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Ethiopia – Renaissance dam worries Egypt

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Internal upheavals, which reflect a broader redefinition of geopolitics in North Africa and the Middle East, is not the only problem Egypt is facing. Cairo is also worried by Nile water row with Ethiopia.  

eth2Last 13 June, the Ethiopian parliament ratified the new Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement, opposed by Egypt.  On 20 June, also the Republic of South Sudan, Nile’s downstream riparian country like Egypt, signed the accord becoming the seventh country to join the agreement following the six Nile’s upstream riparian states  Ethiopia, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who was in office, when the Nile agreement was ratified by the Ethiopian Parliament, warned that “all options are open” to challenge Ethiopia’s Nile project.
Cairo fears losing its “historic rights” on Nile’s waters .
According to the  previous agreement signed in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan, Egypt is entitled to 55 billion cubic metres of the Nile’s total annual flow of about 84 bmc, while Sudan is allowed to use 18.5 bmc each year . The remaining 10 bmc  ( though, according to recent studies,  it is 19 bmc) of water are  left to make up for natural evaporation from Lake Nasser, the reservoir created by the Aswan Dam.
A proposal for “equitable shares” was again put forward in the 1999 Nile Basin Initiative, which included all the affected countries. Unfortunately the initiative did not solve the conflict between Egypt and Sudan’s claims of historic rights sanctioned by 1959 Treaty, and the upper river states’ claims for equitable shares.
The crux of Egypt’s disagreement with the CFA ( Cooperative Framework  Agreement) rests on three principles. First, Egypt believes that upstream countries should be required to obtain the approval of downstream countries (i.e. Egypt and Sudan) before beginning any project that may affect the flow of the Nile. eth3Second, Egypt wants the CFA to guarantee its access to an annual quota of 55,5 billion cubic metres of Nile water, which is based on the 1959 agreement signed by Egypt and Sudan. Finally, Egypt feels that Article 14(b) of the CFA should commit NBI states ‘not to adversely affect the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile Basin State’. Egypt does not seem to be prepared to compromise or renegotiate the 1959 treaty and is apparently committed to maintaining the status quo on the use of the Nile waters.

The Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

On 2 April 2011 Addis Ababa officially embarked upon the construction of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Hydropower Project ( GERHDP ), on the Blue Nile . The river contributes  55% of the total of its water  based on stream flow measurements  at the Aswan Dam’s level. Another 12% comes from Atbara and Sabat the two tributaries that rise  in the Ethiopia highlands. The White Nile contributes  the remaining 33% .
Located 500 km north- west of the capital Addis Ababa and near the Sudan border, the dam will be  the largest in Africa, 1800 m. long and 170 m high , with an overall volume of 10 million cubic meters.   Two power stations will be located on either bank of the river with an installed capacity of 6000 MW and 15,000 GW / h annual energy, starting between 2015 and 2016 .The total cost of the dam amounts to 4.7 billion dollars.  Ethiopia still has not secured sufficient funding to get the project off the ground. To date, only 300 million dollar government bonds  seem to be available. Addis Ababa denies that there are problems in obtaining the financial funds, even if the  International Monetary Fund country representative  Jan Mikkelsensen, has emphasized that the project might siphon away much needed funds from other critical needs areas. Chinese interest in investing in the region, however, seems to reassure Ethiopian government.  The loan offered by the Chinese for the Renaissance dam project makes Ethiopia  feel  financially independent from the United States and other international institutions, which would offer their  financial support  provided that the dam project complies with the existing agreements, mostly in favour of Egypt.

Nile’s hydropolitics

“Hydropolitics” is a term coined by John Waterbury in 1979 in a book entitled, “Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley”, which highlights the links between water resources and regional policies. When Waterbury wrote the book, Egypt  was undoubtedly the leading country among those of the Nile basin,  for economy, military power and culture (though, not for  its geographical location). For some time now, Egypt has lost ground, due to the changing geopolitical realities of the region. First, the Nile’ s upstream countries joining the  New Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement are  a “de facto” alliance,  led by Ethiopia.
Secondly, even  Sudan, Egypt’s historical ally, supports the Ethiopian project.  Khartoum government  said the country will benefit from the Renaissance dam, which will increase power generation and irrigation with the consequent improvement in the annual agricultural productivity. Besides, the dam will not reduce the water flow, but will  regulate it throughout the seasons controlling floods.
eth5Egypt, nowadays is shaken by political turmoil and changes, it may not have the political and diplomatic power  to restore its historical hegemony on the Nile’s waters.  Egypt’s political unsteadiness  makes the situation at potential risk of serious tensions and conflicts.  According to Thomas Naff,  professor emeritus  of the Middle Eastern History at the University of Pennsylvania and attentive Middle East hydropolitics analyst, a water conflict outbreak is more likely when a downstream state , militarily stronger, feels frustrated and fears threats to its own interests.
The political scenario, along the Nile’s banks, is taking even a worse shape than the one described by Naff . Egypt’s growing population and economy depend on Nile’s waters. Should Cairo feel deprived of those it considers its rights, all options would be open, even a military response could not be ruled out.

Geopolitical scenario

By expanding its control of Nile’s waters, Ethiopia could play a key geopolitical role in its zones of influence: the Red Sea , the Nile Basin and East Africa . With an estimated high hydropower production, Addis Ababa will soon become the leading power and the main supplier of food and agriculture products of neighbouring countries. Egyptian  General Al – Sisi  has to manage internal political uncertainty and the jihadist infiltrations in the Sinai region. He has to handle one of the most difficult  geopolitical contentions of the Middle East, and to face  threats to Egypt’s historic rights over the Nile’s waters . The fear is that all these problems may turn into a single big offensive which would downsize Egypt’s role in the region. (P.Q.)

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