Egypt wants to divert Atlantic bound Congo River into White Nile

Al Ahram

The dispute between Cairo and Addis Ababa over the Renaissance Dam sees a long abandoned project given a new lease of life. Reem Leila reports

When Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi met with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete on 23 February Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam was one of the topics discussed. During the meeting Kikwete told Fahmi that Tanzania would work to ensure that the Nile remained a source of cooperation between Nile Basin countries, not conflict.

“Nile Basin countries should consult and decide on a mutually agreeable arrangement prior to the construction of any dams,” said Kikwete.

Consultation with downstream countries should have taken place before establishing any project that might affect the flow of Nile, added Tanzania’s president. “No Nile Basin country should suffer from the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam.”

Spokesman of the Foreign Ministry Badr Abdel-Atti agreed with Kikwete saying that cooperation between Nile Basin countries should be based on dialogue and understanding of each others’ needs in order to accomplish common benefits for all Nile Basin countries.

Meanwhile, in the absence of such consultation, Egypt is exploring ways it might make up the shortfall in its water needs if the $4 billion Renaissance Dam is completed.

A recent study, conducted by Gamal Al-Qalyoubi, professor of petroleum and energy at the American University in Cairo (AUC), on connecting the Nile and Congo water systems, suggests one possible way of ensuring water security. The River Congo pours more than 1,000 billion cubic meters of water each year into the Atlantic. “Water could be diverted by digging a 600 kilometer canal from the White Nile in southern Sudan to northern Sudan and then to Lake Nasser,” said Al-Qalyoubi.

The canal, he said, could provide Egypt with an additional 95 billion cubic meters annually, almost double its current share of 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water. 

“Digging the canal would take two years and the entire project, including four pumping stations to transport water from the Congo basin to the Nile basin as well as infrastructure works needed to move the water, would cost $8 billion.”

It is hardly a new idea. The project, points out water expert Diaa Al-Qousy, was mooted as early as 1902 by Apata Basha, Sudanese Minister of Irrigation at that time. In 1980 Anwar Al-Sadat dispatched a delegation to the Congo in an attempt to revive the project only for the initiative to stall following the 1981 assassination of Sadat.

For such a huge project to succeed, says Al-Qousy, it must garner international support and guarantees that the hugely expensive infrastructure can be properly secured. “Both Egypt and Congo should start pushing the project as Egypt’s only way out from the current crisis with Ethiopia. They must also begin the process of attracting the necessary funding.”

Former Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Nasreddin Allam questions the viability of the canal. The swamps of Southern Sudan, he argues, present a major obstacle to digging. He also questions the political costs of the project. “International treaties prohibit the transfer of river waters outside their basins. Egypt cannot risk violating this international principle, not to mention the very high cost of such a project,” he warns.

The Congo and White Nile flow at different altitudes and linking them would require the construction of a huge dam as well as the digging of canals. “Even if the government did overcome all the technical and financial obstacles to the project Egypt would still be in danger of violating international rules,” says Allam.

“The Congo’s tributaries flow through Cameroon, Guinea and the Central African Republic, each of which could file a lawsuit in front of the International Court of Justice which they are certain to win. Egypt then will be the only loser.”

Al-Qousi is unconvinced by Allam’s arguments. He insists there is no legal impediment to linking the rivers. Water experts have reviewed more than 300 river agreements and none of them contain legal deterrents to the project, he says.

Cameroon, Guinea and the Central African Republic could easily be convinced of the mutual benefits that will accrue from the project, says Al-Qalyoubi. And money, he adds, could be forthcoming from oil-rich Arab countries. Congo will welcome the project which will alleviate the flooding of agricultural lands, and such approval will be instrumental in winning the support of the international community and donor nations. “The River Congo lies on the equator and is fed by massive rainfalls. The project has any number of benefits for Congo, including the generation of cheap electricity,” says Al-Qalyoubi.

According to a study conducted by the Mineral Resources Authority linking the Nile with the Congo River includes three different alternatives that would determine the path of the water. The length of the first proposed canal would be 424 kilometres with a water-level altitude differential of 1,500 metres, which would be impossible to implement.

The second alternative is to have the canal length 940 kilometres, with an altitude differential of 400 metres. Meanwhile, the third alternative would carry the water a distance of 600 kilometres with an altitude differential of 200 metres.

According to Al-Qousi, the last alternative has the best chances of being implemented, through the use of four consecutive water-pumping stations. “The project would be capable of generating 300 trillion watts of electricity per hour, enough to satisfy all of Africa’s electricity needs,” claims Al-Qousi. And according to the feasibility study undertaken by the Mineral Resources Authority the project will necessitate the construction of a road and rail network that could form the core of a trans-continental transport system, thus promoting trade between Egypt the rest of Africa.

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