Sharing: A case for the completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Opinion by Ramya Balasingam
Jan. 25, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

The successful completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam should be a momentous event — not only for the country of Ethiopia, but also for the African continent, since it would mark the triumph of the largest hydroelectric project in Africa. However, since its inception in 2011, the daring project has produced much controversy, especially amongst Egyptian politicians.

In 2013, Egyptian officials discussed plans to sabotage the building of the dam, thinking that their conversation was private. Before Muhammad Morsi, then-president of Egypt, could let all in the room know that they were, in fact, on a live television channel, much damage had been done. Although the politicians’ dislike of the Ethiopian project was known previously, this incident exposed the extent of their resentment in a highly public way.

The dam’s projected completion year is 2017, and is expected to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, which more than doubles Ethiopia’s present capacity for generating power. While this is likely to improve significantly the standard of living in Ethiopia, Egyptians view the situation differently because it also means giving up some of the waters of the Nile, which plays a central role in their history. For thousands of years, the Nile has played a pivotal role in Egyptian history, and accounts for nearly 100 percent of Egypt’s water supply.

The importance of the Nile to Egypt has not changed in modern times, as evidenced by a treaty signed with Sudan in 1959, which gives Egypt control over two-thirds of the river. So it comes as no surprise that Egypt would find it difficult to accommodate Ethiopia’s bid to share the Nile. Additionally, with the boom in population, two-thirds of the Nile is no longer enough to sustain Egypt’s water needs. Egyptian officials,instead of being moved to find ways to eliminate the well-documented ways in which water is wasted, complain that the Ethiopian dam will leave them “high and dry.”

The entitlement that Egyptians feel toward the Nile is not a recent phenomenon. Thus, it is not surprising that over the years, Egypt has earned the enmity of several of its neighbors. Although the eight other countries that share the Nile basin with Egypt cooperate with each other, Egypt remains standoffish. But, recently — perhaps in efforts to bend the design plans for the Ethiopian dam in their favor — the Egyptian government has adopted a gentler, more “conciliatory” tone in its dealings about the Nile.

In March of last year, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed a declaration that essentially “blesses the construction of the dam,” as long as no “significant harm” is done to “downstream countries.” However, tension arose when arguments over the division of labor to study the dam’s impacts came about. Egyptians mistrust Ethiopia — believing that Ethiopia is “stalling” so that it can build the dam before any agreements are actually reached about the impacts the dam may have on other countries.

To this day, contracts relating to the study of the dam’s impacts have still not been signed. However, despite the Egyptian mistrust that looms over Ethiopia’s intentions with the dam, there are reasons to suggest that Ethiopia’s intentions are, in fact, reasonable. Ethiopia claims that the dam’s use will be purely for electricity. Egypt disputes this, believing that Ethiopia is planning to use the Nile for irrigation as well. However, Kenneth Strezepek of MIT has said that it would not make sense for Ethiopia to irrigate from the Nile because it would “involve pumping it back upstream.”

But another area of concern is the size of the dam; if the dam is filled too rapidly, it could, for some time, reduce Egypt’s water supply and affect the hydroelectric productivity of the Egyptian Aswan dam. However, experts say that filling the Ethiopian dam may take up to seven years, in which case a resolution could be reached.

Egypt has long monopolized a large part of the Nile, so it is only fair that other countries be allowed to use the Nile to fulfill the needs of their citizens. In fact, other countries stand to gain from Ethiopia’s dam, including Sudan. Previously siding with Egypt against the construction of the dam, Sudan has recently switched to advocating for the project, since Ethiopia and Sudan have reached an agreement to share the power produced by the dam. Additionally, stabilizing the Nile’s flow will allow Sudan to prevent flooding, consume more water, and therefore increase agricultural production, which would increase the country’s general productivity and economic well-being.   

Although several countries need to weigh in and negotiate with Ethiopia to find ways in which the dam can best benefit them, I believe that Ethiopia’s efforts to build this impressive dam and improve its economic fortunes should be supported by the international community.  

Contact Ramya Balasingam at ramyab ‘at’ 

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