Ethiopia’s History-Changing Dam
Amen Teferi 04-11-17
We have an ancient hymn that Egypt sing in praise of the Nile River. A Hymn to the Nile, recorded in Papyrus Sallier II runs like this:
to thee, O Nile that issues from the earth and comes to keep Egypt alive! …
Nile is as basic for Egypt as water itself. Thus, such a Hymn to the Nile is fitting. But this hymn to the Nile has remained to be a solo overture that would obtrusively poses the basic question “who owns the Nile?” The Nile is a valuable resource owned by all the countries in Nile basin. Therefore, we need another hymn that would be sung by the entire people of the Nile basin. We need harmonious and symphonic song. And the GERD is the first line or stanza of this new hymn.
As the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is steadily approaching to the final, celebration to commemorate the 6th year of the commencement of our flagship project is underway. Six years back, with the announcement of the project, some analysts had commented that the “GERD has opened up a new chapter in the long, bellicose history of debate on the ownership of the Nile waters.” Really, GERD’s effect in this regard is profound.
Although the Egyptian and Sudanese governments denied the reports, in the fall of 2012 newspapers around the world reported on a Wiki leaks document, surreptitiously acquired from Stratfor, the Texas security company, revealing Egyptian and Sudanese plans to build an airstrip for bombing a dam in the Blue Nile River Gorge in Ethiopia.
Whether or not there were such plans in 2012, for sure there is a long history of threats and conflicts in the Nile River Basin and downriver countries (Egypt and Sudan) used to argue that they have historic rights to the water upon which they absolutely depend. For instance, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1979 had threatened war on violators of what he saw as his country’s rights to Nile waters.
We know that Egypt and Sudan are utterly dependent on the waters of the Nile River. Hence, over the past century both of these desert countries have built several dams and reservoirs, hoping to limit the ravages of droughts and floods which have so defined their histories. On the contrary, upriver countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania argue that they too need the water that originates on their lands.
Ethiopia, the source of most of the Nile waters, has been suffering from repeated famine and drought. For instance, in the middle of the 1980s, rains failed in the Ethiopian highlands, causing a serious water crisis upriver and downriver. One million Ethiopians died as a result of drought and famine. Egypt averted disaster but Aswan’s turbines were nearly shut down, creating an electric power nightmare; and crops failed in the delta, bringing the real prospect of famine.
As a result, Egyptians came to understand that their great Aswan Dam had not solved their historic dependency on upriver Nile water. In 1987, after years of hostile rhetoric, the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak replaced the language of threat and confrontation with words of conciliation and cooperation.
Then in the 1990s the Ethiopian rains returned and, remarkably, Hosni Mubarak redoubled efforts begun during the Sadat administration to build the Toshka Canal, one of the world’s most expensive and ambitious irrigation projects. This plan would take 10% of waters in Lake Nasser to irrigate Egypt’s sandy Western Desert, increasing Egypt’s need for Nile water even if they maintained their 1959 treaty share of 55 billion cubic meters.
In anger and disbelief, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi protested: “While Egypt is taking the Nile water to transform the Sahara Desert into something green, we in Ethiopia—who are the source of 85% of that water—are denied the possibility of using it to feed ourselves.” He then began plans for the Grand Renaissance Dam.
As researchers in the field underscore that upriver countries have the most power when negotiating water rights. However, possessing the headwater of the Blue Nile water does not entitle Ethiopia an exclusive ownership over the Nile Water. Thus, Ethiopia’s daily mantra has been fair and equitable utilization of the Nile Water resource. This is not a diplomatic catch phrase of our politicians. You go and ask every man on the street, he would tell you in simple and plain words about fairness and equitable utilization of water. This is the basic orientation our foreign policy.
The Helsinki Agreement of 1966 proposed the idea of “equitable shares”—and the idea was taken up again in the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. A proposal for “equitable shares” was again put forward in the 1999 Nile Basin Initiative, which included all the affected countries. Unfortunately the initiative did not resolve the conflict between Egypt and Sudan’s claims of historic rights and the upper river states’ claims for equitable shares. In 2010, six upstream countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania) signed a Cooperative Framework Agreement seeking more water shares. Egypt and Sudan rejected the agreement because it challenged their historic water rights.
The Nile Water was assumed to be the most dangerous resource. Now things are beginning to change and we see very encouraging development in the Nile basin. The Nile Basin initiative (NBI) has gone a great length in breaking some of the psycho-political hurdles surrounding the basin. Now we began to realize that the Nile offers great potential to all concerned.
We can even envisage the possibility of having a ground scheme of regional water development plan that would take in to account or incorporate the political realities of the region that will help them to work out a plan and remain to engage in constructive dialogue. As such, water would lead to the direction of conflict resolution that has regional magnitude.
One of the notable implications one could draw from this fact is that what has been a key source of conflict in the region is witnessed to be an element that forge a strong economic interdependence for the sub-region. What is underscored in this process is that even the age-old animosity and mistrust and the interstate rivalry that characterize the Ethio-Egypt relation has undergone a most significance transformation that would open up a venue for a warm friendship between the two countries.
Egypt and Sudan are understandably concerned about Ethiopia’s Grand Dam Project on over the Nile waters. The Nile is essential for the entire people who live in the basin and the civilization thereof. Without the Nile water, there would have been no food, no people, no state, and no monuments in Sudan and Egypt.
For millennia peoples have travelled along the banks of the Nile and its tributaries. Scores of ethnic groups in Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, share architecture and engineering, ideas and traditions of religion and political organization, languages and alphabets, food and agricultural practices. However, the water of the Nile River has remained an exclusive property of Egypt and to some extent Sudan and states in Eastern or Central Africa, for various reasons, were denied fair share from the water of the Nile River.
At present Ethiopia’s options for economic development are limited. With nearly 90 million people it is the most populous landlocked country in the world. It is also one of the world’s poorest countries—174 on the list of 187 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index for 2012. (Sudan is 169 and Egypt 113.). Part of Ethiopia’s challenge is that 85 percent of the workforce is in agricultural commodities that bring low profits. If Ethiopia cannot use its elevation and seasonal rains for hydro-electric power and irrigation, what is it to do?
Although late to mega-dam building, Ethiopia is now making up for lost time. One of the tallest dams in the world was completed in 2009 on the Tekeze River in northern Ethiopia. Three major dams on the Omo and Gibe Rivers in southern Ethiopia are either completed.
The biggest of Ethiopia’s water projects, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, will have a reservoir holding 74 billion cubic meters of water—twice the water held in Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake—and is expected to generate more than 6000 megawatts of electricity.
Truly Ethiopians hope that these water projects—which extend to 2035 with other Nile tributaries and river systems—will lift their country out of poverty. Similar large dams have produced economic miracles in the United States, Canada, China, Turkey, India, Brazil, and, of course, Egypt.