Anxiety over water is growing in Egypt as Ethiopian leaders proceed with plans to build a colossal dam that officials in Egypt fear will block the flow of the Blue Nile. The construction of the massive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam began in 2011 when Egypt’s leaders were consumed with the Arab Spring uprising that ousted longtime President Hosni Mubarak.
The dam was to be completed by 2022 but is now four years behind schedule, the US $4.8bn dam would be the seventh-largest dam in the world and Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant. Which makes it a priority for Ethiopian leaders despite the worries of downriver countries that depend heavily on the Nile.
“It’s one of the most important flagship projects for Ethiopia,” said Seleshi Bekele, the country’s minister of water, irrigation and electricity. But the 510-ft.-tall, 5,840-ft.-long structure would give Ethiopia jurisdiction over the source of the Blue Nile which together with the White Nile, is one of the two major tributaries of the Nile.
The Blue Nile supplies about 80% of the water in the Nile during the rainy season. The Blue Nile joins the White Nile at Khartoum and, like the Nile, flows through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea at Alexandria.
Egyptian officials insist that international agreements signed in 1929 and 1959 give Egypt rights to 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water per year. Sudan, which lies between the two countries, receives 18.5 billion cubic meters annually under the agreements. Those agreements also gave Egypt a veto on any projects proposed on the river. Egyptians are angry that Ethiopia moved forward in 2011 without consulting them.
The timetable for filling the reservoir is the most critical problem for Egypt. The faster Ethiopia fills the dam, the less water will flow to Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia theoretically could fill the reservoir to full capacity in three years. But Egypt is insisting on a more extended timetable of up to a decade to ease the transition.
Egypt is already near the U.N. threshold of water poverty, providing just 660 cubic meters of water per capita annually. The United Nations calls it one of the most water-stressed nations on the planet. Despite the delays, Cairo has enacted strict water-saving measures in anticipation of drier times to come.
El-Sissi late last month introduced several greenhouse projects with the ambitious aim of increasing Egypt’s agricultural output fourfold while reducing water consumption by about 60 percent. In October, the Egyptian Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Communities signed a contract with the U.S.-based Fluence Corp. to build three small seawater desalination plants for US $7.6m.