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The Nile Issue: Ethiopian perspective

“Who owns the Nile” has been a controversial topic since Ethiopia started the construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011. Formerly the dam was also called Millennium Dam and sometimes referred to as Hidase Dam. As of October 2019, it was reported that the work stood at approximately 73% completion. Meanwhile, the filling of the reservoir is scheduled to begin in July 2020.

Once completed, the reservoir could take anywhere between 5 and 15 years to fill with water, depending on hydrologic conditions during the filling period and agreements reached between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt.

As the name suggests, the renaissance dam was planned to be built on the aim of reviving the Ethiopian Economy by mainly generating power with an expected capacity of 6,000MW. Also, it is estimated that the main and saddle dams will create reservoirs with an impounding capacity of 74 billion cubic metres.

The Nile River flows across eleven countries and consists of two major tributaries. The White Nile originates in the Great lake region and the Blue Nile originates in Lake Tana in Ethiopia and contributes 85% of its water to the river. Both tributaries join north of Khartoum and extend across Sudan and Egypt to its mouth in the Mediterranean Sea. 

The dam is a gravity dam and constructed in Guba district Benishangul-Gumuz region (west) in Ethiopia and about 15km east of the border with Sudan in the Blue Nile tributary in 2011. The project aimed to secure water resources for the country in the Horn of Africa. The GERD, 73% completed and valued at some $5 billion (4.5 billion euros), will become the largest hydroelectric dam on the continent, capable of generating more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity (equivalent to six nuclear power plants) over a maximum area of 1,874 square kilometres.

As the construction was planned, in 2015, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed that the mega project should not affect the Economy, river flow and hydropower security of any of the three riparian states. However, since then disagreements are prevailing as Egypt fears that the dam will significantly reduce the flow of the river that irrigates the Arab country and provides with almost 90 per cent of the freshwater that reaches its vegetation and dams from Ethiopia via Sudan.

Further, The Government of Egypt has demanded that Ethiopia cease construction on the dam as a precondition to negotiations, it has sought regional support for its position, and some political leaders have discussed methods to sabotage it. Egypt has planned a diplomatic initiative to undermine support for the dam in the region as well as in other countries supporting the project such as China and Italy.

However, other nations in the Nile Basin Initiative have expressed support for the dam, including Sudan, the only other nation downstream of the Blue Nile. Sudan has accused Egypt of inflaming the situation. The GERD dam will be capable of handling a flood of 19,370 cubic meters per second, will reduce alluvium in Sudan by 100 million cubic metres and also would facilitate irrigation of around 500,000ha of new agricultural lands. It is expected that it will also reduce approximately 40km of flooding in Sudan, upon its completion. Thus the dam benefiting the neighbouring countries too.

Ethiopia denies that the dam will have a negative impact on downstream water flows and contends that the dam will increase water flows to Egypt by reducing evaporation on Lake Nasser. Ethiopia has accused Egypt of being unreasonable as Egypt is demanding to increase its share of the Nile’s water flow from 66% to 90%. 

The latest attempt to resolve the dispute through dialogue was the negotiations held in January and February this year in Washington, under the auspices of the United States and the World Bank (WB). However, the attempt had a dead end with no sign of a solution.

Meanwhile, The European Union (EU) has said that it fully recognizes the strategic importance of the Nile waters and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam for Ethiopia. The union further emphasize that both Ethiopia and Egypt are key partners to the EU and the corporative relationship between the two nations based on mutual trust is essential for the stability of the entire region.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, said that his current priority is to tackle the existential threat of the coronavirus, “but that shouldn’t stop us from finishing our dam, which is our livelihood”. “Saving lives is our priority, but the second is the GERD,” which is “a symbol of sovereignty and national unity”.

It is expected that the regulated water flow from the Renaissance dam will improve agriculture. Water evaporation from Aswan Dam and other dams in Ethiopia equates to around 19 billion cubic meters. It is expected that the Renaissance dam will reduce the evaporation rate by reducing the capacity of the Aswan Dam, which would save about six billion cubic meters of water and help in water conservation. The dam will also serve as a bridge across the Blue Nile tributary, which features a small number of bridges and few pedestrian bridges.

It is important to negotiate towards a common goal that is beneficial to all nations in the Nile Basin. The dam is an opportunity to craft a realistic cooperation framework as a blueprint for similar future endeavours in the Nile river basin and elsewhere.

By Jumana Jabeer

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