egyptian political scene today is focused on the Renaissance Dam; it disregards other construction projects, in Ethiopia and in other upstream countries including Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Tanzania and Kenya.
Ethiopia is playing down such claims, maintaining that the dam will not affect Egypt’s water share. Meanwhile, Sudan sees that cooperation with Egypt on the water problem could alleviate differences between Cairo and the upstream countries.
And yet, the Renaissance Dam is not the only project putting pressure on Egypt. The issue, it seems, is much larger. Cairo is required to sign certain treaties and enter into cooperation with the upstream countries; however, these treaties could ultimately reduce Egypt’s allocation of water from 55.5 billion cubic meters to less than 40 billion cubic meters.
The Renaissance Dam project now finds itself in the regional and international concept, but the initial idea behind this dam goes back almost 50 years. This dam was fist proposed in 1964, with the original plan allocating a water storage capacity of between 11 and 14.5 billion cubic meters. Today, the proposed storage capacity of the Renaissance Dam has grown to more than 70 billion cubic meters, raising regional concerns.
Egyptian–Ethiopian relations sustained a hit after a closed-door meeting between Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi and a number of senior Egyptian leaders about the Renaissance Dam project was accidentally broadcast on live television.
Some of the leaders present at the meeting issued statements contemplating the use of intelligence agencies and military force to put an end to the dam project, which created a diplomatic crisis between Addis Ababa and Cairo.
According to the reports of experts and diplomats in Cairo, Egypt now finds itself in the weakest position of all Nile river countries, which also include Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya. A majority of these countries have signed the latest treaty, which will decrease Egypt’s water share, cease recognition of Egypt’s so-called “historic rights” to the Nile, and effectively abrogate the veto power that Egypt has enjoyed with regard to Nile development projects.
While Egypt’s position appears to have shifted from one of strength to one of weakness, the Ethiopian discourse appears confident and at ease. Addis Ababa has said that although it is keen to preserve good relations with Egypt and Sudan, it will build the dam whether Cairo agrees or not.
Water expert Dr. Ahmed Ali Suleiman informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the construction of the Renaissance Dam is expected to take at least four years, with 21 percent completed already. This suggests that there will be little impact on Egypt until the construction process is complete.
“The problem now lies in the engineering designs, which are equipped to hold only around 14 billion cubic meters, not the 74 billion Ethiopia wants,” he added.
Dr. Suleiman emphasized: “When we say that Ethiopia is going to store 74 billion cubic meters over 15 years, the impact on Egypt is not great. The fear is that Ethiopia will try to store this water quickly, over four years, say, and this will have a major impact on Egypt’s share, amounting to between 9 and 12 billion cubic meters.”
“This will leave Egypt with around 40 billion cubic meters. This percentage will require Egypt to take compensatory measures, and desalination of lake water is the only way to do this,” he said.
The cost of desalinating one cubic meter of water in Egypt, according to Suleiman, is around EGP 5 (USD 0.70). On this basis, Egypt “will need to spend EGP 50 billion annually to compensate for the water shortage caused by the Ethiopian dam. That is equivalent to 12 percent of Egypt’s budget.”
Dr. Suleiman also believes that the Ethiopian project will affect electricity generation by the Aswan High Dam, plunging at least three governorates into darkness. This is aside from the influence on agriculture and industry, the expected desiccation of 3 million acres of land and displacement of four to five million Egyptian farmers.
The Ethiopian Renaissance Dam stands approximately 12 to 18 miles (20–30 km) away from the southern border of Sudan. Dr. Suleiman believes it is being built on land that cannot bear this massive construction project.
“There will be a considerable weight burden on the dam’s concrete structure, and in addition to water, it will retain around 240 million cubic meters of silt annually. Therefore, if the Renaissance Dam were to collapse, it would cause damage to the High Dam, and it is expected that some southern and central Egyptian cities would be flooded,” he said.
In a recent meeting with members of the Shura Council, Egyptian prime minister Hisham Qandil said that his country is among the driest in the world and depends on the Nile for more than 98 percent of its water use.
Officials in Cairo made sure to reaffirm the right of Nile Basin countries to undertake development projects on the condition that they do not harm the upstream countries’ water rights. However, the Cairo government made no effort to hide its criticisms of the Ethiopian project in a special report, to which Ethiopia and Sudan also contributed.
According to Qandil, the government’s concerns revolve around the supplementary dam intended to raise the storage capacity of the Renaissance Dam from 14.5 billion cubic meters to 74 billion cubic meters, and what could happen should this dam collapse.
Dr. Maghawry Shehata Diab, former president of Menoufia University and an expert on Egyptian water issues, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “In 2005, the dam was brought up again, and following this its designs were expanded so that by April 2011—about two months after the Egyptian revolution—the storage capacity of the Renaissance Dam had reached 74 billion cubic meters. This was at the expense of the original limited design.”
The bulk of Nile waters come from the springs of the Nile Equatorial Plateau, which have three sources. The largest of these is a branch of the Blue Nile, which brings 52 billion cubic meters annually. Next are the Sobat and Atbara River Basins. These two provide less water in terms of flow, but strongly contribute to the total amount of water coming from the plateau. These three water sources produce a total of about 72 billion cubic meters of water annually, in addition to other branches that flow into the Nile headwaters from the south and west.
The Blue Nile became a source of contention two weeks ago, when Ethiopia announced that it would seek to harness the tributary and generate electricity through the Renaissance Dam project. This raised concerns in Egypt, where many believe that there is nothing wrong with Ethiopia building a dam as long as it does not harm the water flow to Sudan and Egypt. Others stress the necessity of securing Ethiopia’s guarantee to protect Egypt’s share of Nile waters, especially during the five-year period during which water will be retained behind the dam.
Dr. Diab said: “I want to draw attention to the fact that the total number of dams on the river in Ethiopia is 34, which were proposed with the knowledge of USAID with the objective of developing Ethiopia in a comprehensive fashion. These include dams for electric generation and others for irrigation and agriculture, both large and small. Ethiopia has implemented plans for 13 dams, and this dam, the Renaissance Dam, is number 14.”
He pointed to the fact that Egypt did not object to Ethiopia’s construction of the 13 previous dams, stressing that Cairo does not oppose the construction of dams as a general principle so long as these do not harm the upstream countries.
He said, “It has been confirmed that the Renaissance Dam project does have a serious impact on the Nile River waters in Egypt and Sudan.”
Diab also told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Renaissance Dam is in reality “a composite of two dams . . . a main dam to generate power, and a reserve dam to gather water to supply the main dam in the dry season. This composite dam, and the process of running it controls the amount of water flowing out. Consequently, control over the amount of water will be in Ethiopia’s hands.”
According to Egyptian government sources, Cairo’s biggest worries fall into three categories. The first is the period in which the reservoir behind the Renaissance Dam is filled. The second is the signing of what is known as the Entebbe Agreement, a treaty that rejects the current allocation of water shares and seeks to reduce Egypt’s portion. The third and final issue for Egypt is the intent of other upstream countries to construct similar dams.
As Diab suggests, “A water shortage could lead to a shortage of arable land and in turn a food shortage, as well as of the electricity generated by turbines at the High Dam, leading to a 20 to 30 percent reduction in generated power.”
Regardless of Ethiopian regulations governing the construction of the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, a group of Egyptian experts are quietly studying the probability of the dam collapsing after 10 or 20 years and what can be done to avoid such a risk.
A colonial-era treaty signed by both Egypt and Ethiopia ensured the safe flow of the Nile waters from the river’s source to its mouth at the Mediterranean Sea. Known as the 1929 agreement, it more or less evolved into the agreement signed in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan reapportioning water shares following the construction of the Aswan High Dam.
Before the High Dam was erected in the 1950s, approximately 22 billion cubic meters of Nile water flowed into the Mediterranean annually. When the High Dam was built, this quantity was divided between Egypt and Sudan: 14.5 billion cubic meters for Sudan and 7.5 billion cubic meters for Egypt. The High Dam also caused the submersion of Sudanese land, which forced Egypt to offer EGP 15 million in compensation to Sudan.
Diab claimed that the 1959 agreement brought about “the abrogation of the clause of the 1929 agreement allowing total Egyptian control and others that prohibited countries from initiating projects at the Nile’s source that would impede, delay or alter its flow to Egypt in particular.”
He added: “This was the power of the veto, and provoked the upstream countries once they became independent.”
In 1964, Julius Nyerere, then president of Tanzania, sent a letter to his Egyptian counterpart, Gamal Abdel Nasser, informing him that Tanzania country would no longer recognize the colonial treaties and calling for a new agreement between Egypt and the upstream countries, Tanzania in particular. Other countries, including Burundi, Uganda, and Kenya, followed Tanzania’s example in what was later called the Nyerere Doctrine.
The Nyerere Doctrine, which is still in force today, essentially entails the upstream countries no longer recognizing or honoring the old treaties.
Diab elaborates: “Since then, the 1929 agreement has been void, for all intents and purposes, from the point of view of the upstream countries. Yet the problem did not come to the fore at that time, because the 1959 agreement had been signed guaranteeing Egypt the reservoir of water behind the High Dam and its share of the Nile. The upstream countries were even cooperating with Egypt without any trouble.”
Diab continues: “My assessment is that Egypt was lured in by that system of cooperation, up through the implementation of the Nile Basin Initiative in 1999, which included 25 development projects. But after the technical and administrative plans for the initiative were approved, the legal side came into play, known as the Entebbe Agreement. The agreement did not recognize the historical rights of any state, and there was no reference to the 55.5 billion cubic meters reserved for Egypt. There was no recognition of the principle of prior notification regarding projects planned by any Nile Basin country.”
The Entebbe Agreement stipulates that decisions are to be made by majority vote of the Nile Basin countries and not by consensus, as Egypt and Sudan would like. Likewise, the upstream countries rejected an Egyptian–Sudanese proposal that would have allowed decisions made by majority vote—but with the condition that Egypt and Sudan always be in the majority. They labeled this a return to the veto power enshrined in the 1929 agreement.
Diab revealed that the recent discussion of water shares became tense “when the upstream countries asked that there be no mention of Egypt’s historical share of the Nile and rejected what is, in their opinion, Egypt’s foolish usage of this term. The conversation revolved around allocating a share of 30 to 35 or 40 billion cubic meters annually, at the nearest guess. This is short of the current quantity allocated by 15.5 billion, and at a time when we are short of water: Egypt already has a water deficiency of 10 billion cubic meters.”
Whether or not Cairo accepts Ethiopia’s plan for the Renaissance Dam is not the issue. The real problem, as Diab has pointed out, is that the whole thing puts Egypt in an awkward situation and forces it to make some difficult choices. The most salient is agreement to the Renaissance Dam project, including its risks. And the Renaissance Dam will not be alone: other dams will follow.
Diab said: “The other source countries will also begin constructing dams, as Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania have announced in succession over the last several days.” At this point, Egypt will find itself in a truly impossible position.