WASHINGTON — Egypt is expressing concern at Ethiopia’s move to divert water from the Nile River to allow construction of a massive hydroelectric dam.
Egypt’s cabinet met Wednesday to discuss Ethiopia’s announcement that it was diverting the flow of the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the river.
The meeting came a day after Ethiopian officials said the water would be diverted to make way for construction of a nearly $5 billion dam. The hydropower facility will be the largest in Africa, producing as much electricity as six nuclear power plants. It is scheduled for completion in 2017.
A statement carried by Egypt’s state run MENA news agency said construction measures already in progress do not reflect any approval by Cairo to build the dam.
Egypt’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Mohamed Idriss, says his country is not surprised by the diversion. It had been expected, he says. But he suggested the unilateral announcement was premature, coming days before a panel of experts from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia releases a long-awaited study on the impact of the dam.
“These are technical issues and you cannot just give judgmental or impressionistic view on these implications. That’s why the three countries formed this panel of experts which include a national expert and international experts of high reputation, and this panel is almost completing its work is entrusted with making this scientific assessment of the implications on Egypt and Sudan and based on the report of this panel, the three countries will decide on how to proceed on this matter,” Idriss said.
Ethiopian officials this week sought to assure the downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, that the 550 meter diversion or shifting of the river from its natural course would not mean any loss of water, and could be a boon to future regional energy needs. Ethiopian officials emphasized that water levels would not be affected by the diversion.
But Ambassador Idriss said Egypt’s almost total dependence on the Nile for its water supply makes any potential disruption a national security issue.
“The Nile for us is not just a river. It is the only source of life in Egypt. So any impact on the water reaching Egypt is going to affect Egyptian water security and the life of the Egyptian people, and this is of great concern,” Idriss said.
The envoy said Egypt and Sudan will insist on being a party to any decisions that will affect the river’s flow.
“The important issue is how the three countries will set the course for moving forward on the project based on the agreed principle of shared benefit and no harm and win-win. The Egyptian side insists on fully abiding by these principles and these commitments,” Idriss said.
Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister Debretsion Gebremichael this week said the Renaissance Dam could begin producing electricity as early as next year. Responding to the concerns of the downstream countries, he told the Bloomberg news agency, “This is an international river and we will try our best to accommodate their interests."
The Blue Nile originates high in the mountains of Ethiopia. It provides 85 percent of Nile's water, joining with the White Nile at the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, where it flows north to the Mediterranean Sea.