Grand Renaissance Dam divides Egypt and Ethiopia

30 October 2013

Tensions are high between Egypt and Ethiopia right now over the construction of a massive dam on the Nile River, and Ethiopian hopes for a peaceful settlement rest on an imminent three-way meeting, Michèle Bacchus reports.

Set to be Africa’s largest hydropower facility when finished in 2017, Ethiopia’s $4.2bn Grand Renaissance Dam will take water from the world’s longest river and create a 70 billion cubic-metre reservoir to generate 6,000MW of electricity.

Ethiopia, with ambitions to become a middle-income country by 2025, has offered to sell spare power to its neighbours Egypt and Sudan.

But while Sudan supports the scheme that has been under construction since 2011, Egypt is vehemently opposed, claiming it will reduce its precious water supply.

Egypt rejects impact studies conducted by Ethiopia because an international panel comprising two experts each from Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, plus four from other countries, have called their findings "very basic".

The expert panel said the results didn’t "befit a development of this magnitude, importance and with such regional impact," reported Bloomberg.

Former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi warned that if Ethiopia didn’t cease work "all options" were open in protecting the river, which supplies 95% of Egypt’s water.

The same day, the Ethiopian foreign ministry replied that the nation "will not even for a second" stop the dam’s construction.

Italy’s Salini Costruttori was awarded the contract to build the dam in March 2011.

Partly-submerged palms above the Nile dam in Egypt. The Nile supplies 95% of Egypt’s water (Credit: Brooklyn Museum/Wikimedia)

Amidst the diplomatic standoff water ministers from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are due to meet in coming days to discuss the regional impact of the dam even though a quarter of the engineering preparations are already complete.

If the meeting goes ahead later this week – the last two scheduled meetings were cancelled – it will be a sign that Egypt and Ethiopia have a new appetite for consensus over this unprecedented infrastructure project.

Fragile Egypt

Egypt fears the dam will reduce the amount of control it has over its primary water source and is skeptical about Ethiopia’s commitment to deliver energy to the region.

Some analysts have said Ethiopia is seizing on Egypt’s relative fragility, caused by its political unrest, to push through plans Egypt would otherwise thwart.

"Ethiopia has aspirations to be a regional power at Egypt’s expense," said Hani Raslan, who heads the Nile Basin studies department at Cairo’s al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

But Ethiopian officials are standing firm, saying the dam will be used to generate electricity and not to irrigate fields, so all the water will eventually make its way downstream to Egypt anyway.

Ethiopia has gained backing from many of the 11 countries along the Nile with the promise of power.

For its part, Egypt’s foreign affairs department is doing all it can to gather allies onto its side with a tour of three Nile Basin countries: Uganda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At each stop Egyptian ministers are saying that the Nile should be used as "a tool for cooperation and to achieve mutual benefits for all countries in the Nile Basin", says a foreign ministry statement – a clear rebuke to Ethiopia’s unilateral and pre-emptive approach.

Egypt has a difficult balancing act to play. If it supports the project it could be in a better position to influence the construction and operation of the dam. If it doesn’t, Ethiopia will maintain complete control.

Mohamed Nasr Allam, former Egyptian water minister, has said that international powers including the United States may need to mediate between Egypt and Ethiopia.

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