Troubled Waters: Egypt and Ethiopia Wrangle Over Nile Dam

From The Wall Street Journal

Addis Ababa’s plans expose rivalry with Cairo for regional power; ‘Egypt cannot live without the Nile’

By Matina Stevis-Gridneff in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dahlia Kholaif in Arab al Raml, Egypt

The world’s longest river, a lifeline for hundreds of millions of people, is also fast becoming a fault line.

Ethiopia’s ambitious $4.2 billion hydroelectric dam project on the Nile River’s main tributary is raising tensions with Egypt over how to share the essential resource, and exposing the rivalry between Cairo and an ascendant Addis Ababa for regional power.

The main point of contention is Ethiopia’s plan to fill the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s 74-billion-cubic-meter reservoir within three years of the dam’s planned completion in 2019—a pace that downstream Egypt argues will leave water levels in its floodplain dangerously low.

“Egypt cannot live without the Nile,” Mohamed Abdel-Ati, Egypt’s minister of irrigation and water resources, said last month. “Egypt understands Ethiopia’s right to development but Ethiopia has to prove, practically, that the dam won’t harm Egypt.”

Down Stream

Ethiopia is building a hydroelectric dam on the Nile River’s main tributary, and Egypt worries that plans for filling the reservoir will leave water levels in its floodplain dangerously low.

Ethiopia is counting on the dam to power a hydroelectric plant meant to support its fast-growing economy, and promoting the dam project as a return to imperial-era glory after an era of deep poverty. Ethiopia’s economy grew 9% last year, one of the fastest paces in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“Ethiopia has not been using this river for development of its own because we lacked the financing,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said last year. “Now we are capable of investing on our own.”

 Mr. Desalegn arrived in Cairo for talks Wednesday, though details of his agenda weren’t immediately known. Yearslong negotiations over filling the dam broke down in November. Egypt has asked the World Bank to mediate the dispute; a spokeswoman said the bank is studying the invitation.

The quarrel is about more than water, said  Rashid Abdi, head of Horn of Africa research at the International Crisis Group, a think tank. “What you are seeing is a proxy conflict of who should be the regional hegemon, Egypt or Ethiopia,” he said.

Ethiopia’s economy has been growing fast. A light-rail train passed through a business district in Addis Ababa in Nov. 2016.
Ethiopia’s economy has been growing fast. A light-rail train passed through a business district in Addis Ababa in Nov. 2016.
PHOTO: MULUGETA AYENE/ASSOCIATED PRESS FOR C40

When it is completed, the dam will be the largest in Africa, and it has become a point of pride in Ethiopia. “It will change our future,” said Iskander Baye, a 29-year-old accountant in Asosa, a town near the dam. “Ethiopia’s time has come.”

Almost all Ethiopians have contributed to funding it, often from meager salaries, although opposition groups claim that not all the contributions were voluntary. The government denies that.

The Nile has long divided and united those who share it. The river is the key source of water for Egypt, whose population of about 96 million is squeezed mostly along its banks.

Construction on the dam began in April 2011, when Egypt was in the throes of the Arab Spring—and some six centuries after an Ethiopian emperor threatened to disrupt Egypt’s access. Some 8,500 laborers work in three shifts, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

A view of the dam in November.
A view of the dam in November. PHOTO: GIOIA FORSTER/DPA/ZUMA PRESS

The dam is being built 8 miles from the border with Sudan, which lies between Egypt and Ethiopia and also needs the Nile for irrigation. Sudan has made efforts to mediate between Egypt and Ethiopia, and says it is neutral in the standoff.

But the dispute has rekindled suspicion between Khartoum and Cairo, which have long had strained relations over a range of issues. Earlier this month, Sudan recalled its ambassador to Egypt indefinitely and lodged a complaint with the U.N. over an unrelated border issue.

“Ethiopia has got a right to use its available resources for the good of its people, without endangering the water security of both Sudan and Egypt,” Sudan’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour said. “We don’t know what the fuss is about.”

Egypt has rights to the majority of the Nile’s water under a colonial-era agreement. Ethiopia, which was cut out of that deal, protests that 86% of the Nile’s main tributary, the Blue Nile, flows through its territory.

Ethiopia says the speed at which the reservoir is filled could be adjusted to take into account its probable impact but hasn’t given details. It says it is consulting with Egypt and Sudan.


Farmers Face Water Worries in the Nile Delta

In Arab el Raml, north of Cairo, farmers already have to dig wells to water their land and they worry a new dam in Ethiopia will mean even less water is available for them.

Agricultural land north of Cairo.
Fahim Ibrahim, a farmer in Arab el Raml, which is in the Nile Delta about 30 miles north of Cairo, said he fears “doom striking Egypt” if access to water runs short because of Ethiopia’s dam.
A view from a farmer's house in the village.
Cracked soil in the village, where farmers have to dig wells to water their land.
A pump in the village produces well water.
A local farmer waits to water the field where she grows carrots.
People ride through the village on a cart. Most of Egypt’s population of nearly 100 million lives on the thin strip of fertile soil on the banks of the Nile.
Salah Abu Zeid walks on his land in Arab el Raml.
Fahim Ibrahim, a farmer in Arab el Raml, which is in the Nile Delta about 30 miles north of Cairo, said he fears “doom striking Egypt” if access to water runs short because of Ethiopia’s dam.
ROGER ANIS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

On Monday, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi said in reference to Ethiopia and Sudan, “Egypt will not go to war with its brothers.” He added that Egypt was investing in its military. “You have military power to protect you, to protect this peace I’m talking about,” he said—a message he said was directed both to Egyptians and to “our brothers in Sudan and in Ethiopia so that the issue becomes clear for them.”

Farmers in Egypt’s Arab el Raml, a village in the Nile Delta about 30 miles north of Cairo, remember a time when Nile waters flooded their farmland and irrigated their crops. A dam Egypt built in the 1960s has forced villagers to dig countless wells to drench their farmlands.

Salah Abu Zeid, a 51-year-old alfalfa farmer, shares two wells with other farmers and says he is afraid he will have to dig more. Wells are expensive and must be dug deeper and deeper as underground water levels fall.

“Wells are our only option to avoid this,” he said, pointing at plots of cracked land abandoned by owners who couldn’t afford to dig wells.

Farmers in the village are fearful for the future if the Ethiopian dam means even less water is available for them.

“The Nile is a matter of life and death for us, and so those after Egypt’s demise targeted it,” said Mr. Abu Zeid.

Salah Abu Zeid, a farmer in the Nile Delta, shares two wells with other farmers and says he is afraid he will have to dig more.
Salah Abu Zeid, a farmer in the Nile Delta, shares two wells with other farmers and says he is afraid he will have to dig more. PHOTO: ROGER ANIS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Write to Matina Stevis-Gridneff at matina.stevis@wsj.com

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