Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Egypt & Sudan outraged by Ethiopia's Blue Nile Dam

Egypt & Sudan outraged by Ethiopia's Blue Nile Dam

-By Thomas Land

Egypt and Sudan are outraged by a new hydro-electric dam construction
project on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia that threatens to endanger
agricultural productivity across huge swathes of Arab land. The
6,000MW dam, 40km from the Sudanese border, designed to alleviate
regional energy shortages and to produce power for export, is
scheduled for completion in 2015.

But it may also damage the fragile environment of Sudan and Egypt down
river. The Blue and the White Niles, both originating in Africa, are
the principal tributaries of the river on which both Egypt and Sudan
depend for survival. There have been reports, played down by officials
but treated very seriously by the Ethiopian press, of contingency
plans prepared by Egypt to deploy air strikes delivered across Sudan
airspace to wreck the $4.8bn hydro-power project.

This is one instance of many frictions spreading between thirsty
neighbours across the Middle East, fed by disastrous, mounting water
shortages challenging economic development and threatening to engulf
the region in conflict. The issues involve desertification,
investment, agricultural productivity and intergovernment relations.

The construction of Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam (GRD) is now
under way by the Italian concern Salini Costruttori, working in
collaboration with Metal & Engineering Corporation, a local
electromechanical enterprise.

Alemayehu Tegenu, the Ethiopian minister of water and energy, recently
received his Egyptian and Sudanese counterparts in Addis Ababa to sign
a diplomatic accord in search of technical cooperation in the
management of shared natural resources.

Egypt's contingency plans for the alleged physical destruction of the
dam under construction at a later, advanced stage were disclosed by
Wikileaks. The immediate relevance of the embarrassing revelations has
been unconvincingly dismissed by Magdy Amr, the Egyptian assistant
foreign minister responsible for Nile basin affairs, on the grounds
that the plans had been formulated in 2010, preceding the public
announcement of the construction.

Abdelrahman Sirelkhatim, the Sudanese ambassador to Ethiopia, has also
emphatically denied propositions that his country was engaged in any
military conspiracy with Egypt for the destruction of the GRD project.

Both countries are nevertheless deeply concerned with

the prospect of a substantial reduction of their principal fresh water
supply. Both depend on the Nile for water as well as its reliable
annual yield of nutrient-rich sediments producing food crops essential
for the survival of their rapidly growing populations.

The GRD hydro-power scheme, the biggest in Africa, will change the
vital water balance of both countries. Its giant turbines capable of
generating electricity at twice the volume produced by Egypt's Aswan
High Dam, will be fed a by a massive reservoir containing 63bn cubic
metres of water. The lake will take several years to fill. And it may
well substantially reduce the flow of the river permanently afterwards.

Haydar Yousif, a noted Sudanese hydrologist and an authority on water
management issues of the Nile, estimates the GDR's reservoir "will
hold back nearly one and a half times the average annual flow of the
river. Filling the reservoir, which could take up to five years, would
drastically affect agriculture, electricity and water supply
downstream. Evaporative losses from the dam's reservoir could be as
much as 3bn cubic metres a year."

The dam will also retain silt. The Ethiopian government argues that
this will be a net positive effect of the construction as it would
increase the lifetime of other dams downstream. Indeed, Sudan has just
increased the height of its heavily sedimented Roseires Dam on the
Blue Nile near the Ethiopian border in a $441.5m investment programme
financed by Gulf donors to boost irrigation as well as hydro-power
production. Discussion papers published at a recent Sudan symposium
added that the GRD project would assist in the regulation of water
supplies downstream for irrigated agriculture and provide assured
electricity supplies for the entire region. Nevertheless, tension
between Ethiopia and its Arab neighbours have periodically flared
since the 1970s when the GRD scheme was first publicly discussed.
Egypt and Sudan have both vigorously lobbied against the project.

To calm their concerns, Ethiopia has recently agreed to the
establishment of an intergovernmental expert committee including
several independent specialists to review the likely environmental
effects of the dam downstream. The experts are to report shortly. But
an Ethiopian foreign affairs spokesman has already declared his
country's resolve to stick to its existing plans in the face of "any
external pressures."

Ethiopia is the home of a dozen great river basins with a combined
hydro-power potential estimated in excess of 45,000MW, but its
industrial development is encumbered by persistent electricity

Its current five-year national Growth and Transformation Plan for the
period ending in 2015 envisages the quadrupling of hydro-power
generating capacity from 2,179MW now, eventually to supply much of the
Middle East, Africa and markets as far as Europe. The construction of
high-capacity power transmission links to Sudan and Djibouti has begun.

The only treaty on sharing the waters of the river once honoured by
all the affected countries was based on a colonial era deal set out by
Britain in 1929. But it was replaced in 2010 by a new instrument
adopted by the five upstream African countries led by Ethiopia - and
rejected by Egypt and Sudan.

The Middle East is plagued by potentially perilous conflicts over the
sharing and management of precious natural resources including the
waters of the Nile, the Jordan and the Euphrates as well as Iraq's
disastrously shrinking marshlands. Nouri Al Maliki, the Iraqi prime
minister, warned a recent Baghdad conference that, to avert disaster,
the Arab World must unite in the search for goodwill and trust between
hostile neighbours in a collective endeavour to meet the looming

Humanity's collective demand for water is expected to outstrip
supplies by some 40% within a decade and as half, according to
American intelligence estimates, threatening massive conflicts. A
United Nations study endorsed by 40 retired world leaders reckons
that, by the year 2025, essential agricultural productivity alone will
demand an additional global supply of 1,000 cubic km of fresh water a
year, 20 times the equivalent of the annual flow of the Nile. N

The GRD hydro-power scheme, the biggest in Africa, will change the
vital water balance of both countries. Ethiopia is the home of a dozen
great river basins with a combined hydro-power potential in exces of

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