Clouds over the Nile


By Alsir Sidahmed
June 2, 2013

The short-lived row that erupted last week on the announcement that Ethiopia has started changing the course of the Blue Nile is the most tangible move to construct the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The move brought to the surface the simmering worries between Ethiopia on one hand and both Sudan and Egypt on the other, and reflect the changing times for the water diplomacy.

The two countries later declared that they are not worried since GERD will not pose a threat to their water interests.

The $ 4.8 billion dam is one of the key strategic projects conceived earlier on during the reign of late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. He thought of making use of his country’s hydro resources to generate electricity that could be exported to nearby states of Sudan, South Sudan and Djibouti and a way to help improve the plight of the country’s more than 85 million population.

Building dams by Ethiopia along the Blue Nile has always been seen with suspicion.
This is because the Blue Nile provides the bulk of water to the flows that constitute the Nile after meeting with the White Nile in the confluence of Khartoum.

From there, the Nile takes its historic and vital journey to Egypt, representing its only source of water.
More than half a century ago, both Sudan and Egypt concluded a Nile Water agreement that gives them the right to split the water they receive and even forbids other countries from making any use of the Nile waters without consulting with the two countries and getting their approval.

At that time all the upper river states, except Ethiopia, were under colonization.

In addition, rainfall being heavy they hardly need to organize the flow of the Nile tributaries.

Besides, providing infrastructure like building dams used to be carried out by big financial institutions like the World Bank.

Such moves necessitate getting the approval of countries involved.

The Egyptian opposition to any changes in the course of Nile reached its highest level of tension when former President Anwar Sadat threatened that Cairo would go to war to stop any such move.

The upper river countries used to argue that they were not party to the agreement concluded between Sudan and Egypt and that they are not going to remain idle at the time their people need more water.

That issue became critically obvious in the 1970s, 1980s and later when a number of these countries suffered from drought.

However, what could have been a theoretical possibility in terms of finances, started to change as more money became available to carry out big infrastructure projects without knocking on the doors of the World Bank or similar institutions.

However, the main worry remains the unilateral action to change the course of the Blue Nile even without having the tripartite committee composed of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia conclude its meetings and submit its report last Friday. Adding to that the original timing for the action was scheduled to take place come September.

The dam, which is expected to store water to generate electricity, is seen to have some positive impact as it helps retain silt and increase usefulness of dams like Sennar, Merowe in Sudan and the High Dam in Egypt.

But some critics of the Ethiopian move argue that even if Addis Ababa sticks to its original plan of waiting for the consultations of the tripartite committee and making the change of the Blue Nile course in September, the bottom line is the unilateral move violates the international law and that both Sudan and Egypt should stick to the legal angle.

This will weaken the legal base of the project till an arrangement is agreed upon among the three countries.
The bottom line of course lies in the growing population in the countries that reside in the Nile Basin and the limited amount of water available to meet their growing needs.

The World Bank tried earlier in the 1990s what it termed the Nile Basin Initiative.

This basically calls for cooperation between the member states, which were originally nine and then became ten after Eritrea became an independent country followed by South Sudan, which became the youngest nation on earth following its separation from mother country Sudan two years ago.

Though there is now an open diplomatic row, the problem remains as Ethiopia went about unilaterally taking actions, while Sudan and Egypt continue to insist on guarding their historical rights that other members of the Nile Basin feel they are not obliged to respect.

Clearly the only way out for the potential struggle is cooperation between the Nile Basin member countries, but since some are more equal than others the game will go on signaling some changes of balance of power in the region.

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