For decades, successive governments in Ethiopia have dragged Egypt through the mud, saying they wanted “exclusive” rights over the River Nile and not heeding the well-being of other riparian nations, mainly upstream ones.
This narrative, regrettably spread by Ethiopia in drifting away from Egypt, a country whose help has been crucial in helping Ethiopia to establish sectors like banking and aviation and modernise others like medicine, has stained the image of Egypt among the peoples of the Nile Basin. This has been so even though Egypt has usually lent a helping hand to the peoples of Africa in general and the Nile Basin in particular.
Egypt has successfully implemented major water and irrigation projects, including the digging of wells and the construction of small dams for rainfall harvesting in countries like South Sudan, Sudan, Kenya and Uganda, so that African countries can make the most of their rainfall and develop their irrigation schemes. It has also embarked on another journey that will stand forever as a symbol of the country’s unyielding commitment to a better and more prosperous Nile Basin.
In 2018, a consortium of giant Egyptian companies including the Arab Contractors and El-Sewedy Electric reached a deal with the Tanzanian government under its reformist President John Magufuli to establish a mega-project in Tanzania. When this project, the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam, goes online, it will transform the lives of Tanzanians by providing access to electricity for millions in this East African country, officially categorised by the World Bank as a “middle-income country.” It will regulate the flow of the mighty Rufiji River to help Tanzania advance the agricultural projects needed to maintain higher growth rates in this country of roughly 60 million people.
Before the Egyptian companies concerned were selected to finalise this mega-project, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi paid a visit to Tanzania in 2017, the first by an incumbent Egyptian president in 50 years, which set the stage for political harmony between the two countries.
The Julius Nyerere Hydropower Plant at Stiegler’s Gorge, named after Tanzania’s historic leader, will have a 2,115-Megawatt capacity, a bit higher even than Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, creating a colossal man-made lake behind it of 34 billion cubic metres of water. The dam stretches over 1,200 square km and is 134 metres high, some five metres lower than the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza.
The cost of this rock-fill dam amounts to roughly $3 billion, compared to $4.8 billion, the cost of Ethiopia’s controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which has caused the Eastern Nile Basin region to sit on a powder keg. The project is expected to be operational in a couple of years, particularly as the Egyptian companies concerned are plugging away to finish it on schedule in 2022.
What matters the most about Tanzania’s Stiegler’s Gorge Dam is the political will shown by Egypt to finish the project first on time and second by strictly committing itself to the highest-possible construction standards. In November this year, the Egyptian ministers of housing and electricity attended a historic event in Tanzania in the presence of Tanzanian Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa pertaining to the diversion of the Rufiji River in order to construct the main dam and in testimony to the pace at which Egyptian companies are proceeding with the construction work.
Located in Morogoro southwest of Dar Es-Salam, the commercial capital of Tanzania and the largest city in the country, the project includes the building of a 600-metre tunnel to divert the Rufiji River’s water, three tunnels to provide the necessary water to operate the power plant, four saddle dams for rainfall harvesting and 400-kilovolt transmission lines to be merged with the national power grid in Tanzania and bringing the benefits of the dam to the country’s 17 million families. Stationed at the site of this mega-project are some 6,000 workers, almost half of them Tanzanians in order to ensure the transfer of know-how. El-Sewedy Electric boasts long experience in erecting power projects in Africa, and its experience is being passed on to Tanzanian engineers.
After the dam has regulated the flow of the Rufiji River, its reservoir will empower Tanzania, originally an agriculture-driven economy, to follow up on its plans for further agricultural production and to maintain its status as a well-performing economy in the East Africa region. The dam will also help the country realise its vision of becoming the largest exporter of cashew nuts in the world, as it aspires to double its production of these over the next four years, particularly as the crop is cultivated near the commercial capital of Dar Es-Salam.
The smooth construction of the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam is a reminder that Ethiopia could also have constructed its GERD Dam project without causing so much fuss, whether downstream or upstream on the Nile. Initially, Ethiopia was to establish a similar dam to that being built in Tanzania at a somewhat more affordable cost instead of using “humanitarian assistance funding” to speed up the building of the GERD.
Under the initial calculations, the project would have generated the electricity necessary for those who are still living in the dark in this landlocked nation without inflicting harm on downstream peoples in Sudan and Egypt, whether on a larger or a smaller scale. But unlike in the case of Tanzania, Ethiopia has rejected repeated calls from Egypt for the co-implementation of the project, citing issues of “sovereignty”.
Also unlike in the Tanzanian case, a consensus on the project has not been Ethiopia’s top priority. The Horn of Africa nation has been adamantly rejecting calls for a fair compromise, and it has chosen confrontation rather than cooperation on the dam and has falsely tried to present itself as a “victim” of so-called Egyptian monopoly over the Nile.
In reality, when the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam is finished, the Nile Basin region will be disabused of the notion, unfortunately long held by short-sighted Ethiopian governments, that Egypt only works to keep the upper hand as far as the Nile waters are concerned. The wall of anti-Egyptian sentiments will fall when the Tanzanians see their long-awaited dream of an uninterrupted new power supply coming true, this time through the dedicated and cost-effective work of their brothers in Egypt.
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 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly