Egypt wary as Ethiopia prepares to fill dam reservoir
Cairo- Egypt will start feeling major effects from a multibillion-dollar hydroelectric dam, which is nearing completion, when Ethiopia begins filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam reservoir with tens of billions of cubic metres of water, experts warned.
“The dam reservoir filling plan will bring total devastation to Egypt,” said Nader Nour al-Din, a professor of water resources at Cairo University. “Tens of billions of cubic metres of water will be held back, which will cause massive farmland loss [in Egypt].”
Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed a declaration of principles in March 2015 in which all three countries pledged greater cooperation over Africa’s largest river and to “take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm” to the others in their usage of the Nile.
Studies on the technical and environmental effects of the Renaissance Dam are ongoing and experts in Cairo said Addis Ababa should not have unilaterally made the decision to fill the dam reservoir before the results were published.
However, Ethiopia is moving ahead with its $5 billion project, which will serve as a major source of electricity. Addis Ababa said the dam could generate more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity annually. The Ethiopian government said the project was indispensable for the country’s future.
Ethiopia also expects the sale of electricity generated by the dam to bring in close to $1 billion a year. Among the potential clients are Sudan, another downstream state like Egypt, but one that is backing the Renaissance dam project.
To generate electricity from the dam, Ethiopia must fill its reservoir with 75 billion cubic metres of water. Addis Ababa wants to do this over a period of three years. Water flow to downstream countries such as Sudan and Egypt are expected to be significantly affected by the Renaissance dam, given that the Blue Nile — rising in Ethiopia — contributes to an estimated 85% of the flow of the Nile downstream.
Egyptian experts said this could shatter economic development in Egypt and result in the massive loss of valuable farmland. There are fears that the Aswan High Dam, a hydroelectric power plant in southern Egypt near the border with Sudan, would be unable to store as much water or generate as much electricity as before, significantly jeopardising Egypt’s food security.
Water shortages have started to be felt already. Farmers in the Nile Delta, which produces almost 60% of Egypt’s agricultural output, have protested water shortages. Annual water per person rates are reaching record low levels of 660 cubic metres, compared to 1,672 cubic metres in 1970, just after the Aswan High Dam’s completion.
Perhaps mindful of worries in Egypt over reservoir filling plans, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu visited Cairo in April and met with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to assure him that the dam would cause no harm to Egypt.
“Ethiopia will not work against the interests of the Egyptian people,” Gebeyehu said following his meeting with Sisi, “but Egyptians need to help us cash in on our resources.”
Experts said it was impossible for the Renaissance Dam plans to go ahead in their current form without this harming Egypt’s water usage.
“Water shortages will have serious impacts on Egypt’s internal political situation and may lead to massive unrest,” said Mohamed el- Shazly, a retired diplomat who previously served as Egypt’s ambassador to Sudan. “The two countries should sit down together to discuss how they can prevent fallout from the dam.”
Years of negotiations between Egypt and Ethiopia have produced nothing. It took Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan almost two years to settle on which firms would carry out the studies on the technical and environmental effects of the dam.
Nour al-Din said Ethiopia could easily prevent negative effects on Egypt by lengthening the duration of the reservoir filling ten years.
“If Ethiopia holds back 7.5 billion cubic metres of water every year for the reservoir filling, Egypt will feel no effects at all,” Nour al-Din said.
Egypt, whose population of 93 million is expected to double within 50 years, has started to adapt to water shortages by developing seawater desalination plans, the Irrigation Ministry said.
“Apart from desalinating billions of cubic metres of seawater, we also started treating sewage to use it for agricultural purposes in a number of areas,” said Walid Haqiqi, the spokesman for the Irrigation Ministry. “Water shortages are becoming a fact of life for us and we cannot stand and watch while water resources keep decreasing and the population keeps growing.”