Will Egypt and Ethiopia come to blows over the Renaissance Dam and water politics?

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Though you might think of the Nile as a primarily Egyptian river in Africa, its roots go much deeper.  The White Nile originates far within sub-Saharan Africa at Lake Victoria, winding up through Juba, the capital of the newly-minted country of South Sudan, and the Blue Nile originates at Lake Tana in northeastern Ethiopia, and it joins the While Nile near Khartoum, the capital of (north) Sudan. egypt_flag_newethiopia_640

But the rights to the water originating from the Blue Nile have become the subject of an increasingly tense showdown between Egypt and Ethiopia, with Ethiopia moving forward to bring its long-planned Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam into operating, sparking a diplomatic showdown between the two countries and a crisis between two relatively new leaders, both of whom took office in summer 2012 — Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn and Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi.

The Renaissance Dam and the politics of the Nile were no less fraught between former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the late Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi.  But with the project moving forward, Hailemariam and Morsi are locked in a diplomatic tussle that could escalate into something much worse.  Morsi has recently warned Ethiopia that ‘all options are open,’ which conceivably includes an Egyptian air attack to bomb the Renaissance Dam, which would initiate military confrontation between the second-most and third-most populous countries on the continent of Africa.

The Renaissance Dam is Meles’s legacy project and, with a price tag of between $4 billion and $5 billion, it’s embedded with an atypical amount of Ethiopian national pride.  When it is completed, the dam will make Ethiopia a huge hydroelectric producer, perhaps Africa’s largest energy producer, with an estimated generation of 6,000 megawatts of electricity.  To put that in perspective, the Hoover Dam in the southwestern United States has a maximum generation of around 2,100 megawatts and Egypt’s own Aswan High Dam has a maximum of around 2,500 megawatta, while China’s Three Gorges Dam has a maximum capacity of 22,500 megawatts.

Egypt’s chief concern is that the dam will reduce the amount of water that currently flows from the Blue Nile to the Nile Delta, and Ethiopia has already started to divert the course of the Blue Nile to start filling the Renaissance Dam’s reservoir (see below a map of the Nile and its tributaries).  While that process is expected to temporarily reduce the amount of water that flows to Sudan and to Egypt for up to three years, Egyptian officials have voiced concerns that the Renaissance Dam might permanently reduce the flow of the Nile through Egypt, despite technical reassurances to the contrary.  Moreover, Egyptian officials point to colonial-era treaties with the United Kingdom from 1929 and 1959 that purported to divide the Nile’s riparian rights solely as between Egypt and the Sudan, without regard for Ethiopian, Ugandan, Tanzanian or other upriver national claims.  Ethiopian anger at exclusion from the 1959 Nile basin negotiations led, in part, to the decision by Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I to claim the independence of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church from the Coptic Orthodox Church based in Alexandria, Egypt.

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It’s clear however, where Ethiopia’s Nile neighbors stand on the issue — the leaders of South Sudan and Uganda have voiced their approval for the project, and even Sudan, which will also mark some reduction in Nile water while the dam is constructed, is inclined to support it, which will result in a wider source of crucial electricity throughout the Horn of Africa, east Africa and beyond.  Ironically, it could even be Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, currently under indictment by the International Criminal Court for atrocities stemming from the Darfur humanitarian crisis in the mid-2000s, who has the regional credibility with both Cairo and Addis Ababa to diffuse the crisis. 

Water politics are an important issue in Egypt, and Morsi’s current prime minister Hisham Qandil is himself a former water minister in the transitional post-Mubarak government.  The Nile River has long been vital to the fertile agricultural production of Egypt’s Nile Valley, and with a rapidly growing population, the 55 billion cubic meters of water that the Nile provides doesn’t even currently meet the demand of 75 billion cubic meters that Egypt currently requires, though infrastructural and allocation problems mean that Egypt could harvest more water with more efficient techniques than it currently employs.  Nonetheless, the growing water deficit means that access to water supplies is becoming an increasingly difficult domestic political issue within Egypt:

When it comes to the distribution of water, the differences between communities are stark.

Saft El-Laban, along with other Egyptian slums and neglected towns on the northern coast, suffers from water shortages. But just a few kilometres from these spots are middle class housing developments with lush gardens and seemingly abundant water.

“Why is 6 October City rich with water while here the supply is cut?” asks Ahmed Selim, another resident of Saft El-Laban.

With political tensions rising over water use, Morsi must find the Ethiopian dam a helpful target to divert anger over Egypt’s domestic water woes.

Moreover, the secrecy surrounding the project, which stems from an Ethiopian government where press freedom and transparency remain low, means that the environmental impact of the Renaissance Dam is still unknown — the ill effects of the dam’s construction could include everything from soil erosion and mudslides to flooding and deforestation to the destruction of ecosystems downriver, in addition to evaporative losses and potential other adverse affects to water flow downstream.  The construction of China’s Three Gorges Dam is itself thought to have contributed to earthquakes in the region, and Ethiopia’s highlands could also be subject to similar ‘reservoir-induced seismicity.’  Those concerns are one of the reasons why Ethiopia has largely financed the construction of the Renaissance Dam without significant international financial support, excepting Chinese loans.

With Egyptian foreign minister Mohamed Kamel Amr and his Ethiopian counterpart Tedros Adhanom currently working through a more robust dialogue over riparian rights, no one believes that Egypt will necessarily take immediate action against Ethiopia.  But who really knows how the crisis could end, with Morsi ominously refusing to rule out a military solution?

After all, Mubarak and Meles were much more well-known quantities who governed their respective countries continuously for decades.  Morsi, who came to power in Egypt’s first post-revolutionary election largely on the support of the Muslim Brotherhood (الإخوان المسلمون), is still trying to find his way after less than a year in office in Egypt with economic, cultural, political and social tensions bubbling underneath the surface ever since Mubarak was forced from office following the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011. Hailemariam, meanwhile, is still fending off the suspicion that, though he became Ethiopia’s first southern leader last year upon Meles’s death (he’s ethnically Wolaytan), the Tigray leaders who came to power in Ethiopia alongside Meles in 1991 and who remain power-brokers within the governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF, or የኢትዮጵያ ሕዝቦች አብዮታዊ ዲሞክራሲያዊ ግንባር) still retain much of the power within Ethiopia, especially with respect to security and police power.

It may be that Morsi and other Egyptian leaders are taking a bellicose stand now in order to secure a better deal from Ethiopia — not on water necessarily, but with respect to future hydroelectric power.  Like its neighbors, Egypt’s power needs are growing, and Ethiopia will certainly have an extraordinary amount of excess power generation for export when the Renaissance Dam is completed.

Given that Morsi and Hailemariam are so new to power, each could find in a broad Egyptian-Ethiopian tussle an opportunity to galvanize their respective domestic political strength and a national diversion from their respective problems, which is why the Blue Nile dispute is worth taking seriously, even as diplomats in Egypt, Ethiopia and beyond work to find a way to calm Egyptian fears.

Top photo credit to Kevin Lees — Tis Abay / Blue Nile Falls near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, November 2012. 

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