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The truth about Ethiopia's dams
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 19 - 03 - 2015

Since President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met with the Ethiopian prime minister in the Equatorial Guinean capital of Malabo in June 2014, nothing has budged. It was there that the two leaders, attending the opening ceremonies of the African Union Summit, agreed to resume talks over the question of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam.
No progress has been made, even in confidence-building measures, despite the initiatives undertaken by Egypt in this regard and the many visits to Ethiopia by Egyptian officials.
In August, the first sessions between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan opened in Khartoum. The three parties signed an agreement to abide by the findings of an international consultancy that would start work immediately and, over the following five months, evaluate studies carried out by Ethiopia on the dam, and especially those pertaining to the environmental, socioeconomic and water flow impact on downstream nations.
It was also agreed that the consultative office would submit its report in February this year, before Ethiopia completed the first phase of construction, which was scheduled for June to October 2015, so that it could respond to the study and undertake the necessary modifications to height or reservoir capacity.
There followed two meetings, the first in Addis in October and the second in Cairo in November. At the latter, Ethiopia announced that the consultative office would not have arbitrating or international capacities and its opinion would be purely consultative and not binding on Ethiopia. It was the Ethiopian people, alone, who would determine the dam's height, reservoir capacity and other specifications, it said.
To clarify the extent of the water deficiency in Egypt and how gravely reductions in Nile waters would aggravate Egypt's hardships, it is useful to underscore certain facts. At present, Egypt's approximately 90 million people require 90 billion cubic metres (1,000 cubic metres per capita) annually simply to live on the brink of water poverty.
Only a third of that amount is available, of which 55.5 billion cubic metres is derived from Egypt's quota of Nile waters and another five billion cubic metres from subterranean sources. In other words, Egypt already has a water deficiency of 30 billion cubic metres.
Ethiopia's dam is expected to reduce Egypt's share of Nile waters by at least 12 billion cubic metres, resulting in a total projected deficiency of 42 billion cubic metres. This will not only bring a halt to Egypt's ability to reclaim land and expand cultivatable land, but it will cause approximately 2.5 million acres of land currently under cultivation to lie fallow.
As a result, Egypt's shortfall in domestically produced food would soar from 55 to 75 per cent, forcing Egypt to funnel its hard currency and other resources into food imports and creating a condition of food dependency, added to the fact that 97 per cent of our water needs come from beyond our borders.
We must bear in mind that about 72 billion cubic metres of the 84 billion cubic metres (or about 85 per cent) of Nile waters flow from Ethiopia. This water primarily comes from three major rivers: the Atbara, Sobat and Blue Nile. On the first of these, which contributes about 12 billion cubic metres to the Nile, Ethiopia has built the Tekeze Dam, with nine billion cubic metres in reservoir capacity.
The Sobat, located in the far south, flows into the White Nile near the town of Malakal on the Sudan-South Sudan border. About 12.1 billion cubic metres comes from this tributary, on which Ethiopia plans to build two dams, the Birbir and Baro dams, to generate electricity and to irrigate about half a million hectares of agricultural land.
As this will require some seven billion cubic metres a year, at least, this will reduce the amount flowing into Sudan and Egypt by that amount. The Blue Nile contributes 48.8 billion cubic metres to the Nile annually. It is on that river that Ethiopia is building the Grand Renaissance Dam, with a planned reservoir capacity of 74.5 billion cubic metres.
Because of the huge quantities of silt carried by the Blue Nile, this project will require the construction of four other dams on the river. Every year, the Blue Nile carries 136.5 million tons of silt, which is sufficient to completely destroy the dam within 50 years.
The construction of other dams upstream in order to contain the silt would extend the life of the Renaissance Dam to 200 years. Ethiopia has already given names to those other dams. They are the Manday, Biko Abo, Mabil and Karadobi. In agreeing to the Renaissance Dam project, Egypt is effectively agreeing to the construction of five dams, not just one.
Now, add to the forgoing the fact that a relatively small river such as the Blue Nile, with its annual flow of 48.8 billion cubic metres, cannot sustain the construction of five dams with a total reservoir capacity of 200 billion cubic metres.
Losses due to evaporation from these reservoir lakes will exceed half of Egypt's Nile waters quota, and untold quantities more will be lost to seepage into the beds of these lakes, perhaps consuming the rest of Egypt's quota in its entirety.
Consider, too, that that small river cannot fill two large reservoirs at the same time: the first (and oldest) in Egypt, behind the High Dam, with a reservoir capacity of 90 billion cubic metres, and the second to emerge behind the Renaissance Dam with an anticipated reservoir capacity of 74.5 billion cubic metres, to which should be added some 15 billion cubic metres lost due to evaporation and seepage, bringing the figure up to 90 billion cubic metres even before the other four dams are built.
Practically speaking, this means that filling the Renaissance Dam reservoir will make the filling of the High Dam reservoir (Lake Nasser) impossible, and that generating electricity at the Renaissance Dam will bring electricity generation at the High Dam to a complete halt.
In short, development in Ethiopia will come at the expense of declining development in Egypt, while electricity generation in Ethiopia will come at the expense of Egyptian lives, due to water shortages.
The solutions proposed by Egypt are rational and scientifically sound. We suggested that the Ethiopians build two dams with capacities of 14.5 billion cubic metres that, together, would be able to generate more electricity than the Renaissance Dam, with a capacity of 74 billion cubic metres.
But Ethiopia rejected that solution out of hand because, first, it is not interested in generating electricity but rather in stocking up on water so that it can sell it, and second, because its desire to harm Egypt outweighs its desire to benefit the Ethiopian people.
As President Al-Sisi rightfully pointed out, relations between countries are not based on good intentions or oral statements but on actual deeds and actions. If Ethiopia were truly serious in its pledge not to harm Egypt and to avoid impairing Egypt's historic rights to Nile waters it would sign a new agreement with Egypt and Sudan.
That agreement would explicitly commit to ensuring the continued flow of water from the Atbara, Sobat and Blue Nile into Sudan and Egypt at a rate of no less than 72 billion cubic metres per year, which is the amount that currently flows into the Nile from that direction.
Accordingly, Ethiopia would be required to halt construction of the Renaissance Dam immediately so that East Africa does not erupt in conflict. Global public opinion would sustain pressure on the Ethiopians, who are clearly not moved by humanitarian concerns and who have no regard for the right to life of the Egyptian people, who have survived for 7,000 years and are dependent for their survival on a single river.
Ethiopia has 19 rivers and an abundance of water unequalled elsewhere on the continent. Yet it remains determined to violate international law governing transnational rivers and to build a huge dam to hold back water so that, as German and British newspapers put it, Ethiopian development comes at the expense of Egyptian lives.
The most recent meeting was held on 8 March between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in Khartoum. The talks finished with no solid information or reassurance for the Egyptian people on the following essential questions: Did Ethiopia sign an agreement guaranteeing that Egypt's quota of Nile waters will remain at its current level?
Did Ethiopia agree to halt or even slow down work on the Renaissance Dam until the consultative committee completes its report? Did Egypt succeed in ensuring that the reservoir capacity of the Renaissance Dam will be reduced from 74.5 billion cubic metres to 14.5 billion cubic metres?
Did Ethiopia agree to lower the height of the dam from 145 metres to its previous height specification of only 95 metres?
What is to happen with those 136.5 million tons of silt borne by the Blue Nile every year? Are the Ethiopians going to let it eat away at the proposed dam, or are they going to build other dams to prevent the silt from reaching the Renaissance Dam?
In other words, is the Renaissance Dam to be the last of the dams on the Blue Nile or just the beginning of a chain of five or so dams?
The writer is professor of agricultural resources at Cairo University.

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