Ethiopia dam fears exaggerated, say experts
BY LEYLA DOSS Cairo – In a fiery speech Monday night by Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi capping weeks of tension between Egypt and Ethiopia over the latter’s Renaissance Dam mega project, Morsi said that all options were open, implying that a military solution was on the table to defend Egypt’s water supply.
While Morsi stopped short of waging war, he sent a clear message to Egypt’s “neighbors” and to Ethiopia that Egyptians were ready to safeguard the country’s water security “with their blood”. Oscillating between dove and hawk, Morsi’s grandstanding was criticized as a tactic to thwart protests aiming to remove him planned for June 30.
In a recent interview published by state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, Morsi said that Egypt has “keen interest” in maintaining friendly relations with Nile Basin countries, but emphasized that it would take measures to prevent losing “a single drop of water.”
Tensions escalated between both countries when hostile remarks by Egyptian politicians during a presidency-sponsored meeting to discuss the issue with representatives of several political parties were aired live on national television.
Ayman Nour, head of Ghad El-Thawra Party, for instance called for a military attack on Ethiopia, while Younis Makhyoun, head of the Salafi Al Nour Party, was caught on camera saying that Egypt should back rebels in Ethiopia or even destroy the dam.
Members of the opposition have had mixed responses, with Nasserist former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, suggesting that Egypt punishes Ethiopia by barring its vessels from crossing the Suez Canal; while former liberal MP Amr Hamzawy, head of the Free Egypt Party, demanded negotiations and a serious political strategy to deal with the issue.
On the other hand, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei, also one of the leaders of the opposition National Salvation Front, called on President Morsi to apologize to Ethiopia and Sudan.
Unfounded Fears, say experts
Political outbidding aside, local and international experts claim that Egypt’s concerns regarding water and power shortages that may result from the construction of the Ethiopia dam are unfounded, and that the dam could in fact provide more resources for Egypt.
Ethiopia, a Nile Basin country, diverted the flow of the river last week in preparation for the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a $4.2 billion project on the Blue Nile, which started in 2011.
Egypt has demanded a halt in construction but to no avail since Ethiopia is pressing ahead with the project even as it continues to hold official talks with Egypt, which fears the dam could cause water and power shortages. Ethiopia claims it has reported evidence to claim otherwise.
Of the 84 billion cubic meters (BCM) of the Nile water, which reaches the Aswan High Dam annually, 68 percent comes from the Blue Nile.
A 10-man tripartite commission, composed of four international experts, two Egyptians, two Sudanese and two Ethiopians, has claimed that although “inconclusive”, the results from its year-long analysis of the project and inspection of the site show that it will not significantly impact Egypt or Sudan.
Egypt shares 22 percent of the Nile River’s 3 million square kilometers of basin area with 10 other countries, including Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. It’s “historic rights” to Nile water control are guaranteed by two treaties – 1929 and 1959 – where the latter allocated 55.5 BCM, about 66 percent of the river water, to Egypt and gave it veto power over upstream irrigation or power work projects.
The 1959 treaty also allocated 18.5 BCM to Sudan, but there was no legal allocation of water resources to any of the other Nile Basin countries.
A Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was created in 1999 to begin cooperation among Nile riparian countries, but its participants have failed to reach an agreement to date.
Tensions have been rising since 2007 when negotiations stalled, leading to the signing of a Cooperative Framework Agreement in 2010 by five upstream states to seek more Nile River water, a move fiercely opposed by Egypt and Sudan.
Ethiopian authorities claim they have been forced into unilateral action, but Adel Nabhan, a political researcher, says that this is no justification, reflecting a popular opinion on the issue.
“Even if their demands are legitimate, this is in violation of international law,” says Nabhan. “A new agreement is needed, which would help us reach middle ground.”
Abel Teshome Woldeyes, a sustainable development activist based in Ethiopia, however, says that it is definitely a struggle amongst all Nile Basin countries to benefit from hydro power generation.
“The Ethiopian government is partly doing this to stimulate economic growth and reduce poverty,” he says.
Woldeyes says that upstream countries such as Ethiopia have been marginalized in the past, but should now engage in cooperative management and have a sustainable fair share of the river.
Egypt’s claim for greater Nile water access is also based on its vulnerability to water scarcity due to its high population, arid climate, limited fresh water resources and high evaporation rates.
It is predicted that by 2050, at the current rates of consumption, Egypt will be under extreme water stress since 95 percent of its population is living on the Nile basin, compared to 39 percent in Ethiopia.
With annual precipitation at 150 mm/year and few water resources, according to a government report released last February, Egypt’s per capita share of water is 660 cubic meters – well below the international standard of water poverty of 1,000 cubic meters – compared to Ethiopia, where the per capita share is about 1,575 cubic meters. Egypt has 24 cubic meters per capita access to renewable freshwater compared to Ethiopia, which stands at 1,543 cubic meters.
Despite these geological factors, local and international experts claim that all Nile Basin countries, including Egypt and Sudan, can benefit from the Renaissance Dam.
According to Lama El-Hatow, co-founder of the Water Institute of the Nile, a local think-tank, claims that cooperation could allow for more water access to Egypt, in exchange for a reduction in water abundance and flooding in upstream countries.
Mohammed Mohieddin, a former member of the Tripartite Commission on the Great Renaissance Dam, agrees.
“Egypt can ensure it is not negatively affected by the construction of the dam through dialogue and playing a concrete role in the construction of this dam,” says.
In a bid to dispel myths about the dam’s potential to exacerbate water scarcity in Egypt, several hydrologists and environmentalists have said that the dam’s role as a hydro power plant limits its role to providing power and electricity, rather than storing water for large periods of time.
With a capacity of 63 BCM, the Renaissance Dam’s reservoir will be one of Africa’s largest.
El-Hatow says that this very mechanical design of hydroelectric power dams ensures that Ethiopia cannot hijack vast amounts of water and that the re-routing of the flow of Nile water does not affect the water that reaches Egypt.
“Due to my experience and research there, I can’t see Ethiopia capable of or willing to withhold water resources from Egypt,” says Jennifer Veilleux, a doctoral candidate in geography at Oregon State University, who has done extensive research on the dam. “The Renaissance Dam is not designed to hold back huge amounts of water, but rather to let the water pass for the generation of hydro-electricity.”
Mohammed El-Mongy, of the Water Institute of the Nile, claims that having legal and financial ownership rights in the dam could allow Egypt to reduce loss of water by 6 percent through ensuring water is released right before the peak agricultural season.
During his assessment of the Renaissance Dam, Islam Awad, a geotechnical consultant engineer at Dar El-Handasah, discovered that water losses from evaporation could be minimised by 5 percent, equivalent to 0.58 BCM, by storing water in Ethiopia for a period of time before it reaches Egypt.
Egypt’s arid climate causes 10 BCM, about 12 percent of its stored water, to evaporate per year.
Evaporation rates reach as high as 2,970 mm/year in Egypt, about half of what is lost in Ethiopia at a rate of 1,520 mm/year.
The result is that many of these upstream countries have excess water, while Egypt has a water deficit. Awad believes that the Renaissance Dam, could in fact tip this balance for the mutual benefit of both upstream and downstream countries.
Another possible benefit of the Renaissance Dam is its reduction of siltation, a process where soil erosion or sediment spill creates large particles that pollute water.
By acting as a barrier, the dam could reduce approximately 160 million tones of silt which flows in the Blue Nile every year, and therefore increases the Aswan Dam’s efficiency in power generation.
Hydrology and environmental experts also deny claims that the Ethiopian dam will decrease the energy capacity of the High Dam by reducing the volume of water needed to generate power.
Awad and El-Hatow both agree that the solution to this issue would be to release water from the dam over several years, rather than all at once.
Even in the worst-case scenario, studies show that the depth of Lake Nasser would reach 162-170 meters, which is well above the minimum water level range required to generate power from the High Dam of 156 meters, according to El-Hatow. The current average depth stands at 182 meters.
Aiming to be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, the Renaissance Dam is slated to produce 6.3 gigawatts of power, of which three to four gigawatts are to be exported at cheap rates.
“As Egypt is facing increasing power shortages, the dam could provide Egypt with large amounts of electricity,” says El-Mongy. “We could provide them with other resources and investment benefits in return for cheaper electricity.”
The Renaissance Dam could also have economic benefits if Egypt pursues economic integration with Nile Basin countries and become an investment partner in the project.
Egypt’s close proximity to Ethiopia, feasibility of transportation and demand for power, would create a favourable climate for cooperation with Ethiopia.
Only 40 percent of the project is locally funded, which means that Egypt could invest in the remaining 60 percent guaranteeing some ownership rights.
“Egypt can play a proactive role to economically integrate the 400 million inhabitants that live in the Nile Basin countries,” says Ana Cascao, Programme Manager at Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).
El-Mongy also says that together with Ethiopia and Sudan, Egypt can become a regional hub for electricity generation and export electricity to Europe.
Other experts, however, say that the Renaissance Dam could pose some risks to Egypt, especially if there is a lack of cooperation or if the project is mismanaged.
Awad says there could be a possible environmental impact or reduced water availability in the short-term.
However, cooperation can minimize these risks by including a panel of local and international experts and authorities from all involved nations In the dam’s decision-making process.
As tensions are rising between Egypt and most of the Nile Basin countries, including Sudan, contribution to the Renaissance Dam project could provide regional opportunities for Egypt.
Historically, Egypt is seen by many of its African neighbors as being hegemonic and quasi-colonial in its water usage.
“Egypt is partly to blame because they have not been proactive and have allowed themselves to be cornered,” says Cascao.
Cascao believes that economic and political contribution to this project could be the start of a more cooperative and integrative relationship between Egypt and other African countries.
Having one of the most advanced irrigation expertise and technology amongst lower-income countries, Egypt can provide Ethiopia with technical know-how, infrastructure and resources, in return for greater access to water.
Ethiopians on the other hand see the dam as a symbol of national pride.
“This is significant for a country that feels it is viewed internationally as a donation-recipient and is known for famines,” says Veilleux. “Ethiopia wants a new identity and an influential role on the African continent. The Grand Renaissance Dam is helping improve people’s sense of national identity and pride at being Ethiopian.”
El-Mongy believes Egypt needs to negotiate, because Sudan is no longer a guaranteed ally.
“Sudan has improved economic relations with Ethiopia, and has also felt more marginalized by Egypt in recent years,” says Ali Askouri, Chairman of the Council of Merowe Dam Affect People in Sudan.
Many such as El-Mongy believe part of this greater cooperation includes raising public awareness about other Nile Basin countries, their cultures and their relationships with the Nile River.
“In many upstream countries, the Nile is viewed as a source of life,” says El-Mongy. “in Egypt, it is viewed in a more limiting mechanical way as a tool for irrigation.”
El-Mongy, El-Hatow and Veilleux all agree that cooperation is still possible and that it is not too late.
Askouri says Sudan could play the role of mediator. “Relations could improve if we create cross-border relationships and reform institutions to ensure better treatment of both Sudanese people in Egypt and Egyptian people in Sudan.”
“Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt could collaborate to be a power generation hub in all of Africa,” says El-Mongy.
Egypt has taken steps towards cooperation recently, setting up National Council for Water Security last Wednesday to create a detailed strategy in dealing with the Nile crisis.
But with the rising tensions between all three nations, all parties are in dire need of serious negotiations.
“The Nile is an important life resource and flows as an ecosystem across 10 different countries,” say El-Mongy. “We need to begin to use a trans-boundary frame of mind, share our resources, exchange cultural knowledge and cooperate with one another. Egypt can no longer live as an isolated Island on this continent.”