The Renaissance Dam project has been on the drawing board since the 1960s, but only in March 2011 did Ethiopia officially declare its intention to carry out the construction. The $4.8 billion hydropower project, located in northwestern Ethiopia near the Sudanese border, is designed to have an installed capacity of 5,250 megawatts. The Nile River basin is shared among 10 riparian countries, but the issue of the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile in particular directly involves Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.
The current distribution of the Nile’s waters is laid out in the 1959 Nile Agreement between the two downstream riparian states Egypt and Sudan, with their annual allotment set at 55.5 billion cubic meters and 18.5 billion cubic meters respectively. However, Ethiopia refuses to acknowledge this agreement, arguing that since most of the river flow originates in its territory, it is entitled to an equitable and reasonable share. Yet despite its high water-development potential, for a long time Ethiopia lacked the political stability and technical and financial means to develop its water systems. Ethiopia’s past efforts were also blocked by Egypt, which continuously campaigned to persuade international creditors and donors not to finance Ethiopian projects.
In the 1990s, the Nile River situation was considered by many water experts to have great potential to induce interstate conflict in the river’s basin. But with World Bank support, a basin-wide cooperation program, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), was launched in February 1999. Yet in spite of a great deal of hope and hype over the past 14 years, the NBI has been unable to shift the mindset of the basin countries. After years of meetings and deliberations, in June 2007, Nile countries expressed their desire to establish a permanent river basin commission. But that dream is yet to be realized due to lack of agreement among Egypt, Sudan and Egypt.
The basin countries have not taken any measures to reduce their dependence on the increasingly scarce Nile River water. The increasing threat of global climate change has brought further insecurity to the basin. Moreover, geopolitical changes—including political uncertainty in post-Mubarak Egypt that has weakened Cairo’s global leverage—have changed the historical power equation in the region, providing opportunities for Ethiopia and Sudan to attract financial and technical support for their own water projects. In 2011, for instance, the World Bank decided to start providing funding support to Ethiopia’s irrigation project in the Nile basin.
Moreover, the emergence of China as a superpower in Africa has further shifted the situation in Ethiopia’s favor, and Ethiopia has already engaged several Chinese firms to develop its rich hydropower potential. In November 2009, Ethiopia, in collaboration with China, completed the construction of a roughly 600-foot hydropower dam on the Tekeze River, a tributary of the Nile. At the same time, Ethiopia not only aims to increase its hydropower production, it also seeks to improve its agricultural production by developing its irrigation potential. With Chinese support, Ethiopia recently built the Tana Beles dam in the Nile basin, a hydropower dam inaugurated in 2010 and designed to provide irrigation to a total area of nearly 400 square miles of land. Furthermore, in recent years, China has also acquired large tracts of agricultural land in Ethiopia’s Nile basin for farming purposes.
But China’s support is not limited to Ethiopia—Beijing is also engaged in dam building in Sudan. With China’s help, Sudan recently built the Merowe Dam on the Nile system. This dam is primarily a hydropower project, but in the future Sudan expects to use the dam for irrigation purposes as well. Since 2008, China has been helping Sudan to raise the height of the Roseires Dam by an additional 30 feet or so to increase the irrigation and power generation potential of the structure. And while these two projects were built according to Sudan’s allocation of Nile water under the 1959 agreement, Sudan’s future dam-building plans raise serious worries for Egypt.
The construction of these hydropower projects in Ethiopia and Sudan indicates that upstream states have decided to move forward with unilateral development of infrastructure in the basin, as opposed to the international community’s prescription for a basin-wide water-sharing accommodation. For downstream Egypt, increased upstream unilateral development is alarming. Egypt is almost completely dependent upon the Nile for its water supply and irrigation. Its increasing population and expansion of irrigation works mean the need for water in the country is also rising. Upstream water diversions of the Nile will have a severe impact on Egypt’s food production and public health. Moreover, the fear of losing historical control of the Nile water will further destabilize Egypt’s already precarious political situation.
At the same time, however, construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam and other upstream hydro-projects brings new opportunities for the basin by breaking an age-old stalemate. Egypt is fast realizing that it cannot maintain the role of hydro-hegemon it held for centuries, which might force Cairo to behave in a more cooperative and accommodating way. Indeed, though some of the rhetoric in Cairo over the past week has been bellicose, recent statements by Egyptian authorities regarding the construction of the Renaissance Dam point toward a more cooperative posture. This is important, because without the transformation of Egypt’s stance, it will not be possible to establish sustainable and lasting cooperation over the Nile’s water. The equitable utilization and cooperative management of the Nile water will not only foster development in the basin countries, it will also be a catalyst for peace and cooperation in the region.
Ashok Swain is a professor of Peace and Conflict Research and also professor at the Department of Earth Sciences, CSD, Uppsala University, Sweden.