A $4.2 billion dam is being built on Ethiopia’s part of the River Nile in the Benishangul-Gumuz region, about 15 kilometers (9 miles) east of the Sudanese border, and they’re calling it the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. 1,375 miles (2,213 kilometers) north, Egyptians have been panicking for four years about what the future of the Renaissance Dam means for their decreasing rights to the River Nile. Last month marked the completion of 60 percent of the Ethiopian mega project of the century.

Ethiopia’s green economy strategy aims to make the country middle income while also ensuring that it is environmentally and economically sustainable and resilient by 2025. The development of Ethiopia’s strategy is based on four pillars: agriculture, forestry, transport and generating power from renewable energy – which is where the Renaissance Dam comes in.

In the meantime, Egyptian environmentalists argue that the construction of the Renaissance Dam will gradually decrease Egypt’s share of the river, which is the country’s exclusive source of drinking water and is also used for irrigation. However, the greatest toll will be on the electricity supply of Egypt’s High Dam in Aswan, argues Alaa El-Zawahry, an Egyptian dam expert and member of the tripartite committee studying the effects of the Renaissance Dam.

Renaissance Dam

Egypt’s Philae Temple, Philae Island, overlooks the man-made Lake Nasser. CC: Virginia McLeod

“In the first two years, the level of [water in] Lake [Nasser, a reservoir in southern Egypt and northern Sudan] will reach less than half, which will create a 15 percent deficit in the production of electricity in the first year [for Egypt],” foresees El-Zawahry. “In the second year, the deficit will be approximately 45 percent, 65 percent in the third, 85 percent in the fifth and by the time we reach the sixth [year, the] turbines will stop generating electricity altogether.”

“We are very worried about our crops,” says Saeed El-Simari, a farmer in Egypt’s northern Nile Delta. “We want to plant our land, we need water. It’s hard enough with the water we have, imagine when we don’t have anymore,” he adds. Around 26 percent of Egyptian labor works in the agriculture sector, accounting for 20 percent of the country’s GDP. Egypt’s 21,000 square kilometers of crops consume more than 85 percent of the country’s share of the river. Without putting the Ethiopian dam into consideration, with an annual supply of 620 to 640 cubic meters (21,000 to 22,600 cubic feet) per person, coupled with the growing of the population to some 100 million people, Egypt would appear to be heading towards the UN’s threshold of absolute water scarcity.

Moreover, concerning the threat of salination in the Nile Delta, El-Zawahry says that the worst case scenario is that Egypt will face a permanent deficit in all aspects of life for six years at varying rates. “However, that is in the case that the average floods are followed by low floods six years later,” he explains. The expert adds that falling water levels will lead to pollution rising to the highest levels of the Nile due to lack of water in the waterway. This will result in the sprawl of saline groundwater in the Delta and its mixing with fresh water, due to the latter’s decline – in addition to the death of cattle that will result during years with average flooding. If the floods are low, Lake Nasser will be discharged in the first two years of thereservoir. “Egypt will need between 10 and 15 years after the first six years [when the reservoir is being created] to get its 70 billion cubic meter of water back to Lake Nasser,” he estimates.

Renaissance Dam

Egyptian farms by the Nile. CC: Dale Gillard

Turning to the Ethiopian capital, progrss discusses the urgency of having such a controversial dam and what it means to the Ethiopian people.“Human needs are limitless; and in order to cover for this limitlessness we need natural resources,” says Binyam Yakob, the negotiator at the Ethiopian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate. “Green economy initiatives will create macroeconomic benefits.”

Generating 6,450 megawatts of electricity, the Renaissance Dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, and the seventh largest in the world. In the Ethiopian capital, where blackouts sometimes last for days, a taxi driver expresses his optimism about the dam to progrss, saying that he believes that the Dam will provide efficient electrical power and prevent power cuts.

In fact, according to the World Bank, 27.2 percent of Ethiopia’s 87 million people have access to electricity, as opposed to Egypt’s 98 percent. Like Wonde, many Ethiopians are optimistic about the dam and find pride in it after years of relying on the Chinese to provide power solutions in vain. In November 2014, the Ethiopian Minister of Communication revealed to the public that an unidentified Chinese company would be responsible for the expansion work that was to be completed in the first half of 2015. However, many experts ridiculed the statement at the time, saying that no work had started by the time the minister made his announcement. In fact, they argued it may not even be complete within five years – let alone ten months.

Renaissance Dam

Street lights are turned off 24/7 in this highway in the low-income district of Adwa, Addis Ababa. Photo by Leena ElDeeb

Mulugeta Mengist, ‎Director of Climate Change Affairs at the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s office, tells progrss that the country has to witness a 14 percent increase in electrical power to prevent the country’s GDP from falling. Even though he wouldn’t reveal just how much of the 14 percent would be provided by the Renaissance Dam, Mengist says that the Dam is expected to make up a significant share.

Mengist adds that the dam will not only benefit the power sector, but that it will also indirectly contribute to combating deforestation and supporting Ethiopia’s agriculture, which is the backbone of the Ethiopian economy. Coffee alone dominates Ethiopian exports, accounting for around 60 percent of foreign income and making up 50.53 percent of the country’s GDP. The livelihoods of around 15 million Ethiopians are directly or indirectly reliant on coffee production.

Renaissance Dam

A banner about the Renaissance Dam at Addis Ababa International Airport. Photo by Leena ElDeeb

Back in Cairo, one of the biggest worries is that very few people actually understand the full impact that the dam will have on Egypt’s water supply, agriculture and electric power because Ethiopia has revealed very limited information about the project, and what it has disclosed has been mainly to experts. What is clear is that the dam will cover an area of 74 billion cubic meters, that it will stand 145 meters high and the mountains surrounding the dam will allow water to be reserved as high as 90 meters. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi made it clear in a public speech in February 2016 to “not speak or write about the Renaissance Dam without studying it.”

Despite the nationwide panic shared by the public and experts close to decision-making bodies in the government, Cairo’s state representatives negotiating with their Ethiopian counterparts in Addis Ababa display a calm, flexible and understanding attitude. Nevertheless, Egypt is looking for diplomatic solutions and seeking international and even non-African assistance and support. In his last visit to Berlin on August 27, Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukri took the opportunity to appeal to his German counterpart, Sigmar Gabriel, to support Egypt in its stance against the potential damage projected by the Ethiopian Dam. “[The River] Nile is the heart of Egypt and this issue is existential for the country,” Gabriel told Shoukry, assuring that Germany is ready to mediate in Egypt’s favor.

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