Is Egypt about to Bomb Ethiopian Dams?

By Abel Abate
October 31, 2012

As experts from Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt met to discuss an under-construction Ethiopian hydropower project, a Wikileaks report stated that Cairo authorities reached an agreement with Khartoum to build an airbase in Sudan, to launch attacks on the Ethiopian dams.

Although denied by Cairo, the information allegedly from the Texas-based global intelligence company, Stratfor, is a stark reminder of the high stakes involved in Nile Basin politics.

The reason is the vital importance of the Nile to Egypt and the threat it sees from a more assertive stance from upstream nations, particularly a resurgent Ethiopia.

As Greek philosopher and historian Herodotus declared, Egypt has the ‘gift’ of the Nile. This ‘gift’ has made it easy for Egyptians to produce agricultural products in fertile soil near desert land.

The river has played an extremely important role in the civilisation, life and history of Egypt.

The most important benefit of the Nile is its fertile soil that is transported from the highlands of Ethiopia, which contributes more than 85 per cent of the river’s water.

Wikileaks report quoted the Egyptian ambassador to Lebanon in 2010 saying his nation would do anything to prevent the secession of South Sudan – which became independent last year – because of the political implications it will have for Egypt’s access to the Nile.

This leak was released as a 10-member committee of experts from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia began to discuss the possible impact of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, being built around 30 kilometres from the Sudanese border since April 2011

The White Nile
At 6,650 kilometres, the Nile is the longest river in the world. The White Nile rises in the Great Lakes region, with its source in Burundi.

It passes through Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Sudan. The Blue Nile starts at Lake Tana in Ethiopia and flows through Khartoum where the two rivers meet on their way to Egypt.

The Nile region is home to more than 160 million people, growing between two and three  per cent annually.

Many upper Nile countries have accused Egypt of mismanagement of the river and of preventing them from development projects.

Egypt argues that it has historic veto power on the basis of the agreements of the colonial-era in 1929 and 1959, even though no water-producing country in the upper basin region was consulted during the process.

The 1929 agreement was signed between Britain and Egypt.

In order to incorporate Sudan, the 1959 agreement was signed between Egypt and newly-independent Sudan to allocate 55.5 billion cubic metres (bcm) of water for Egypt and 18.5bcm for Sudan.

The result is that Ethiopia, the main source of the Nile, is permitted to use only 1bcm.

In 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was established by riparian countries to develop the river in a cooperative manner.

Its members are Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, the Democratic Republic Congo, Burundi and Rwanda, with Eritrea as an observer.

The NBI did not achieve tangible progress until 2010, when four of its members met in Kampala to sign the Comprehensive Framework Agreement (CFA) treaty.

The host country, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ethiopia signed, followed shortly by Kenya. Burundi signed the CFA in February 2011. The move was considered as a protest against the 1929 and 1959 agreements that gave Egypt and Sudan rights to use 90 per cent of the Nile’s water.

Upper Basin Countries
The new stance partly stems from almost all upper basin countries registering significant economic growth and relative stability.

For example, Ethiopia, which contributes more than 85 per cent of the water of the Blue Nile, claims double-digit economic growth in the past decade.

The country needs to exploit unused water resources, including the Nile, to sustain this growth.

Most of the upper-riparian countries would also like to use the river to generate hydroelectric power and for irrigation.

Current electricity shortages throughout the region threaten to hold back economies.

In April 2011, Ethiopia announced its plan to build the 6,000 megawatt Renaissance dam. The reservoir will be the largest water-body in Ethiopia, with a capacity of 63 billion cubic meters, twice the size of the largest natural lake; Lake Tana.

At the launch of the project, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said it would cost approximately $4.8 billion, to be paid by the government.

This was because Egypt had successfully lobbied against Ethiopia receiving external loans and grants.

Uganda and South Sudan followed with plans for the same kind of hydro-electric development on the White Nile in South Sudan.

The decision to begin utilising the Nile should allow Ethiopia – which has up to 5.7 million hectares of potentially irrigable land, of which 2.3 million hectares is in the main Blue Nile basin – to add to the 160,000 hectares currently being irrigated.

In order to negotiate his country’s ‘right’ to the Nile River resources, former Egyptian transitional government Prime Minister Essam Sharaf visited South Sudan last year and pledged to extend support to the country.

Future Cooperation
Another delegation travelled to Uganda and met with President Yoweri Museveni to convince him not to reduce the flow of the river.

It does not seem like these efforts yielded much.

However, it can be argued that, the new Egyptian Government is partially succeeding in strengthening cooperation with upper riparian countries, in contrast to the actions of the former Mubarak government.

In late April 2011, a 48-member Egyptian delegation, including three presidential candidates, visited Ethiopia and discussed the Nile with several officials including Mr Meles.

Both sides said the meeting was fruitful and represented a cornerstone for future cooperation.

The unexpected benefit for the visiting delegations was that Ethiopia agreed to postpone the ratification of the new CFA treaty.

In return, the late Ethiopian Prime Minister visited Egypt in September and agreed to create the trilateral committee to look at the new dam project.

During his visit, Mr Meles met with several former top officials including Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the Commander in Chief and Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Mr Sharaf.

The visit was considered an important step in strengthening the relationship.

However, if Egyptians really want to achieve a lasting ‘win-win’ solution, it must commit itself to negotiate the Nile water usage with upper basin countries on the basis of mutual trust and respect.

One area of concern for Ethiopia and its allies is that the unused water that regularly evaporates from Egypt’s Aswan dam is estimated to exceed 10bcm per annum.

Egypt and Sudan should offer assistance on upper basin projects, using their better experience and capacity.

In addition, the international community needs to mediate disagreements and build the capacity and autonomy of NBI.

Such efforts will hopefully mean that contingency plans for air strikes on Ethiopian dams remain unused on the desks of Egyptian military authorities.

About the Author: Abel Abate is a Researcher at Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development (EIIPD) and he can be reached by