News / Middle East

Egypt, Ethiopia Square Off Over New Nile River Dam

Ethiopia quietly began construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam two years ago. The hydroelectric power project plans to use the waters of Ethiopia’s Abbai River, which is the primary source of Nile waters for Sudan and Egypt.
Ethiopia quietly began construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam two years ago. The hydroelectric power project plans to use the waters of Ethiopia’s Abbai River, which is the primary source of Nile waters for Sudan and Egypt.
David Arnold
Egypt and Ethiopia are doing their best to lower tensions after weeks of increasingly heated rhetoric over a giant Ethiopian dam project that Cairo believes will reduce the flow of water in the Nile River.
 
The foreign ministers of the two countries met at the beginning of the week in Addis Ababa and agreed to hold further talks and review the recommendations from a panel of experts on what’s being called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD.
 
Construction on the dam started two years ago on Ethiopia’s Abbai, or Blue Nile, river, whose basin accounts for about 75 percent of the water flowing into the lower Nile River. The project is about 20 percent complete and Egyptian officials worry that when it’s finished in 2017, it will severely reduce the flow of water through the lower Nile channel and turn the arable parts of their country back into a desert.
 
A day after Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi visited Addis Ababa earlier this month, Ethiopia diverted the Abbai River’s flow temporarily to carry out the next stage of dam construction. Even though the water diversion was a brief, news of the interruption touched off a furor in Cairo.

​Morsi said Egypt would not tolerate losing “one drop” of Nile water and made thinly veiled threats of military action by saying “all options are open.”
  
The Ethiopians, apparently, were not intimidated.
 
“I don’t think they will take that option unless they go mad,” said Ethiopia’s president, Haile Mariam Desalegn. The foreign ministry in Addis Ababa said construction on the dam would not stop “for a second.”
 
An expensive project
 
The GERD project includes a 170-meter high concrete dam and a 6,000-megawatt hydroelectric power plant and will make Ethiopia one of Africa’s top electrical energy producing nations when it is completed. Its total cost is estimated at between $4.2 billion and $5 billion.
 
Ethiopia has said all along that once completed, the dam would not reduce Egypt’s water resources, but Egypt wants proof. It also wants assurances that Ethiopia will not use the Abbai waters to irrigate Ethiopian farmlands.
 
Egypt is also concerned about additional problems as Ethiopia begins filling a massive water reservoir twice the size of the country's largest lake.
 
“Ethiopia is always saying ‘no impact’,” said Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, who was Egypt’s minister of water and irrigation for 12 years and is now president of the Arab Water Council.
 
But Abu-Zeid cited studies predicting that during the three to five years it will take to fill the reservoir behind the dam, “there would be a reduction of 14 billion instead of the regular 55.5 billion cubic meters.
 
“It’s time to go back to the negotiating table,” Abu-Zeid concluded.
 
Other experts doubt the reduction would be that much. One of them is Paul Block, a civil engineer who has been consulting on Ethiopian water projects for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Bank.
 
During the years it takes to fill the reservoir behind the GERD, Block says the loss of water flow into the Nile could be minimal. It all depends, he explains, on the amount of rainfall in the region.
 
“Eastern Africa may experience a slight increase in precipitation,” Block said. “However there are models that range from a modest decrease [in rainfall] to a very significant increase.”
 
It’s not just about the dam
 
Ethiopia’s new dam project is only the beginning of Egypt’s concerns about its neighbors upstream in the Nile basin.
 
During the last century, the British crafted agreements guaranteeing exclusive water rights from the Nile basin to Egypt and Sudan, shutting out countries further upstream at the Nile’s several sources.

But now, seven upstream countries have signed the new Nile Basin Initiative on equal water rights: Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and newly independent South Sudan. Any of these nations could potentially begin projects that would reduce the flow of Nile water through Egypt.
 
Now Egypt may have to come to grips with the fact that it no longer has a guaranteed lock on the Nile, source of 98 percent of its water.
 
The response from Cairo
 
The water resource challenge comes as Egypt is still struggling to recover from two years of political turmoil and social upheaval brought on by the Arab Spring uprisings. It’s only just recently, experts say, that the Egyptian government turned its attention to what was happening at the Nile’s source.
 
“The problem is Morsi has handled this problem very poorly,” said Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Rather than engage with Ethiopia, he looked internally and pulled a national unity dialogue because he is … primarily concerned about his own domestic standing. He is not appreciating yet the magnitude of foreign policy.”
 
While some Egyptian politicians have been calling for military solutions, Trager said, “the military gave a very clear signal it would not tolerate that.” The generals, he said, are “not prepared to fight a war right now.”
 
“The question is whether President Morsi is wise enough to know how to work foreign diplomacy when faced with a challenge,” Trager added. “Unfortunately, he has not shown the ability to do that.”

You May Like

Philippines, Muslim Rebels Try to Salvage Peace Pact

Peace process faces major setback after botched military operation to find terrorists results in bloody gunbattle between government forces, Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters More

Republicans Expect Long, Expensive Presidential Battle

Political strategist says eventual winner will be one who can put together strongest coalition of various conservative groups that make up Republican Party More

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Engineers have come up with a lever-operated design that makes use of easily accessible bicycle technology More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More