Water struggles in the Nile Basin have recently intensified as Egyptian nationalists denounce Ethiopia’s building of the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, the river’s largest tributary. Ethiopia is now diverting the river in preparation for construction, angering many Egyptians, whose country is heavily dependent on the Nile flow. Protestors gathered in front of the Ethiopian embassy in Cairo last week as the Egyptian opposition lambasted the Morsi administration for allowing the project to proceed. The reaction from the Egyptian government, however, was muted. The country’s irrigation and water resources minister ruled out any “military solution” to the controversy—an option advanced by figures in previous Egyptian administrations. Meanwhile, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil met with his Ethiopian counterpart in Tokyo to smooth over the budding crisis. The two negotiators agreed that “the dam would not affect Egypt’s share of Nile water.” They also optimistically predicted that “the next period would see increased levels of coordination between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia to find a consensus surrounding Nile water issues.”
As the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is designed primarily for hydroelectric power rather than irrigation, its effect on the flow of the Blue Nile will be minor. Some water will be lost from evaporation, which is intense in this hot, low-elevation region of Ethiopia, as well as seepage. Yet Egypt and especially Sudan will also benefit slightly from the dam, as it will trap sediments that would otherwise flow downstream, thus prolonging the lives of their major reservoirs. Ethiopia may also sell surplus electricity from the facility to Egypt. As the Grand Renaissance will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric facility, and as Ethiopia is currently building other major dams, it may have power to spare in the coming years.
Much of the antipathy to the project in Egypt stems from the country’s political opposition, particular its liberal and Coptic Christian elements. The noted Coptic writer Sameh Fawzy, who stresses Muslim-Christian commonalities, has called for the project to be rejected outright, while Mohamed Hanafy, parliament member from the relatively liberal Al-Wafd Party, argues that Ethiopian hydrological engineering presents a national crisis, adding that “Israel, Qatar, and China are behind the construction of the dam.” (Although China is financing the turbines and associated electrical facilities, most of the rest of the funding is apparently coming from Ethiopia’s own government.) The leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi has gone so far as to argue that Egypt should consider preventing the dam’s foreign supporters from using the Suez Canal. It would appear that non-Islamist elements are trying to use the issue both to oppose the Morsi administration and to spark pan-Egyptian solidarity in hopes of reducing the country’s religious division. Egypt’s Christian establishment has also found an important diplomatic role to play, owing to the fact that the Coptic Church is in communion with Ethiopia’s majority faith, the Orthodox Tewahedo Church. As noted in a recent Al-Monitor article:
Ramses El-Najjar, a lawyer for the Coptic Church, revealed that the presidency delegated Coptic Patriarch Pope Tawadros II to mediate in the crisis with Ethiopia. He explained that the pope received calls from the presidency urging the Egyptian church to intervene with the Ethiopian church — which was historically affiliated with the former — in order to reach a consensual solution to the crisis.
Egyptian nationalists are concerned about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam not merely because of the threats posed by the project itself, but also because it is connected with a larger hydro-political realignment that could prove much more menacing. Since 1999, the countries of the Nile drainage system— Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo—have worked together through the Nile Basin Initiative to “develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security.” This World-Bank-funded program has generally upheld a 1929 colonial treaty that requires up-stream countries to obtain permission from Egypt and Sudan before engaging in any major water-development projects. In 2010, however, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi signed a new treaty designed to allow up-stream countries more hydrological leeway and autonomy. Egypt and Sudan were infuriated and refused to agree to the new agreement. DR Congo, however, is expected to sign, as is South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011.
The new agreement signed by the up-stream countries emphasizes the equitable sharing of water among all countries of the basin:
Nile Basin States shall in their respective territories utilize the water resources of the Nile River system and the Nile River Basin in an equitable and reasonable manner. In particular, those water resources shall be used and developed by Nile Basin States with a view to attaining optimal and sustainable utilization thereof and benefits therefrom, taking into account the interests of the Basin States concerned, consistent with adequate protection of those water resources. Each Basin State is entitled to an equitable and reasonable share in the beneficial uses of the water resources of the Nile River system and the Nile River Basin.
Although Egypt and Sudan have recently found common ground in opposing the revised pact, the two countries have often been in contention over the Nile. As the 1929 treaty gave Egypt priority for the entire flow of the river, when Sudan gained independence in 1956 it demanded revision. A new agreement reached in 1959 allotted 55.5 billion cubic meters of water annually to Egypt and 18.5 billion cubic meters to Sudan. In the future, however, Sudan may want more water than that; unlike the upstream countries, it has vast tracks of flat, fertile, semi-arid land that could profit greatly from expanded irrigation. In the late 20th century, Sudan had planned to increase it water supplies by draining the Sudd wetlands of the far south, where evaporation losses are huge. Owing to the southern rebellion, the massive Jonglei Canal project was abruptly halted in 1984, its gargantuan machinery left to rust away. The entire project has now been made moot by the independence of South Sudan.