The Water Politics of Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam and Water Security in Lower Egypt

Map of Ethiopia Terrain

Given its importance, access to #Water continues to remain a source of conflict between & within [#Egypt & #Ethiopia]

By Joseph Coffee

Water security has become an increasingly important topic in the development and stability of many countries, especially in the developing world. Three years ago Ethiopia began construction on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (herein referred to as the Renaissance Dam). The Renaissance Dam is being constructed on the Blue Nile, which supplies 85 percent of Egypt’s water. Previously, similar work has been conducted on the White Nile in Uganda, but that project’s purpose was the generation of electricity not the storage of water and thus it posed no real risk to Egypt’s sustainable water supply. Currently a rather delicate diplomatic siltation has developed between two of the countries that rely on the Nile. Egypt has requested that the Ethiopians halt progress on the Renaissance Dam until they are satisfied that their share of the Nile water flow is not diminished.

Given its importance for human activity, access to water continues to remain a source of conflict between and within states. Dependence on the Nile, further emphasized by Egypt’s arid climate, forms the backbone of Egypt’s strong opposition to the Renaissance Dam. Escalating tensions is Egypt’s claim to 90 percent of the Nile’s total water up from 65 percent. Based on treaties formulated with most former British colonial territories in East Africa, Cairo held what amounted to executive powers regarding the veto of the construction of dams and other obstructions to the natural flow of the Nile. Many such agreements generally ignored the sources of the Nile located in southern neighbors and these colonial treaties were further replaced by newer agreements following the dissolution of the British Empire in the post-war period. Despite these newer agreements, Egypt has, until the construction of the Renaissance Dam, been able to use these colonial era treaties to veto the construction of other such projects.

While the international community has largely understood Egypt’s concerns regarding a loss of annual flow from the river over several years to fill the reservoir, they have approached Egypt to take a more moderate approach in opposing the dam project. Given the scale of Egyptian demands and the fact that 40 percent of the dam has been completed as of October 2014, means that it remains highly unlikely the project will be put on hold. In addition, Ethiopian authorities believe the dam, which is planned to generate 6000MW per year and become the eighth largest such dam in the world, will usher greater economic prosperity. Ethiopia countered Egyptian claims of threats to their share of the Nile stating that the dam will actually increase Cairo’s share since any “Renaissance Reservoir” would not be as susceptible to the droughts that hit Egypt’s own man-made reservoir, Lake Nasser. Challenges to the legality of the dam remain, and Egyptian authorities are highlighting the transnational implications of Ethiopia’s sovereign development project and challenging them accordingly.

So far the conflict has been fought through the commissioning of a number of technical and impact studies. Unfortunately, such studies have predominantly remained in favor of the commissioning party. Thus, it is easy to understand why neither party has been able to agree on the other state’s impact conclusions. Hiding argument under mountains of data and political rhetoric the status quo remains unchanged. Third party extra-national actors have also entered the fray. Among them, International Rivers (IR), an organization that finds the development model of dams unsustainable, was fiercely criticized and accused of receiving backing from “Egyptian financiers” for its anti-dam views. Their field researchers raised concerns regarding environmental damage caused by the dam. The reliability of the data they collected must be taken with some reservations because they are not impartial actors.

The need for an independent-third party study that seeks to assuage these concerns is imperative and should be conducted with the cooperation of all Nile basin actors. While one such study was apparently conducted in 2012, the results have remained confidential until the three countries involved—Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia—have reviewed the results. What information has been made public has remained contradictory and seems to support the argument of whoever releases it. The largest and perhaps most important responsibility of the state is to mitigate risk from outside actors and forces. In this case both states are doing their due diligence in protecting their domestic resources and interests. Cross-border cooperation and compromise on water politics is going to be the only way that either country gets what they want, rather than digging in their heels and sticking to their opinion. The Nile serves many countries and economic and political concerns whose impacts transcend national boundaries and need to be considered. Without a series of dialogues on the dams, and several independent studies, the political stalemate will continue and arguments remains unproductive.

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