ADDIS ABABA – On June 3, Egyptian politicians were caught in a televised diplomatic gaffe, which could have cost them dearly.
Invited by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to a debate on the $4.2 billion hydroelectric dam that Ethiopia is about to start building across the Blue Nile, one of the two major tributaries of the Nile, the participants openly called for military action against Ethiopia.
They were unaware that the debate was being broadcast live on Egyptian state television and spoke their minds freely about allying with “Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti, to use them as bases against Ethiopia” and “interfering in the internal affairs of Ethiopia” by supporting rebel troops fighting the Ethiopian government.
All of this was said without drawing any objection from President Morsi. Though at the end of the debate, the Egyptian president did say that he would not engage in aggressive acts against Ethiopia. Still, a statement released later from his office said: “Egypt will never surrender its right to Nile ware and all options [to safeguard it] are being considered.” A difficult balancing act a week after Ethiopia announced that they had already started diverting the flow of Nile to prepare for the building of the dam.
An overview rendition of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam - Source: salini
In the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, the government responded with polite silence. The spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dina Mufti, said they were “surprised” by the “hostile remarks.”
The standoff is two years in the making, when Addis Ababa announced the construction of what would become Africa’s biggest dam on the Blue Nile, which takes its source in the Ethiopian highlands. The dam will produce 6,000 megawatts – enough electricity for the 85 million Ethiopians, with some left over to sell to neighboring countries.
It was a decision that did not please Egypt, which for decades now has been used to enjoying the waters of the Nile without having to ask its neighbors for permission.
Becoming a developed nation
Indeed, Cairo has been challenging the project by waiving a 1929 agreement that gave Egypt and Sudan rights to the Nile water, with Egypt allowed to take 55.5 billion cubic meters out of 84 billion cubic meters in total.
The construction of Egypt’s Aswan Dam, inaugurated in 1971, allowed the formation of the Nasser Lake and the irrigation of about three million hectares of land. Egypt is worried that building their own dam, the Ethiopians risk drying up the part of the Nile that flows into Egypt. Not true, says Abdulhakim Mohammed, head of construction at the Ethiopian electricity company (EEEPCo): “Without the dam, the flow is very low during the dry period and very high during the monsoon, to the point of causing floods. The dam, which will not be used for irrigation purposes, will regulate the flow according to the needs of its users.”
In 2010, Egypt and Sudan refused to sign a cooperation agreement, which was signed by Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi. “They want to maintain the status quo,” says Debay Tedesse, a researcher at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) at Addis Ababa. “Under President Mubarak, Egyptians grew up hearing that the Nile is Egypt and Egypt is the Nile. It will take time to change that.
However, the hydrologists know that the Ethiopian dam will not have an impact on Egypt.” No chance it will start a Nile war then? “I doubt it, particularly because Egypt and Sudan cannot afford to get caught up in conflict over the Nile given their current internal problems,” says the researcher. “Countries that border the Nile should sign an agreement on the sharing of its waters. The Nile can meet the needs of everybody.”
No matter what the Egyptian politicians say, there is no chance that Ethiopia will renounce its mega-dam. The dam is the backbone of a massive plan to pull out the country of its current state of underdevelopment. Companies, civil servants and private individuals were all forced to pitch in to finance the costly project. Egypt can make as much noise and as many diplomatic gaffes as it wants, diggers are not about to stop digging, and the concrete mixers mixing – Ethiopia needs to become a developed nation.