Every day we hear concerning news, in one way or another, coming out of Africa. Today, I want to focus a bit on the building of the Renaissance Dam by Ethiopia, a project which, when finished, will be the biggest dam in Africa.
For those of you who know your geography well, you will know that the dam will be built on the Blue Nile branch of the Nile River (and for those of you who don’t, worry not, I’ve included a map below). It is a project which will cost the Ethiopian government $4.2 billion, which it claims to be able to finance itself. One of the ways it had done this is by issuing bonds for Ethiopian citizens at home and abroad. They have also acquired a $1 billion loan from China. It is a project which the Ethiopian government believes will help its country develop, take it out of poverty.
However, the Nile river does not belong to just one country, and as expected Egypt has spoken strongly against this project. Up until now, Egypt and Sudan have benefited from the lion’s share of rights over the waters of the Nile river, due to a colonial-era agreement. In addition, Egypt argues that the dam will have devastating effects on the Egyptian people. Noting that 85% of the Nile’s water comes from Ethiopia, Egyptian officials have claimed that the building of the Renaissance dam could threaten Egypt with great water shortage. They have argues that Egypt could lose 20% of the Nile water in the 3 to 5 years needed to fill the dam reservoir, and some have said that it could decrease the output of the Aswan dam by 10%. Recently, the Egyptian President Morsi has stepped up rhetoric, by claiming that “all options are open” if Ethiopia goes forward with the dam. The situation has come to a standstill, with both sides refusing to give in.
But what does the building of the dam actually mean?
Well, first of all, it shows an important break with the past. I feel that one of Africa’s biggest problem is the fact that it remains very much entrenched in its colonial past, even after having broken free from the ex-colonial powers. The mentality remains as solid as the borders the Europeans imposed on the African peoples. While there has been some development, both economically and democratically, by a select few countries, the fact remains that the status quo remains very much the same. One of the breaks from this was the independence of South Sudan. Now, the Ethiopians are challenging the rules set down by the old colonial powers, and taking things into its own hands.
However, we must avoid becoming over-zealous on this issue. There is a lot more at stake than mere pride and ideology. The Nile river provides sustenance for millions of people in all the countries of the Nile basin. In Egypt, the majority of the population still lives off the Nile, be it in agriculture or fishing. The same is true for Sudan. Therefore, there is some basis for the fears voiced by the Egyptian government. The important thing to keep in mind is that this is not about the government, or at least it shouldn’t be. Any decision made must be done so for the benefit of those directly affected by the Nile, i.e. the people. And in this situation, the governments of the Nile basin must not only take into account their own people when dealing with the Nile, but all the people who live off this great river. The problem is that this is not what we’re seeing. What is happening is a war of words between two governments, which may or may not escalate into something else. The truth is that we don’t know who to believe. During the brief tenure of Essam Sharaf in 2011, the two countries seemed on good relations, and launched a tripartite inquiry into the effects of the dam. The results have yet to be made public, with Ethiopia claiming that it will cause no problem, and Egypt claiming that it will cause too many problems.
The thing that I believe both sides must be careful about is not to repeat what was done with the building of the Aswan Dam under the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Then we had a situation where whole Nubian communities were displaced and given very poor compensation. The Temple of Abu Simbel, which was dismantled block by block and reassembled in a nearby site, was treated with greater respect than the people. The Nubians lost their homes, their possessions, their homeland. The building of the Renaissance dam must take into account the communities it will affect. It must also take into account the environment. We humans have a tendency to simply build, to build and destroy, and then ask questions later. We act as parasites, even though we have the capacity to behave responsibly. The environment must be protected, and any chances made up for.
Lastly, the other countries of the Nile basin must get involved in this issue. South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania and the DRC all have as much of a say as Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Of course, these three depend on the Nile a lot more than some of the rest, and this must always be taken into account. In the case of Egypt and Sudan, whose landscape is mainly desert, the Nile is directly linked to their security. There must, therefore, be cooperation over this issue. Many may feel that a war can’t break out over water, that it just doesn’t make sense. We in the First World take water for granted. However, wars have broken out over a lot less. And when water is directly linked to the survival of a country, of a people, then these people are willing to go to extremes to make sure they are indeed able to survive.