Constructing dams especially on rivers that run through other countries has been always conflicting, because it confronts downstream countries with water crisis and environmental population, and climate change. The Nile river, running a length of 6800 kms, is known as world’s longest river. This river, formed by the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, covers an area of Uganda, Sudan and Egypt countries.
More than 90% of the Egyptian population live on the peripheries of the Nile, a matter special to the Egyptian population and climate conditions. Living in the other parts of Egypt which are far from the Nile is impossible or at least for which adequate infrastructure has not been provided.
The sole main dam on the Nile is the Aswan or al-Ali Dam whose construction was started by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1960 in the south of Egypt and inaugurated in 1971. Building this dam, brought vast agricultural lands under water which were on the peripheries of the river. Many archeological sites went under water which were transferred to other locations by cooperation from international organizations. The dam’s lake which was named Nasser has an area of 5000 square kilometers and a length of 500 kilometers, a part of which stretching into the Sudanese soil.
The Al-Nahda dam, also known as the Renaissance or the Millennium, is being constructed on the Blue Nile in northeast Ethiopia, 20 to 40 kilometers from the Sudanese border. In 2020, the dam was named “the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” by the Ethiopian cabinet.
Building the Al-Nahda dam was kicked off after the decision of the US Bureau of Land Management in the years from 1956 to 1964 which located four sites for building dams on the Nile. Egypt claims that, in this decision, the provisions ratified by the countries in the years 1902, 1906 and 1929 among the countries on the delta of the Nile , including the UK as the mandated governor of some of the countries located on the Nile, have not been observed.
The Al-Nahda dam of Ethiopia is built for generating electricity, being Africa’s biggest and world’s seven biggest dam, which is supposed to generate 7 Gigawatts of electricity. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam takes a period of 5 to 15 years to start storing water. This issue is the main challenging objection of the Egyptians to building the dam. Although the Ethiopians, for alleviating the sensitivities of the Egyptian side, will begin storing water at the rainy season of spring each year, but anyway, the reduced incoming Nile water is a great threat to this country.
Another political aspect to the construction of this dam is the rumors about the presence of Israeli companies in building it which are spread on the Egyptian media. The Egyptian public opinion is sensitive to Israeli participation in building this dam. Such rumors induce into the Egyptian people, whether the US proposal for building it or Israeli participation, that this is an American- Israeli decision made against Egypt’s power and civilization.
Sudan too is situated on the downstream of this dam. But Sudan preserves the advantage that if there is a change in the Debi of the Nile, it would only affect the north and east parts (the course of the Blue Nile and the main Nile) of the country. Therefore, the dam would not affect south and west of Sudan.
But Sudan is faced with another problem. With formation of South Sudan which partitioned from Sudan in 2011, the White Nile would run through this new country and then entere into Sudan. Considering rich oil reserves in South Sudan and the western countries’ support for this country, it cannot be discounted that after passing the independence period and earning hefty oil dollars, South Sudan too would embark on building a dam on the White Nile in the not so far future.
Over the years of Hosni Mubarak era, Egypt has become weak, losing most of its soft and hard tools over the last four years. The January 2011 revolution could have paved the way for its return to the forefront of the Arab and African League, but it failed. However, during the Mubarak era there were threats targeting the construction of the dam. While there were always proposals from the Egyptian media or figures that if the Egyptian interests were not preserved in the construction of the dam, Egypt would utilize military option, too.
Abdel Nasser Salameh, former editor-in-chief of Egypt's Al-Ahram newspaper during the revolution, has said that he has heard from Mubarak he had taken definite decision that in case of commencing construction of the dam, he would order the dam bombed . there were doubts as to implementation of this decision by Mubarak, because despite all Ethiopian statements on building the dam, there was taken no practical action to dissuade Ethiopia from building it.
Ethiopia kicked off construction operations at the peak of the Egyptian revolution and at the same time with Mubarak ouster. General Sisi , the current Egyptian president, believes that the 2011 revolution encouraged Ethiopia to start construction on the Nile, taking advantage of Egypt being taken off guard by the revolution. But Sisi, who does not approve the revolution, sees the construction of the dam as misfortunes of the revolution. However, the reality is that the deep Egyptian government which had at its disposal all the security apparatus and military tools could have taken more decisive action against the construction of the dam, by regard to the fact that General Sisi was Morsi’s Minister of Defense.
Almost two years after announcing the building and during Muhammad Morsi’s presidency, he formed a meeting with all Egyptian elites and the military on the issue. At this meeting, things were said without the attendees being aware of them being broadcast live on one of Egyptian channels. The talks exchanged at the meeting, including the proposal of bombing the dam and the humor of the attendees were for long a laughing stock indicating Morsi’s incompetence for resolving the issue.
In the opinion of the writer of this paper, present Egypt has no power to bomb the dam and endure the consequences of it , especially in the current situation where Sisi’s administration is even bereft of the minimum capabilities Egypt had before the revolution. But by the fact that the Nile means everything to the Egyptians, and without it there would be no Egypt, they will stop at nothing to threat the dam.
Whenever the tension between Egypt and Ethiopia rises, the military option is broached as a rightful option on the Egyptian media, a thing that has occurred many times during the Mubarak era which is an indicator for Egypt’s anger about the dam. But can Egypt, which itself has built a great dam on the Nile, target another country’s dam, while it is being constructed, without being worried about the Aswan dam being targeted and the consequences of such an attack? From this point of view, Egypt knows that it is sitting in a glass house and cannot cast stones at others.
Even when a time Egypt restores its power and decides to destroy the dam militarily, its territorial impacts would be of such dimensions that the three countries of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan would dearly suffer from. Also, Ethiopia would fully stand up to such an attack and the war would infiltrate into neighboring countries.
The maximum demand that Sisi will make in 2021 will be that Ethiopia should consider Egypt’s share of the water. No doubt after the completion of the dam and storing water, Egypt’s bargaining chip will more than ever erode and Ethiopia will have the upper hand.
It is obvious that now Egypt has put aside opposition to the construction of the dam and focused its pressure more on the method of storing water and its share of the water. For this, they have come up with offers for negotiations between the four countries, all of which being to no avail.
It is understood from the negotiations that the countries have come to the conclusion that their talks will reach nowhere and are looking for other countries to mediate as impartial foreign sides. The entry of Russia and the US into the negotiations, referral of the issue to the UN security council, entry of regional unions like the European Union (more due to the participation of the Italian building company of the dam), the Arab League and the African Union into the issue (proposed by Sudan) have not been accepted by Ethiopia.
What can be predicted is that building the dam and storing water without paying attention to the objections of the other countries will continue and this issue will be added as one more element of disintegration among the Nile countries to the issues of the African continent. Egypt’s more weakness among the African continent and the Arab states is another logical consequence.
Mojtaba Amani, Senior expert at Egyptian Studies
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)