The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam paradox

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The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – A Green Energy Paradox

Blue Nile Falls Ethiopia
Blue Nile Falls, Ethiopia. Photo: Stefan Geens

“Egypt is truly a gift of the Nile” said Herodotus; and if he visited modern-day East Africa, he would add; “The Nile is the lifeblood of Ethiopia, too.”

A long-standing controversy over who has rights to the waters of the Nile, which has been simmering for decades in regional hydro-politics and controversy, is boiling again because of global politics, superpower agendas, and the local politics of an awakening and very Arab-centric state of Egypt. And all the stakeholders are congested behind the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Old European colonial treaties, new realities on the ground, investors, The World Bank, governments and non-governmental organizations such as the Greens and Rivers International — are participating in the controversy from their own perspective. In the midst of this turmoil, the people of East Africa have their own legitimate rights and “Great Expectations”– quite apart from kindling fires.

The great paradox is that it is the old colonial treaties which denied Ethiopia its sovereign right to use its own water, or to benefit from the three out of four major tributaries of the Nile. These three tributaries originate from Ethiopia — the Blue Nile, the Sobat and the Atbara, supply Egypt’s River Nile with 92 percent of its water (85% from theBlue Nile), and they contribute 96 percent of the river’s heavy, natural fertilising, silt loads — mostly the product of erosion of the friable hills of Ethiopia. Old agreements allowed the entire average annual flow of the Nile to be shared among Sudan and Egypt at 18.5 and 55.5 billion cubic metres, respectively, without any giving rights to Ethiopia to use its own water.

Egypt’s concern is understandable, since 75-million of Egypt’s 84-million inhabitants live on the river delta and in the river valley, along which, the Nile water irrigates the nation’s food and cash crops and generates energy, but on the other hand, it’s as equally important and vitally equivalent that 93 million people who live in Ethiopia, plus another 282 million impoverished people who live in East Africa, should also benefit from utilizing the hydro-power of the Blue Nile River, and the other water basins within Ethiopia’s borders.

East Africa’s population is about 375 million people; Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Madagascar.

Ethiopia is blessed with 12 water basins, with an enormous Hydropower Potential which could generate up to 45,000 MW of electric power, once the pending hydroelectric resources are utilized to the full. It could become the “Battery of East Africa” — powering and enlightening progress across the African Horn.

But who has any interest in East Africa becoming empowered?

It is crystal clear and obvious why the USA and Western Europe would direct the course of events, flashing green and red lights, allowing rich Arab countries investment in that area or ordering withdrawal, competing with China, in the this or that location — but what is quite astonishing (but quite comprehended) is the “Green Propaganda” position of non-governmental organizations such as Rivers International and Greenpeace, who project themselves as salvation for the poor, defending human rights and encouraging charity, celebrating renewable and sustainable energy, while at the same time promoting the idea that The Grand Renaissance Dam would be threatening to the ecosystem. Do they suggest to continue charity sufficiency by distributing a “Spotlight Commitment” of a few watts/hour of green PV solar panels and “Reach” remote shovels instead?

Ninety percent of the populations of East Africa have no access to electricity.

Energy security from internal sources means independence, food security, self-sufficiency and progress. These energy sources were once sustainable, renewable, natural and clean, free from environment pollution hazards, and without fuel costs to run power plants, except for the cost of labour and maintenance.

Before addressing the hydro-politics and ecosystem concerns of this controversy, I would like to introduce a comparative example in order to demonstrate how efficient and cost-wise the Renaissance Dam is:

The Emirate of Abu Dhabi started construction on 4-nuclear reactors that will have total electric power capacity of 5400 MW, at the cost of USD 20 billion — not including the annual cost of uranium fuel, operation, maintenance and disposal of radioactive waste, security and other annual costs.

Compare the 12 water basins in Ethiopia — with 8-times the productive capacity potential of the 4-nuclear reactors is; 5400MW vs. 45,000MW.

The total cost for the construction of all the dams and the completion of all the projects to ensure full exploitation of the productive capacity, is less than USD 33 billion. Here are two cost/benefit examples showing USD costs vs. Megawatts — within in this particular water basin system.

Gibe Dam = 1870 MW at a cost of USD 2 billion

Renaissance Dam = 6000 MW at a cost of USD 4.5 billion

This means that the production of clean energy in Ethiopia, for the benefit of the 375 million people the population of East Africa (48 times the UAE population), with 8 times the electric power capacity and with 1/5 of the cost of the 4-nuclear reactors in Abu Dhabi, these projects become efficient, but also affect issues of justice, ethics and human rights.

The Aswan Dam Paradox:

While Egypt had been granted the sole right to use the full annual flow of 55.5 billion cubic meters of the Nile River water, between 10 and 16 cubic kilometers of water are wasted due to evaporation from the surface of huge Lake Nasser residing behind the High Aswan dam under the heat of the desert on the Egypt-Sudan border.

Aswan Dam Ethiopia_1
Aswan Dam, Egypt. Photo: Traveling Steve/Flickr

It is an amazingly inefficient water bank, as more than a quarter of the river’s entire flow simply evaporates. The structure that Egypt uses to control the Nile is also the biggest source of water loss on the river. Only an upstream dam, or series of smaller surface area reservoirs, like the Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, where the heat of the sun is less fierce, would significantly reduce the loss of water.

The Renaissance Dam will have a reservoir with a capacity of 63 billion cubic meters. The impact from evaporation of water from the dam would be minimal; as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam would reduce the capacity of the Aswan High Dam, and therefore save about six billion cubic meters of water, annually.

Ultimately, the water will continue running after falling over the electricity generators inside the Dams, and it will still reach its normal and final destination at the Mediterranean, and there will be no reduction in the Egyptian farmers’ share nor would there be any effect on their irrigation needs, as long as neither Ethiopia nor Sudan do not divert the water to inland destinations. Egypt will still have much more water per capita than many of its neighbors in the Middle East.

Ecosystem Impact

Rivers International, Greenpeace and other non-governmental organizations object in regards to the ecosystem implications of hydro-electric dam projects. In the case of The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, I do not comprehend their claims, especially when taking into consideration the priorities and the benefits to tens of millions of people vs. limited or even minimal geographical relocation of some farmers and wild life. Their argument is based on the loss of fertile silt carried by water and the feared erosion of the Nile River Delta.

It is true that while the dams release water, they do not release the river’s heavy silt loads; the silt stays behind the dam, gradually accumulating; thus, the Nile River Delta is eroding — in some places by 10 meters a year. In addition, Egyptian soils are kept fertile with artificial fertilizer instead of silt, and water reservoir banks waste water by evaporation. Therefore, in the long run, it is the current abuse of the river that is not sustainable.

But there are solutions available for managing these impacts. One of the solutions is that of bypass canals. An example of that was carried out by engineers who developed a plan to a cut a canal to allow the White Nile to bypass the Sudd River, in Southern Sudan, back in 1978. Had that project reached completion stage, it would have reduced evaporation in the Sudd, and delivered an extra 5 cubic kilometers of water loaded with silt downstream. Some 260 kilometers (of the planned 360 kilometers) of canal were dug by 1984, but when the Sudanese people became engaged in an intensified war, work ceased and no work has been done since.

Evaporation would simply be minimized when water reservoirs are located in Ethiopia rather than the heat of Egypt’s desert. It is a recognised fact that this would massively add to the amount of water flowing down the Nile.

This constructive vision cannot be accomplished without major concessions on Egypt’s part. A grand settlement of the long dispute over who owns the Nile might create a more sensible solution. It is time that nations in this region must take their own independent decisions no matter the fears of foreign interests, nor what they may try to enforce based on their fears.

Financing the Ethiopian dam projects will still face obstacles and difficulties. At one point, Ethiopia felt forced to collect donations from its citizens in an attempt to finance hydro-power projects. Unfortunately, the government did not manage to collect the full 4.5-billion dollars it was seeking, but it did manage to collect 1-billion dollars – from Ethiopia’s citizens.

Arab peoples should certainly ally with Ethiopia and it’s people, invest there, and divert their investments to the South and East African continent. After all, when Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) felt the threat of termination of his followers and the message they carried, it was to Ethiopia that he ordered them to migrate to and seek shelter in.

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  1. To me it is not true and not acceptable that Egypt is a gift of Nile. In my opinion “No country in the world is a gift of a river” Rather, all riparian countries are the gifts of God allowed to use water from a river based on common understanding, trust and “equitable share” not “historic right”, suspicion and threat. Therefore, the rivers are the gifts of God to those riparian countries to be used mutually, not vice verse.

    Herodotus might have said that “Egypt is a gift of the Nile” because he wouldn’t visit the other riparian countries particularly Ethiopia. If he would, then he might also have added “The Nile is the lifeblood of Ethiopia, too.” which is more scientific and to the root cause of many socioeconomic problems in Ethiopia.

    I think Herodotus’s saying brought nothing good to the people of Egypt as well as Ethiopia, except suspicion and threat. His notion blinded Egyptians forever not to think about other possible and better options i.e. use of water from Nile based on the principle of “equitable share” and peaceful co-existence with the other riparian countries, particularly with Ethiopia.

    Because of Herodotus’s biased idea about Nile and Egypt, Egyptians have made Ethiopia their eternal enemy than making friendly neighbor, tried to disintegrate its central government, did everything in its possibility to destabilize Ethiopia. It is true that Egypt has done everything it can to weaken Ethiopia: loose its strategic and brotherly Eritrean people and outlets to its natural harbor – Red Sea coast etc.

    Now the current generation of Egypt and Sudan have to change this immoral attitudes which have been preached and followed by past governments of Egypt and Sudan. Let us come together and think better than our ancestors. Let us not be selfish. Let us bring ourselves to the 21st century, think about the existence of many alternatives to increase the amount of water.

    Tilahun Erduno (PhD)

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