09 March 2014
By Brooke Kantor, Harvard Political Review
The Aswan Dam
Water and energy are two central issues to people of the Middle East and North Africa. They have remained at the top of governments’ agendas, enduring regime changes, military interventions, and violent conflict. Unlike countries on the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt is blessed with a reliable water source from which it has thrived for thousands of years—the Nile River. In 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced to the world that the Suez Canal would be nationalized, and with it, a dam across the Nile River would be constructed. The Aswan Dam, or the High Dam, is just as much an emblem of Egyptian pride as is the river it crosses.
Many forget, however, that this river does not belong to Egypt alone. Ethiopia has begun construction on a massive project on the Nile called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam—a project aimed at providing Ethiopian citizens with more affordable energy as part of a poverty-combating initiative. Countries north of Ethiopia that are equally dependent on the Nile River have expressed serious concerns about the effects such a dam could have on their own water and energy supplies. Egypt has been particularly confrontational, as many Egyptians perceive the dam’s construction as a direct threat to the functioning of their beloved Aswan Dam.
What many people fail to realize is just how important this issue is to Egyptian politicians, the army, and regular citizens. The new Egyptian government will have to face this issue practically and tactfully if they hope to earn the confidence of the Egyptian people. It is in their best interest to recognize that Egypt could seriously benefit from the Renaissance Dam’s construction, and to work with Ethiopia to capitalize on those benefits, instead of continuing the anti-dam rhetoric that has permeated Egyptian media for the last several years.
The Dam: some background
The Ethiopian government has asserted that countries downstream of the dam would not be adversely affected by its construction. An analysis of the project conducted by the Consulate General of Ethiopia located in Los Angeles claims that Egypt and Sudan would in fact benefit from the Grand Renaissance Dam, even if Ethiopia drew “significant quantities of water” from it. An examination of the dam’s efficacy conducted by a Panel of Experts from Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt reached a similar conclusion. They claimed the dam will not cause “significant harm” to Sudan or Egypt, and that all three nations would gain from its existence.
Egypt is much more skeptical. One concern is the estimate that during the filling period, which could take anywhere from five to seven years, water flow into Egypt could be cut by 12-25%. Some analyses claim that if this filling occurs during drier years, then the Aswan Dam is at risk of intermittently losing its power to generate energy for extended periods of time. A Bloomberg reporter who analyzed the Panel of Experts’ report also shed light on a troubling statement within the document acknowledging that the Aswan Dam could face a six percent reduction in its energy generating capacity.
Realistically, it is impossible to undertake a project as large as the Grand Renaissance Dam without accepting some potential risks to the surrounding environment. Most experts, including the Panel of Experts that Egypt helped to formulate, have concluded that these dangers are minimal and that the dam could have real benefits for Egypt and Sudan. A representative from the Water Institute of the Nile articulated that if Egypt shared in legal and financial ownership rights of the Grand Renaissance Dam, they would have the power to ensure that water is released from the dam right before the peak agricultural season. This would actually reduce Egypt’s annual water loss by six percent. Additionally, the dam is projected to reduce siltation, a natural process in which soil erosion pollutes the water. By reducing approximately 160 million tons of silt that flows into the Nile each year, the dam could effectively enhance the Aswan Dam’s power-generating efficiency.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has announced his support for the Grand Renaissance Dam’s construction. Egypt, isolated in its campaign against the Ethiopian project, needs to learn that it is high time it does the same.
The Dam and Egypt
For Egyptians the dam is more than just a threat to their energy security—it is a threat to their national pride. This explains why Ethiopia announced publicly the initiative to construct the Grand Renaissance Dam in the year 2011, despite having been in the works for years: 2011 marked the beginning of the Arab Spring and the protests against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Ethiopia took advantage of Egypt’s preoccupation with internal affairs to avoid dealing with a media onslaught against the dam’s construction. It worked. Ethiopia’s project was underway by the time Mohamed Morsi was elected Egypt’s new president in 2012.
However, Morsi did not address the issue of the dam until almost a year into his presidency. In early June 2013 he finally conducted a meeting with Egyptian political figures to discuss potential actions that Egypt could take against the dam’s construction. The meeting was aired live on national television and featured primarily fiery rhetoric against Ethiopia. Suggestions that were put forth included a military attack on Ethiopia, as well as barring Ethiopian ships from crossing the Suez Canal. Morsi himself alluded to Egypt’s hostility toward Ethiopia in a speech he gave a few weeks following the meeting, where he claimed that “all options were open.” Many interpreted this blanketed statement to mean the potential for military action.
But Morsi’s publicity statements were purely for rhetorical purposes—nothing more. Some argue it was a failed strategy to combat the widespread sentiment that Morsi and his government were not working to stop the dam’s progress. This view is supported by the fact that less than thirty days after his speech, protests in Egypt began against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party. He had realized too late his shortcomings in dealing with this issue that is of such concern to the Egyptian people.
Following Morsi’s ouster in July, head of the Egyptian army General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi gave an interview with the Washington Post in which he disclosed that Morsi had not been following the military’s advice regarding Ethiopia. According to him, Morsi did not perceive the issue of the dam as urgent a threat as did the military. Egypt’s control over the Nile, he said, is an issue of “national strategic interest,” and any reduction should be interpreted as an “existential threat.” Morsi’s inability to deal with this issue not only marginalized Egyptian citizens, but also Egypt’s powerful army, further incentivizing them to depose him when the opportunity presented itself.
The Dam Today
Since seizing power, Egypt’s army leaders have prioritized tackling this issue. Unlike Morsi, they are currently engaging in diplomatic solutions to the conflict. Just last month, an Egyptian delegation traveled to Ethiopia to discuss the effects of the dam’s construction, as well as Egypt’s demand for a new Panel of Experts with international representatives to reassess the project. However, the delegation returned to Egypt empty-handed. They accuse Ethiopia of being unfair in their refusal to grant legitimacy to Egypt’s demands. Ethiopia maintains that Egypt’s worries about the dam are groundless and that there is no need for outside individuals to be on the Panel of Experts. Recent reports indicate that Egypt intends to internationalize the issue of the dam after failing to come to an agreement with Ethiopia. Whether doing so will eventually attain a diplomatic solution, or whether a stalemate will ensue is uncertain.
Al-Sisi has more riding on this issue than anybody else. The military government must prove to the people that they are capable of protecting Egypt’s vital interests, or they risk losing legitimacy. What Egyptian leaders are failing to realize is that fighting Ethiopia over the dam is not the best way to do this. Rather, the Egyptian army has the most to gain from recognizing the potential benefits the dam offers Egypt, and working with Ethiopia to capitalize on them. By striking a deal with Ethiopia, the army can turn the dam’s construction into an Egyptian success. They would be able to claim that they both secured Egypt’s rights and influence over the Nile River, as well as provided the nation with increased energy and a more efficient water supply. Doing so would allow them to enjoy a much greater claim to legitimacy in the eyes of the Egyptian people.