What Next for the Nile?


Agreement is one step closer to reality in the contest for control of the Nile waters in Africa.

The Nile River

Ministers of Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopia met in December 2015 to discuss the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia. A communiqué – known as the Khartoum Document – was signed on the 29 of December.

A new study into the impact of the Dam has been commissioned. Two French firms have been awarded contracts to assess the impact of the Dam on downstream countries’ water shares.

The Dam will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant with a storage capacity of 74 billion cubic metres of water. The site is at the juncture where the Blue Nile crosses into the Sudan, before joining Egypt and heading to the Meditereanean Sea.

On 23 March 2015, a tripartite understanding was historically reached between the three major countries that host one of the world’s greatest rivers.

This is far removed from the situation on the 3 June 2013, when Egyptian political leaders suggested methods to destroy the dam, including support for anti-governmental rebels

The Renaissance Dam

Work on the Dam commenced in 2012, with Ethiopia insisting that the Renaissance Dam would improve power generation and not harm Egypt or the Sudan.

Pundits agreed that the construction of the Dam was timely, with Egypt distracted by the chaos of the Arab Spring.

Concern has been expressed by States about how the Dam will adversely affect their share of the Nile’s waters, which the citizens depend on for their water supply.

Egyptian President Abel Fattah Al-Sisi said “I understand [the Egyptian’s concerns] because water is a matter of life and death.”

Egypt’s own claims to superiority over the river, namely the British mediated 1959 Nile Waters Agreement, have generally not been accepted

On the domestic front, Ethiopia faces considerable opposition to building the Grand Renaissance Dam. The impact of the Gilgel Gibe project on the Omo river will transform the way of life of a half a million Ethiopians and their agro-pastoralist lifetsyles.

Local communities, environmental campaigners and human rights groups say that the changing flood cycle will mean that some groups will become dependent on aid from the government.

A report by NGO International Rivers found that people living by the river still had “very little idea of what the dam is, or what impact it would have on their life.”

There are fears that Lake Turkana in Kenya, which is downstream, will dry out, impacting upon rural groups.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt caused widespread displacement of the Nubian peoples, many who lost their lands.

Climate change has led to worldwide competition over scarce agricultural resources.

In the Middle East, wars are fought over strategic control of water resources like the Mosul Dam in Iraq. The capture of Mosul in 2014 led to widespread concerns about the integrity of the Dam, which has been labeled as “structurally unstable”.

In China, the Three Gorges Dam has been attacked for ignorance of the human rights of the many rural communities that will be affected.

The United Nations has recognized that the right to water is an inalienable human rights. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights said that “the human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity”,

The right to water should not come at the expense of other human rights, such as the right to a livelihood, say human rights experts.

Economic progress has accompanied domestic discontent in Africa, with Ethiopia’s economic miracle being lauded by commentators. The growth rate of Ethiopia is 11%, making Ethiopia the fastest growing in Africa.

Independent observers predict that Ethiopia will be the next African powerhouse, already overtaking regional rival Kenya. The country is the home of the African Union and provides more United Nations peacekeepers than any other African country.

Agricultural reform will drive economic reform. Two per cent of the rural population has access to electricity, limiting growth opportunities.

The Renaissance Dam is set to double the countries’ electrical grid, with surplus to be exported to the rest of Africa.

The Renaissance Dam

Government rhetoric has reached fever pitch, with sources suggesting that Ethiopia will be free of aid dependency by 2015.

Government rhetoric may not match reality on the ground. A drought has caused a food shortage that could affect a tenth of Ethiopia’s population, with about 400,000 children at risk of malnutrition.

In the 1980s, a similar crisis led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Worldwide coverage of the famine led to the international community contributing many millions in aid

The current famine has not attracted the same publicity. Mario Zappacosta, an economist with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said that “there is some doubt that Ethiopia can pop up as a priority when you have Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic and many other places in the world in bad situations.”

Time will tell whether the Dam will be the quick-fix in the eyes of the government.

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