Cruise boats normally travel smoothly up the Nile from Luxor to Aswan, as their pharaonic forebears did 4000 years ago. But last week, low water levels left them stranded like hippos on sand-banks. Now, Egypt, a civilization built on the fertile river-banks, fears that a new dam in Ethiopia will dramatically reduce its water and leave it at the mercy of geopolitical foes.
The Aswan High Dam, completed in 1970, was a landmark in Egyptian nationalism. It was also a political cause celebre – when the US withdrew its offer to fund the dam, president Gamal Abdul Nasser turned to then USSR for help, and nationalized the Suez Canal to raise finance, triggering the 1956 Suez Crisis.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is still under construction, may not have such dramatic consequences, but it has triggered intense controversy throughout the Nile basin. When completed, it will be the biggest hydroelectric plant in Africa with 6,450 megawatts of generating capacity. Despite a booming economy and a population of 102 million, the second-largest in the continent, Ethiopia has just 4,290MW installed today. Egypt’s slightly smaller population has 38,000MW.
Under the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement, Egypt and Sudan agreed their shares of the Nile’s flow at 55.5 billion cubic metres and 18.5bn m3, respectively. This treaty was reached without reference to the other riparian states, a situation resented by Ethiopia, which supplies 80 per cent of the river’s flow.
The dam does not affect the smaller White Nile, which flows directly from South Sudan into Sudan and joins the Blue Nile at Khartoum.