On 2 April 2011, Ethiopia laid the foundation stone of the largest dam ever to be built in Africa and the tenth largest in the world, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
With an installed capacity of 6,450 Megawatts, the reservoir of the dam, named Lake Zenawi after the late Ethiopian prime minister who initiated the project, will hold as much as 74 billion m3 of water, which is more than Egypt’s annual quota of the Nile water estimated at 55.5 billion m3.
The bone of contention is how long it will take to fill this reservoir. Based on the project schedule, though delayed, Ethiopia wants to start power generation from the dam by September 2020 when two of its 15 turbines go online producing 700 Megawatts of electricity. In other words, Ethiopia should be starting to fill the reservoir shortly.
On the other hand, Egypt, which depends on the Nile as its sole source of fresh water, wants the filling of the reservoir to take place over seven years and has requested Addis Ababa to release 40 billion m3 of water per annum. Ethiopia has “summarily” rejected Egypt’s proposals, seeing them as a violation of its “sovereignty”.
The two countries, along with Sudan, have been engaged in talks to mitigate the side-effects of the dam on downstream nations, and Ethiopia’s policy though successive regimes has been bent on buying as much time as possible until the dam is rendered a reality.
This policy, aiming at attaining pre-set goals and making use of the turmoil and instability that unfolded in Egypt in the wake of the 25 January Revolution until 2014, is incommodious.
As soon as President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi assumed office in Egypt in 2014 he met with top Ethiopian officials to discuss the project, embracing a new spirit that recognised Ethiopia’s right to development and the use of the River Nile, maybe for the first time by a sitting Egyptian president, without inflicting any harm on Egypt’s right to life.
However, it seems that the Ethiopians have been reluctant to embrace Egypt’s new spirit as they are still beating about the bush, holding endless talks and meetings to no avail. For a long time, Egypt and Ethiopia have been at loggerheads over the use of the River Nile.
Though the source of the “Tiqur Abbay” (literary the “Black Abay,” Amharic for the Blue Nile), Ethiopia believes it has never used the river enough to serve the welfare of its people. Many Ethiopians think that Egypt has historically engaged in activities bent on blocking Ethiopia from fully utilising the Nile, rhetoric that Cairo has repeatedly denied.
One indication of this was when President Al-Sisi went to Addis Ababa in March 2015 and addressed the Ethiopian parliament for the first time by an Egyptian president, reiterating that Egypt was in no way against Ethiopia’s endeavours to utilise the Nile waters as long as this did not inflict any harm on Egypt’s historical rights to the river.
But Ethiopia does not recognise that “historical right,” and the country at the top level denies that Egypt has a right to claim 55.5 billion m3 of the Nile’s water annually, as stated in the 1959 Agreement, which Ethiopia since its last emperor Haile Selassie I has not officially recognised.
This situation has resulted in an impasse, especially because although based on Egypt’s proposals Cairo wants the release of 40 billion m3 of the Nile’s water per annum, which is lower than its due of 55.5 billion m3, in truth it loses roughly 10 billion m3 of this because of evaporation behind the Aswan High Dam.
This means that Egypt would only receive 30 billion m3 of water, which would not meet the growing needs of its population, whether for potable water or for different agricultural plans.
As a result of such huge projected losses, Egypt is braced for major impacts and has been taking harsh measures including the banning of the cultivation of rice, a daily staple for many Egyptians.
Ethiopia, on the other hand, has not been willing, given the procrastination of the talks, to reach a win-win agreement. Rather, it seems determined to move ahead with its plans. It is hard to see how there can be any workable compromise between “Egypt’s inalienable rights to the Nile water” and “Ethiopia’s sovereignty” as a result.
According to the international Water Poverty Index, 1,000 m3 of water is needed annually for each person on earth. Egypt’s share of the River Nile has not changed over time, however. Since the 1959 Agreement, Egypt has been allocated 55.5 billion m3 of water per annum, when its population at the time was roughly 20 million. In other words, under the original terms of the agreement, each Egyptian would receive some 2,000 m3 of water.
But as Egypt’s population has expanded to reach over 100 million by 2019, and given the growing needs of water for agriculture that is vital to sustain the lives of all Egyptians, the amount of water per capita has dropped to an alarming level of just some 55.5 m3 per person annually at 2018 estimates.
As a result, the message that President Al-Sisi delivered at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September this year was very much to the point: the water of the River Nile is “an existential issue” for Egypt and the lifeline of the Egyptians cannot be tampered with.
One can understand the difficult situation in Ethiopia at the present time, with growing ethnic rifts, the amassing of arms by militias as if war was at the door, and the turning of part of the nation into a hub for dissidents and former top military and intelligence personnel who once had everything and then almost lost it all overnight.
Ethiopia will also be heading for a scorching summer next year with the holding of general elections in which the incumbent prime minister will be seeking a popular mandate, as he has put it, to amend the constitution and turn the political system into a presidential one.
Given the circumstances, a bait-and-switch policy seems viable to Ethiopian policymakers, the idea being to mobilise the public and unite the country’s conflicting regions behind one goal: the completion of the dam as scheduled whatever the consequences.
Over the course of the negotiations, Egypt has been running a tight ship and has hoped that the talks would be a success. It has acknowledged there will be some negative impacts during the filling process of the dam and that it is ready for these in order not to hinder Ethiopia from development.
It is time the Ethiopian leaders acted to calm the troubled waters of the dam because no ship can set sail successfully in the face of tempestuous winds.
The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.