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The Ethiopian Dam: battle or chance to cooperate?


The Ethiopian Dam, also known, as Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Millennium Dam or Hidase Dame, is a gravity dam situated on the Blue Nile River and currently under construction; it will become Africa’s largest dam, producing an estimated 6,000MW of electricity. It is an example of how renewable energy (hydropower in this case in particular) can be the object of many tensions at the international level that can be overcome just with cooperation.

This is so because the interest in renewable energies is increasing and water is becoming more appealing for all its intended uses (source of life, transportation, source of energy…). Therefore as a source of energy water has become an element economically relevant and exploitable. The GRED will be constructed on the source of the Nile and has been claimed that the dam will modify the Nile flow, provoking many damages especially for the downstream countries such as Egypt, while increasing Ethiopia hydropower supplies. The Nile river basin comprises of ten countries, which are: Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.

The two countries most involved in conflicts over water in the Nile Basin are Ethiopia and Egypt. The dam is under construction in Ethiopia, which is Africa’s second most populous Nation, and it is living constant power shortages and it is also highly vulnerable to climate change, particularly erratic rainfall. However, Ethiopia is becoming one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, involved with megaprojects -especially in recent years- including dams, factories, roads and railways across the country. Its biggest project is the Renaissance Dam, thanks to which the hydropower plant is expected to bring the country’s electricity generation to more than triple its current capacity. So far Ethiopia considers itself as the powerhouse of Africa.

The reasons that brought Ethiopia to develop, always more efficiently hydropower solutions, should be found in the exigency of providing energy to the whole country. This is so because in 2009 less than 10% of Ethiopians had access to electricity and there were continuing malfunctioning. Therefore, in order to overcome this situation, the government has started an ambitious project of dam building, with Chinese financial and technical support, ignoring the opposition from Egypt. Accordingly to Ethiopian Government reports, has been argued that while hydropower does not consume water, it is not possible to reduce water flow. In addition, evaporation from the reservoir surfaces constitutes a permanent loss of water from the river. Ethiopia has also received support from other riparian countries like South Sudan and Uganda: they argued that Egypt should not undermine Ethiopia’s right to the Nile. Sudan hopes that the dam will help to prevent seasonal flood, regulate the river flows and extend the life span of Sudanese dams by preventing silts in the upstream. Ethiopia has also promised to sell the hydropower to Sudan and Egypt at a much cheaper price. For what concerns the environmental impact of the Ethiopian dam, it has been argued by many NGO’s and in particular by Nile Basin Initiative(NBI) that the Ethiopian dam will cause negative impacts on the agriculture.

This is so mainly because the dam will cause a lack of the water flow that will make more complicated the exploitation of the fields close to the river. It is possible to argue that the dam has negative effects because it does not fulfill the criteria established by The World Commission on Dams (WCD) made the World Bank and the World Conservation Union in 1998, which are the universally agreed five values (equity, sustainability, efficiency, participatory decision making and accountability). In other words, the main problem is building large dams in a suitable and sustainable way to minimize different types of environmental and social costs and maximize the benefits. The planning of the dam seems to have ignored the participation of affected people. The management and implementation of the large dam project has been a top-down approach rather than the one involving the decision making process, because it has not involved the participation of the local people. Moreover a number of displaced people, belonging to indigenous “Gumuz” and “Berta“. For what concerns the Egypt position the first thing to underline is the fact that Egypt is the main recipient of the Nile water (it is the lowest riparian State in the basin and therefore it is affected by any actions taken by the upstream States) and it is been dependent from the Nile River water since ancient times. Indeed, the ancient philosopher Herodotus, describing the Egyptian civilization, said: “Egypt is the Nile and the Nile is Egypt [and Egypt is] the gift of the Nile”. Other upstream riparian states now are more interested in the usage of Nile water compared to the past, because they are living an increase of their population. This would limit Egypt water supply, Egypt economy, life, mobile communication and international relations. The primary goal for Egyptian Government about water policy has always been to ensure a free flow of sufficient water to assure its internal usages and for export purposes. Egypt asserts, so, historical rights over Nile water; those rights found their juridical source in Helsinki Accords and in the Berlin Rules.

Furthermore, what entrenched Egypt’s power over other riparian countries in the Nile river basin is the water treaty agreement signed between Egypt and Britain in 1929, agreement that basically was in favor of the Egypt rather than the other Nile riparian Countries, which were British colonies. However, with the attainment of independence by these Countries and high population growth, global warming, global economic crisis natural disasters, political development, pollution and resource depletion, industrialization as well as urbanization, the above mentioned riparian Countries decided to fight Egypt’s control over Nile water resources. They wanted to re-negotiate earlier water treaties in order to change the hegemonic position of Egypt towards water. Today Egypt position, open to cooperation, can be describe throughout the words of the President of the Arab Republic of Egypt Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi in Addis Ababa, during a speech on the 25th of March 2015: “Non of the Countries [African Countries and Nile riparian Countries] should build its welfare at the expense of his brother for as your brotherly Country has the right to development and to utilize its resources to improve the standard living of its people; your Egyptian brothers also have the right, not only to the development, but also the right to life itself and to live in a safe haven on the banks of the Nile River, the river upon which they created an incessant civilization for thousands of years […] Egypt came with an open heart, an open mind [and] a recognition of the responsibility with sincere intent [towards] cooperation and partnership”.

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