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posted by Frank van Steenbergen
November 28, 2012

Early 2011, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia surprised everybody by announcing the construction of the Millennium Dam (subsequently renamed the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile) not far from the border with Sudan – at a location identified in the past as ‘the Border Dam’.

The timing of the announcement (as so many other moves by Meles Zenawi) was masterly. With Egypt in turmoil after the ousting of the Mubarak leadership, its reaction could only be subdued. The Renaissance Dam did not come out of the blue, however. The grand project appeared to have been prepared and planned for several years and even some initial construction started two years earlier. All this was done in utmost secrecy. When the project was publicly announced, even high ranking staff members of the Ministry of Water and Energy in Ethiopia were taken by surprise – they were as unaware as anybody else.

The next brilliant move by the Ethiopian leadership was to garner considerable public support and turn the construction of the 5250 MW Dam into a nation-building project. One way was to sell bonds for funding the dam among the general public – something that got a large positive reception. It reversed decades of feeling deprived of the use of the Nile water in Ethiopia because of power play by the Egyptians.

These sentiments should be not taken lightly: one of the most popular ‘urban myths’ in Ethiopia is that the past (Egyptian) Coptic leadership of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church talked the very religious farmers in the Ethiopian Highlands into more than 100 days of fasting a year during which no work could be done on the land. As this peculiar conspiracy theory goes, this reduces the use of the water in Ethiopia and saves it for downstream use in Egypt. 

The Grand Renaissance Dam has effected a new and probably more sustainable power equation. Interestingly the preparation of the Grand Renaissance was fostered completely outside the so-called ‘Nile Basin Initiative’ or NBI- the confidence building co-operation between the nine Nile Countries, initiated by the World Bank and supported by a broad group of international donors.  Since it started in 1999, the NBI had undertaken a large number of joint country activities – in capacity building, modelling, discussing flood management, energy sharing and watershed improvement. It also had a separate Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office (ENTRO) that, among others, studied large regional water investments. Like anybody else NBI and ENTRO were taken by surprise by the Grand Renaissance Dam.

Some called this unilateral Ethiopian action the failure of the NBI – but it can be equally reasoned that the success of NBI was that it created the environment in which this unilateral move by Ethiopia did not result in violent conflict, which might have been the case in pre-NBI times. Now the many relations that over more than 10 NBI years had developed between the riparian states ensured that the bold move by Meles Zenawi was accommodated in a peaceful and constructive manner.

Of course there were irritations along the NBI process. In 2010 Ethiopia had been losing patience with it. Together with four other Nile countries it had signed the so-called Comprehensive Framework Agreement that would take the Nile Basin Initiative to a next level: that of a Joint Nile Commission. Instead, Sudan and Egypt – probably content with the wishy-washy status quo - refused to sign this agreement, forever arguing over some small print in the Agreement. On the other hand, Egypt was annoyed with Ethiopia when it received Norwegian funding to undertake feasibility studies on two other mega-dam sites on the Blue Nile – which was done outside the NBI purview. Then there was also general unease over the mixed role of the World Bank in the Nile process. The World Bank postponed the finalization of Environmental and Social Impact Studies on the joint mega-projects in the Baro-Akoba sub-basin on the pretext that more data needed to be collected. Some, however, suggested that the World Bank was just dragging its feet as it feared that the mega investment would be picked up by China instead of it ending up in the loan portfolio of the Bank.

In the end, relations among the Blue Nile countries did not deteriorate after the Grand Renaissance Dam, but improved.  There has been a busy exchange of delegations- at highest political level between Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia. All of a sudden the Nile cooperation was not a matter of endless confidence building but one of serious negotiation among top political leadership. An understanding was reached that would have been difficult to achieve in the safe and soft environment of transboundary ‘confidence building’.   The new equation led to, for instance, Sudan donating earthmoving equipment to Ethiopian water projects: symbolic but significant. Even the different projects of the Nile Basin Initiative – practically suspended since 2011 – are likely to come back on track again. A protocol to that effect is in the process of being signed between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

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