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Damming the Nile

When the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi unveiled his plan to build Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant in 2011, he gave it a title in keeping with its ambition. Nearly a decade and $4.8-billion later, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is nearly complete. And so, Meles might argue, is Ethiopia’s rebirth as a continental superpower.

Nestled deep in the Blue Nile Valley, not far from the border with Sudan, the dam is an extraordinary construction: 155 metres high and 1 780 metres long, with a reservoir that can hold more than 70-billion cubic metres of water and 16 turbines that will be able generate 6 000 megawatts of power — more than double Ethiopia’s current capacity. It is the eighth largest dam in the world.

Even more remarkable is that Ethiopia — a lower income country that is among the world’s poorest by GDP per capita — financed construction of the dam itself, through a combination of government bonds and donations. 

But before any of the promises of the dam can be realised — before Ethiopia’s already booming industrial sector gets a massive boost from cheap, reliable electricity; before the country starts exporting its new power, both literal and metaphorical, to its neighbours; and before access to electricity can be extended to the 56% of Ethiopians who currently go without — the dam must be filled.

Do you know how long it takes to fill a dam with 72-billion litres of water? The futures of several nations may hinge on the answer to this question.

Worried neighbours

The serene Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands is the source of the Blue Nile. The highland soil is what gives the river its name: silt darkens the river’s waters, making it look blue in certain light. From there, the river heads south-west, winding its way through deep canyons, before slowly bending northwards. As it descends, it moves first into Sudan — where, in Khartoum, it joins up with the White Nile — and then into Egypt.

Most of Egypt is divided into two deserts, the Eastern Desert and the Western Desert. The dividing line between the two is the Nile River, which feeds a narrow green ribbon of fertile farmland. Most of Egypt’s population of 100-million live along this green ribbon, and the country depends on the Nile for 90% of its water needs. For Egypt, the Nile is synonymous with life itself.

Egypt is worried. For millennia, it has enjoyed an almost entirely uninterrupted supply of Nile water. Never before have any of the countries upstream been able to exert any meaningful control over the river — but soon, Ethiopia will have the power to turn Egypt’s taps on and off. 

In theory, Egypt is protected by the terms of a 1929 treaty which guarantees it access to the majority of Nile water. That treaty and its amendments were negotiated between Egypt, Sudan and the British imperial government, which took it upon itself to represent the upstream countries. But Ethiopia has rejected the terms of that treaty, and in building the dam has effectively ripped it up.

Now Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have to come to a new agreement on how to manage this most fundamental of resources — and the talks are not going well.

“Egypt is not open to accept Ethiopia’s legitimate right to use Nile waters and wants to put the whole river under its control,” said Ethiopia’s  foreign minister Gedu Andargachew.

His Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, sees things differently. “Egypt has adhered to the approach of negotiating with the Ethiopian side and exercised sincere intentions to reach an equitable agreement for the two parties,” he said, adding that Ethiopian negotiators have been “intransigent”.

The latest round of talks — there have been many over the course of the last nine years — broke down on Wednesday. They were hosted in Khartoum, with Sudan finding itself in the middle in more ways than one: although it too is heavily reliant on the Nile, it enjoys better relations with Addis Ababa and stands to benefit from cheaper electricity.

One issue under discussion is how long Ethiopia will take to fill up the dam — Ethiopia is pushing to do it in just six years, while Egypt would prefer 12. The faster the dam fills, the less water makes its way through to Sudan and Egypt. This is all the more pressing because Ethiopia’s rainy season is supposed to start next month, and Ethiopia wants to begin the filling process. If no agreement is reached, on this and on other key disagreements such as the establishment of a formal dispute resolution mechanism, Ethiopia has said it will proceed unilaterally. 

“Whether Egypt takes the case to international bodies or threatens to go for a war, no force can stop us from using our own water resource,” said foreign minister Gedu. Gedu is referencing specific threats. Just days ago, Egypt said it wanted to take the matter before the United Nations Security Council. And prominent figures close to the government in Cairo have repeatedly raised the spectre of conflict. Last week, Naguib Sawiris, a billionaire businessman with close links to President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, tweeted: “We will never allow any country to starve us, if Ethiopia doesn’t come to reason, we the Egyptian people will be the first to call for war.”

Regional tensions rising

In early June, a report appeared in South Sudanese media claiming that Egypt had reached an agreement with South Sudan to build a military base in the town of Pagak — just across from the Ethiopian border. This report was swiftly denied by South Sudan’s government. “The people who are saying there are [Egyptian] bases in South Sudan are forces of destruction who want to create conflict between us and Egypt, between us and Ethiopia and other neighbouring countries,” deputy foreign minister Deng Dau Deng told the Mail & Guardian.

Kafule Yigzaw (L) check iron bars at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, on December 26, 2019. – The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 145-metre-high, 1.8-kilometre-long concrete colossus is set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa. Across Ethiopia, poor farmers and rich businessmen alike eagerly await the more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity officials say it will ultimately provide. Yet as thousands of workers toil day and night to finish the project, Ethiopian negotiators remain locked in talks over how the dam will affect downstream neighbours, principally Egypt. (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP)

At around the same time, a leaked document — an end user certificate seen by the M&G — shows that the government of Somalia was preparing to receive a donation of weapons from Egypt earlier this year. The consignment included 1 200 AK-47s, 636 pistols, 50 rocket-propelled grenade launchers and 36 sniper rifles. It is unknown whether the weapons shipment went ahead. “That’s not something I’m aware of,” said an Egyptian foreign ministry spokesperson.

There’s reason to be sceptical about suggestions that Egypt is trying to forge military alliances with Ethiopia’s neighbours, said William Davison, the Ethiopia researcher for the International Crisis Group. If anything, such activity would be counterproductive — it would just strengthen Ethiopia’s resolve. “Frankly it seems to be just as much in the interests of Ethiopia if the government is looking to rally the people against external forces,” he said.

There is no doubt, however, that Egypt is putting in an enormous diplomatic effort to rally regional support. Egypt’s foreign minister has been crisscrossing Africa — a continent that Egypt has historically neglected — in a bid to win allies. In March alone Shoukry visited South Africa, Burundi, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Niger and Rwanda.

Already, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is changing geopolitics as we know it — leaving Ethiopia holding all the cards. “The dispute may remain unresolved for a long time” if Egypt does not consider changing its current position, said Demeke Achiso, an international relations lecturer at Addis Ababa University. 

For better or worse, Meles Zenawi — as his dream finally becomes a reality — would be proud.

With additional reporting from David Monodanga in Juba and Amanda Sperber in Nairobi.

This article appeared on The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

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Samuel Getachew
Samuel Getachew is an Addis Ababa, Ethiopia based journalist with The Reporter newspaper. He has written for CNN, the Huffington Post and the Globe and Mail in Canada
Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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