Emotions run high over Ethiopian dam

Egypt is trying with all its might to prevent construction of a hydroelectric power plant on the Nile in Ethiopia out of fear that it will reduce the flow of water to Egypt. Ethiopia is seeing its own fair share of opposition to the megaproject, which could see up to 20,000 people displaced. Jacob Wirtschafter reports from Cairo.

Ethiopia is building what will be Africa's largest hydroelectric power plant. But concerns are mountain over its environmental and social impact. (Photo credit: Alan, flickr)

Ethiopia is building what will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant. But concerns are mountain over its environmental and social impact. (Photo credit: Alan, flickr)

While this wall is actually a dam, it still manages to divide people. Egypt is accusing Ethiopia of building a dam on the Nile River that could threaten the water supply of 90 million Egyptians.

Massive reservoir

“We received studies from the Ethiopian side about the dam’s safety,” Egypt’s irrigation minister Minister Hossam Moghazi said recently, referring to Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam. “What worries us is the storage size.”

Italy’s largest construction company, Salini Impregilo, is halfway finished with the EUR 3.4 billion dam in northwestern Ethiopia on the Sudanese border. Work is scheduled to finish in 2017.

International Rivers, a California-based environmental non-governmental group, estimates that the dam would flood 1,680 square kilometres of forest in northwest Ethiopia, creating a reservoir that would hold around 70 billion cubic metres of water — equivalent to the entire annual flow of the Blue Nile as it passes through Sudan to Egypt.

Egypt suffering from water deficit

The dam will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric facility. Egyptian experts understand why Ethiopia, a desperately poor country that has been growing economically in leaps and bounds in recent years, needs energy. But they are afraid diverting that much water to Ethiopia would hurt Egypt. Around 97 per cent of Egypt’s fresh water comes from the Nile, according to the Egyptian government.

“Ethiopia has a legitimate national need to generate electricity,” said Dr. Alaa Eldin Ahmed Yassin, a water resources professor at Alexandria University who is also an advisor to Egypt’s Ministry of Irrigation. “But our country is already suffering from a water deficit of 20 billion cubic feet a year.”

Agreement not reached

In March, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia signed a declaration of principles on the dam that agreed to safeguard the interests of all three countries. But Egyptian, Ethiopian and Sudanese officials broke up a summit on Sunday before reaching agreement over how to assess the environmental impact of the dam, including how it would affect water supplies.

Government officials blamed the consultants tapped to conduct the studies for the impasse.

In September, Netherlands-based consultancy Deltares pulled out of the process, saying the three governments and a second consultant, France’s BRL’s group, could not guarantee the studies would be independent.

“We need an equitable use for our available resources in order to meet food and energy needs, eradicate poverty and raise the standard of living,” said Ethiopia’s Minister of Water and Energy Motuma Mekasa after the summit ended without agreement.

But foreign diplomats cast scepticism on those claims, saying Egypt and Ethiopia were trying to influence the consultants to bolster their respective positions.

“The spat between the consulting firms is a proxy battle between Egyptian and Ethiopian governments,” said a Dutch diplomat in Cairo who asked to remain unnamed.

20,000 people could be displaced

Egyptian critics of the dam increasingly point to its opposition to the project inside Ethiopia as a reason to delay construction. The dam will disrupt the ancient river’s ecology and displace around 20,000 people in Ethiopia’s Benishangul-Gumuz region, International Rivers estimates.

“The government has shown no interest in studying and safeguarding the river system,” said Mesfin Hailemariam, executive director at Young Volunteers for Environment Ethiopia. “They have also neglected to research how the dam’s construction will affect local people.”

Last month, Cairo dispatched Coptic Pope Tawadros II to make the religious case against the dam to his counterpart in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The mission had little effect.

If moral persuasion can’t convince Addis Ababa to prevent the dam from reducing Egypt’s water supply, Cairo might consider other options, said Yassin.

“We are asking Ethiopia to scale back their reservoir,” he said. “I am afraid that people are underestimating Egypt. We fought to take back the Sinai until we reclaimed it. That was desert land. When it comes to the Nile, we are talking about the very life of this country and we will not be harmed.”


Photo credit: Alan, flickr/Creative Commons

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