The Washington Post, Via Dawn.com, by Keith Johnson
WASHINGTON: Egypt’s musical-chairs government faces enough challenges. So why is a construction project almost 1,800 miles from Cairo provoking fears over Egypt’s national survival?
Egypt and Ethiopia are butting heads over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a $4 billion hydroelectric project that Ethiopia is building on the headwaters of the Blue Nile, near the border between Ethiopia and Sudan.
Cairo worries that the mega project, which began construction in 2011 and is scheduled to be finished by 2017, could choke the downstream flow of the Nile River right at a time when it expects its needs for fresh water to increase. Brandishing a pair of colonial-era treaties, Egypt argues that the Nile’s waters largely belong to it and that it has veto power over dams and other upstream projects.
Ethiopia, for its part, sees a chance to finally take advantage of the world’s longest river, and says that the 6,000 megawatts of electricity the dam will produce will be a key spur to maintaining Africa’s highest economic growth rate and for growth in energy-starved neighbours. The hydroelectric plant will provide triple the amount of electricity generating capacity in all of Ethiopia today.
But the spat threatens to poison relations between two of Africa’s biggest countries.
“The construction of [the dam] could propel a new era of regional cooperation, but past history suggests it will more likely result in continued sniping between Egypt and Ethiopia,” David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia, told Foreign Policy.
The dispute has heated up again, after a fresh effort to iron out the differences at the negotiating table collapsed. Egypt has sought to get the United Nations to intervene, and reportedly asked Ethiopia to halt construction on the dam until the two sides can work out an agreement, which Ethiopian officials rebuffed.
“The upper riparian states have the right to use the Nile for their development as far as it doesn’t cause any significant harm on the lower riparian countries, and that is why Ethiopia is building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesperson Dina Mufti told reporters in late February.
A former Egyptian irrigation minister said this week that Egypt is doing too little to forestall the dam, and highlighted the risks to the country’s water supply. Italy’s ambassador to Egypt has reportedly offered Italian help in mediating the showdown; an Italian firm is constructing the dam.
The dam has been a glimmer in Ethiopia’s eye since US scientists surveyed the site in the 1950s. A lack of cash and Egypt’s strength forestalled any development — but that appears to have changed in the wake of the Arab Spring and Egypt’s three years of domestic political upheaval.
Ethiopia began pushing back seriously after concluding its own water rights deal with other upstream nations, such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, in 2010. The protests in Egypt, the collapse of the Mubarak regime, and Egypt’s three years of domestic turmoil provided a key opening for Ethiopia. It laid the first stone on the construction project in the spring of 2011 and says the dam is now about one-third complete.
“With all of the chaos in Egypt, Ethiopia caught a break. It has clearly benefited from the distractions of the government in Cairo,” Shinn said. In 2012, Sudan threw its weight behind the project, driving a wedge between the two downstream users of the river and complicating Cairo’s hopes to block construction.