Dr. Oyeleye is taking an emergency break from his running series, Time to activate Africa’s idle magnetic force, to address this urgent matter of the Nile Dam because of the immediacy of issues involved. He will return to conclude the series after this one.
GLOBAL FORECASTERS MUST BE COMMENDED for their foresight and hitting the bull’s eye in their projections into the future of water, particularly as one of the major causes of unrests and hostilities. They must obviously be concerned with unfolding events globally. What they probably didn’t envisage was the exact nature of crises in all their ramifications and their scale. That some countries may pitch battle against one another on account of water may probably not have been too obvious to the forecasters. But that is already happening. The European Union (EU) has earlier reported that water will be at the centre of conflicts between countries. Their prediction is right on the point. Drums of war are already being beaten on the Blue Nile, arguably the longest river in Africa. The river, which straddles 11 countries of the Nile basin from origins of tributaries to the delta where it empties into the Mediterranean Sea in the north-eastern flank of Africa, is now mired in controversies.
River Nile, a major means of food production, transportation and trade in that region, is about to become a major producer of hydro-electric power. But this is coming at a huge socio-political cost as bad politics are emanating between the countries involved, namely: Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia. The serenity, quietness and peaceful coexistence that have been associated with the utilisation of the Nile are about to give way to resentments and antagonism as two of the countries benefitting from the Nile are locked in disagreement on whether or not to use the Nile for hydro-electric power, or on the approach for doing so, if at all the hydro power project would go on to completion. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), begun nine years ago and located about 15 kilometres from the Sudan-Ethiopian border is about to be completed. The dam, as unfolding events show, will become a mixed bag of blessing and misery. While Ethiopia sees a bright side to the dam, Egypt sees a dark side.
Although the case between Egypt and Ethiopia is filled with vitriol, Sudan, on the ground of proximity, seems to be less troubled in comparison, perhaps because it stands to benefit directly from the electricity supplies from the dam when completed. Sudan is, however, concerned with water security and national security. Egypt sees the water issue as existential to them and wants to be part of the process of managing the dam’s water. Ethiopia, on the other hand, sees the decision on the dam as their sole prerogative. Clearly, GERD looks set to become the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa. The project, when completed, is expected to be a massive boost to the Ethiopian economy, providing power for 100 million Ethiopians. In addition, it will serve as a big source of irrigation for agriculture in Ethiopia. On the contrary, Egypt fears these will be at its expense. This is understandable as Egypt has historically, traditionally – and in contemporary times – depended on the Nile for survival as 90 per cent of the water used in Egypt comes from the Nile. The future of Egypt also depends on the Nile.
Egypt fears the dam upstream could wipe out millions of farm-based businesses and create a massive economic problem for its people. A dark cloud thus hangs precariously upon the Nile basin as Egypt and Ethiopia appear determined to slug it out on account of this river of historic relevance. What is happening between Egypt and Ethiopia on the Nile River is a symptom of the lack of foresight by African leaders. It is just one of the sticking points and a forerunner of other major crises to be expected in the future if nothing is urgently and deliberately done to change track and evolve deliberate strategies for peaceful co-existence in the continent. Traditionally and historically, African countries have poorly managed their waters for various uses, particularly electricity.
While some electricity projects have been run on some big rivers in Africa for decades without acrimony, the realities of climate change are beginning to show the inadequacies and poor judgments of those who conceptualised and operated such hydro power projects. Examples abound, but two might suffice for this discourse. The Kainji Dam hydro power project, constructed about half a century ago is now far from meeting the current day electricity requirements of the growing population of Nigerians. The peaceful co-existence of the Kariba South Power Station and the Kariba North Hydroelectric Power Station for both Zimbabwe and Zambia respectively on the same Zambezi River could best be described as of historical significance, relevance and political correctness. The same conditions that were favourable for the establishment of both separate hydro power plants then could not have been feasible if they were to be established today.
An Inter-Governmental Agreement of 14th February 1986, meant to cement relationships for seamless operations of the Central African Power Corporation to improve and intensify the utilisation of the waters for the production of energy and for any other purpose beneficial to the two countries would have been a fiasco if it were to be entered into today. It was not bad that the Republics of Zimbabwe and Zambia, desiring the economic, industrial and social development of the two countries, came together for that purpose. But the realities of time are not static. As water reserves dwindle, the hydropower dams that previously provided nearly all of Zambia’s electricity has deteriorated in output to the point that it could no longer guarantee full supply to the country’s copper mines, the keystone of its economy. Household power supplies have gone to all-time low and power outages are now more frequent than ever before. The 2015 drought left the country facing a 560-megawatt power deficit — equal to about one-quarter of its total generating capacity.
Zimbabwe, the neighbour and partner on Zambezi, faces consistent power shortages as indicated by an estimated deficit of approximately 60 per cent and crippling electricity shortages. According to Foreign Policy, a think tank, Zimbabwe is “enduring an unprecedented electricity crisis which has prompted up to 18 hours a day of so-called load shedding, because the grid can’t generate enough energy to meet national demand or pay for adequate power imports, owing to foreign-currency shortages.” These are realities of climate change, a phenomenon that was hardly thought about as having any far-reaching impact some decades ago. It is hoped that, the agreement between Zimbabwe and Zambia would endure all seasons in the future.
Promoters of GERD in Ethiopia would therefore do well to learn a few things from these examples, especially how to manage trans-boundary water resources equitably and sustainably. Ethiopian leaders and lenders will need to pause and reason before concluding their plans to fill up the dam within seven months of completion, a situation that has obviously become a nightmare for Egypt. Inasmuch as Ethiopia has a point about developing its own economy, a “beggar thy neighbour” development policy could turn out to have an adverse effect yet unimagined now in the future. An example is the spill over effect of impoverished population of neighbouring countries that may come back to haunt a prosperous Ethiopia in the aftermath of GERD’s completion. A major condition put forward by Egypt for accepting that the dam be built, it was gathered, was that Ethiopia should agree (or guarantee) to be releasing as much as 40 billion cubic metres of water downstream, but Ethiopia says the dam’s maximum capacity will be 30 billion cubic metres. This obviously could heighten Egypt’s anxiety and Ethiopia should not feign ignorance about this. Moreover, a disagreement on the rate of filling the dam remains yet unresolved. Egypt wants the dam filled slowly over many years, but Ethiopia wants it done rather more quickly.
Legalism may not succeed in addressing these differences between Egypt and Ethiopia. The two countries cannot afford to adopt irrevocable stances and stuck on irreconcilable differences. A robust and urgent political solution will thus be needed. Egypt is arguing its case on historic rights based on colonial-era treaties signed about a century ago. It is referring to one of 1902, stipulating that Ethiopia should consult with Sudan in case it wants to build a dam on the Nile. Sudan too is expressing misgivings over non-recognition of a 1959 agreement. But Ethiopia is arguing that the world has changed and now sees thedam as crucial for power generation and economic development. Ambassador Taye Atske Selassie Made, Ethiopian representative to the UN, in a virtual meeting convened by the UN on the subject on Monday, reinforced this standpoint, building on the argument that 60 per cent of Ethiopians don’t have access to electricity. He was specific on the point that “security concerns should not be used for exerting diplomatic pressure” on Ethiopia on the Nile Dam issue. But this smacks of denial of the reality and profundity of the ensuing crisis.
The African Union (AU) has adopted a flagship Agenda 2063, a telescopic projection into the far future. It is doubtful if such an agenda anticipates such a crisis as this or has any provision to handle it. What happens in the near future will determine how realistic and realisable the components of the 2063 Agenda would be. This GERD project will be a test case for AU’s reliability and competence in handling dispute resolution among or between countries of Africa. It remains to be seen how the AU hopes to mediate in such a crisis, especially as Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, spits fire and brimstone. In February, the Renaissance dam talk in Egypt ended without an agreement. It seems Ethiopia’s mind is made up already on the way to go and how to go about it. Abiy Ahmed, a recent Nobel peace prize winner, didn’t help matters with his unguarded comments on possibilities of war. Things have taken a dimension for the worse to the extent that, earlier in the year, troops have moved to Sudan-Eritrean border in readiness for a fight, even if it was a proxy war.
Egypt, pressing its case further, has called on the UN to intervene after impasse on Nile Dam talks, apparently a prelude to last week’s Monday virtual meeting. It is important to find ways to mediate in the dispute and prevent anything from spiralling out of control. The outcome of the disagreements will serve as a motivation or an instigation for many other countries that share water bodies in their bilateral relationships. In a circumstance of rapidly growing population, a lasting truce is most desirable as an estimated one billion people will live in the Nile basin countries by 2050. Attempting to commence the process of filling the GERD with or without a deal is the sticking point now. It will mean a total disregard for Egypt’s plight on the Blue Nile. Beyond the construction and filling, more are expected on the GERD. But hostilities will not be in the interest of Egypt and Ethiopia, and not the least, Sudan.