June 19, 2012
Nile dam: Water wars averted for now
By Katrina Manson
When Ethiopiaï¿½s plan to dam the Blue Nile grew grander within a month
of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, it did not go unnoticed
in his country, downstream, Nile-dependent Egypt.
The Grand Renaissance Dam, at 6,000MW, will be Africaï¿½s largest
ï¿½We have the right to develop our natural resource,ï¿½ says Alemayehu
Tegenu, Ethiopiaï¿½s minister for water and energy.
ï¿½We were not benefiting much from the Nile. There is a group of people
who are totally against the dam and they are not right.ï¿½
Aside from some green lobbyists who fear the destruction of the
environment, he means Egypt.
Clinging to a colonial treaty signed in 1929, Egypt has veto rights
over any upstream developments that might affect the Nileï¿½s flow.
A series of agreements sees neighbouring Sudan awarded 18.5bn cu
metres a year and 55bn cu metres for Egypt, even though Ethiopia is
the source for 85 per cent of the river and was left out of a later
Meles Zenawi, Ethiopiaï¿½s prime minister, has long challenged ï¿½old-
fashioned ideas based on the assumption that the Nile water belongs to
Egyptï¿½. Even so, the dam could deprive Egypt of more than 17bn cu
metres a year. The country relies on the river for 90 per cent of its
ï¿½Ethiopia has pushed this through in a time of turmoil in Egypt,ï¿½ says
an international official. ï¿½Egypt has not had the time or breathing
room to focus on it ï¿½ the new leaders have not been able to unite the
country around a single issue and certainly not around the Nile.
ï¿½The guys in Addis have seen this opportunity and stepped right
through it. If Mubarak was still in power today, it would have been
the beginning of a water war,ï¿½ says the official.
Mohamed Nasr El Din Allam, Egyptï¿½s outgoing minister of water, says
the dam will create shortages in water, power and farming land and
lead to political, economic and social instability.
Ethiopia insists that its downstream neighbours Sudan and Egypt have
nothing to fear from its decision to dam the Blue Nile, which feeds
both countries. On the contrary, they will in fact both gain.
Mr Alemayehu says: ï¿½The dam will benefit both countries: it will not
reduce the flow, but regulate it. They will benefit because it will
reduce silt, control floods, regulate water flow throughout the
Sudan and Egypt have calmed their responses in the past year and a
technical committee has started work on an assessment of the damï¿½s
impact. The committee is expected to report next year, but Ethiopia is
not waiting. ï¿½We are allowing the establishment of the technical
committee so as to build confidence,ï¿½ says Mr Alemayehu.
Costing an estimated $4.8bn and taking four years to build, it is the
sort of large-scale project that usually has donors and development
finance institutions rushing to help, glad to have a project in so
poor a country to spend their money on.
But they have not touched it. Instead, Ethiopian state television airs
nightly appeals to everyone from bus drivers to businessmen, to buy
bonds to support the project. Even political opposition figures are
buying bonds in what has become a national rallying cry.
ï¿½Meles is being very smart on this ï¿½ it is a very expensive dam but it
is a transformative project,ï¿½ says an international official. ï¿½I think
Ethiopia will deliver on the first 20 per cent of it and by then
donors will be rushing to come in.ï¿½
ï¿½Everyone is looking nervously to see how much progress there is,ï¿½
says the official. Sudan and Egypt must also face the likelihood that
the Ethiopian project sets a precedent, should other upstream
countries such as Uganda or South Sudan, on the White Nile, decide to
dam the river flow too.
Over the past two years, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda,
Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo have all signed an agreement
to seek more water from the Nile, which they argue should be shared
more fairly, Egypt says the agreement does not overturn the 1929
The Nileï¿½s water wars may merely be on hold.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.
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