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Egypt's scholars and media are beating the drum of doom and disaster about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Time to shift gears for Egyptian pundits

By Rahel Alemu
Tigrai Onlne - December 27, 2013

Once again Egypt's scholars and media are beating of the drum of doom and disaster about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam project. This kind of media hype has been observed now and then for the past two years since Ethiopia started this mega project expected to start generating 700MW by 2014 and 6000MW upon completion.

Once again Egypt's scholars and media are beating of the drum of doom and disaster

Egypt currently relies for more than 90% of her consumption and agricultural needs on Nile River, as she hasn't start utilizing the ground water resources in her western provinces and desalination technology to make use of the Mediterranean Sea. Therefore, it is understandable if the dam project caused concern in Egypt in April 2011, when it was launched, or in May 2013, when the project reached the water diversion stage. Even though, each time Ethiopia provided wide range of cooperation and information that is sufficient enough to assurances any rational person and analyst in Egypt and elsewhere.

Oddly, the recent heated talk, among Egyptian scholars and media, was not a result of any news from the project rather due to the trilateral meetings among the energy ministers of the three countries to discuss the implementation of the recommendations of the International Panel of Experts report on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Last month, the meeting between the Water Ministers of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan in Khartoum failed after Egpt's officials made unreasonable demands. In the meeting, Egypt called for the establishment of another international experts committee for the matter, while Ethiopia and Sudan argued a team made up of experts from the three nations would be enough.

At the time, Ethiopia's Water and Energy Minister Alemayehu Tegenu explained that there is no reason for establishing such a committee just few months after an the International Panel of Experts completed a study and submitted a report. He said: “We didn’t agree on the composition of the established committee. We don’t have any difference with the Sudanese, the difference we have is with the Egyptians.”

Still, unlike previous times, the Egyptian government was cautious not to make statement that could create a political tension. In fact, this month, when the three ministers met in Khartoum for a follow-up discussion, Egypt revised her position and accepted Ethiopia's position.

The outcome of the meeting was summed up by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as follows: "the Ministers agreed to establish a Committee of Experts to follow up the recommendations. At their earlier meeting on November 4, the composition of the joint committee was a point of contention. Ethiopia and Sudan proposed that the composition of the joint committee should be made up of national experts; Egypt wanted to include international experts. At this week's meeting overcoming their difference, they agreed on the proposal of forming committee with only national experts. The Committee of Experts will be made up of four national members to be designated by each Minister. This Tripartite National Experts Committee is now mandated to prepare the Terms of Reference to be presented and approved by the three Ministers of Water Affairs. The Committee is expected to be established within less than a month."

Egypt's decision to compromise and accept Ethiopia's reasonable position should be commended. It is indeed a promising sign that indicates Egyptian officials learned from last two years - that escalating tension does not help them for domestic political consumption nor will it intimidate Ethiopia.

The main problem, however, appears to be the conspiracy theory festered mentality of some Egyptian pundits and their inability to abandon from the outdated hydro hegemonic attitude. These people who should have led politicians into rational and science-based approach are often found misleading the Egyptian public.

Despite all the good faith cooperation provided b Ethiopia and the rational decision taken by Sudan, these outdated forces seem to never run out of conspiracy theories and recycle invalidated claims.

For example; just before the latest meeting, the Arabic newspaper Massai run a column that claimed: (translated from Arabic)

"The tripartite negotiations of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia started amid expectations of failure after Sudan commented that the dam will bring many benefits to downstream countries. There is with growing fears of Egyptian experts on the existence of a conspiracy against Egypt, asserting that the statements of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in support of the Renaissance Dam stemmed from a political dispute after the collapse of the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Dr. Zia, a national expert on water, said the change the situation of Sudanese in the path of negotiation will not hurt Egypt in something, there is a lot of cards pressure owned by Egypt to get their historical rights in the waters of the Nile. Similarly, Noordin stressed on the need for the Egyptian negotiators to reject the Renaissance dam as it is a genocide of the Egyptian people."

Even after the positive outcome of the meeting, the Arabic newspaper Ahram reflected an equally negative outlook and conspiracy theories. A piece by D.Hamdy Abdel Rahmam claimed: (translated from Arabic)

"It has become quite clear that the transformation of Sudan's position and supportive strategic partner for Egypt to broker the biased attitude of the side of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in the file.

The second meeting of the Ministers of Water and Irrigation in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, which was held in Khartoum on December 9, 2013,to assess the effects of the Renaissance dam showed the extent of the fluidity of Sudan's position and her change of position from a strong partner to the position of mediator who is trying to reconcile the two views of Egyptian and Ethiopian.

Egyptian negotiator has suggested two things: first freeze in the Renaissance Dam project for six months until the completion of studies on the effects of the dam and the agreement on the establishment of a special mechanism to do so. The second proposal, it refers to the need to stop Ethiopia when building the first phase of the dam to store (5.14) billion cubic meters and produce 1200 megawatts, which is enough Ethiopian needs of electric power.

There is no doubt that the bias Sudanese position and distance from the concept of the historic partnership that combines Egypt, Sudan and elevating the political calculations and ideological narrow the strategic ties that combine the two Egyptian and Sudanese have paid Bashir's government not to take a decisive stand on bridging the renaissance of Ethiopia in tripartite negotiations and to resort to the option of postponing problem."

Unlike what these papers tried to paint, there was neither mystery nor conspiracy regarding on Ethiopia's and Sudan's position.

Sudan's President Bashir has publicly affirmed that: "Backing the dam project is not a political stance, but rather a belief in its benefits for all Nile Basin states."

Sudan's Ambassador to Ethiopia Abdul Rahman Sir Al-Khatim frther elaborated the matter: "Sudan has not biased to the side of Ethiopia, but for the benefit of al, as the construction of the dam is for all African countries. This bias is not emotionally but rational objective based on technical, economic and strategic understanding, not a compliment to any party."

He added: "Electricity project between the two countries is one of the most important achievements and decisions taken at the level of Africa, where the Ethiopian Minister of Hydropower said that the two countries were seeking for these relations for more than 20 years, and was implemented now, which is a sign of the seriousness of the two parties and a political commitment before technical and financial commitment. This matter has two dimensions, the first is bilateral between the two countries and African one, where it serves the plan of Africa within the framework of electrical interconnection to the continent within the NEPAD program, and now we are implementing a strategy of Africa in the context of electricity linkage that may extend to the countries of North Africa and may include Egypt and other countries in the future. This inauguration confirms that the two countries seemed to work to address the real problems of the two peoples and work to resolve them, and I congratulate the two peoples on this historic achievement."

Indeed, both science and commonsense justify the position of the two governments.

The benefits of the dam for the downstream countries were reaffirmed by the experts' panel report, which showed that "the Dam offers high benefit for all the three countries and would not cause significant harm on both the lower riparian countries."

These benefits were further elaborated b a prominent Sudanese scholar Dr. Salman Mohamed Ahmed Salman in five points.

First: The Renaissance Dam will hold back a big portion of the great quantities of the silt, more than 50 million tons, carried by the Blue Nile to the Sudan each year. Those quantities of silt over the years, made the Er Rosaires and Sennar dams lose more than 50% of their water storage and electric-power generation capacities. Many of us must remember the continued power failures a few years ago due to the silt accumulation of the turbines at Er Rosaires Dam as announced by the government in official statements.

Second: The Renaissance Dam will prolong the life-span of Er Rosaires Dam by holding back the trees, corpses and other materials swept by the Blue Nile during its powerful drive in July and August of each year.

Third: The Renaissance Dam will check the destructive flood that hit the Sudanese towns on the Blue Nile each few years. Instead, it will regulate the flow of the Nile in the Sudan throughout the year in lieu of the present seasonal flood during July, August and September. A suggestion that the Renaissance Dam will do away with irrigation by inundation is unfounded. While the Sudan has failed to use its share of the Nile water (an issue which we will discuss later on, there is no point in lamenting the loss of irrigation inundation. It’s just like placing the optional before the obligatory duty.

Fourth: The flow of the Blue Nile throughout the year will help feed the ground water in the surrounding area all over the year instead of the three months of the flood, will regulate the hydroelectric power generation at Merowe Dam and will help multiply the irrigated crop rotations.

Fifth: Ethiopia has promised to sell the electricity generated by the Dam to the Sudan and Egypt at the cost value which is 25% of the cost of the electricity that is generated by Merowe and High dams. The Sudan has already begun making use of the electric power which Ethiopia generates from other rivers, especially from Tekeze Dam on Atbara River after concluding an agreement for the purchase of electricity with Ethiopia.

Unfortunately, instead of pondering on how to maximize these mutual benefits and on how to expand areas of cooperation some Egyptian media chose to dwell on unrealistic wishful thinking that the project would fail.

A recent entry on Al Ahram Arabic claimed that the cost of the project has risen from 4.5 billion dollar to 8 billion dollar and Ethiopia would be forced to stop the project as it cannot afford it. It also claimed that there was no much progress on the project's works.

While this is not the type of wish one expects from a sister country, it is flies on the face of facts. Let's get the facts straight.

Initially, the total cost of the dam project was estimated at 78 billion birr (3.35 bln Euros or 4.8 bln USD) on April 2, 2011, when it was launched. However, the government indicated, in late 2012, that the cost estimate has been lowered by 5.5 billion Birr “after several negotiations with the contractor.

The government plans to raise some 20% (around 14.5 bln birr) of the total project cost, from Ethiopians at home and abroad, mainly through the sale of treasury bonds issued for this purpose. According to data released in early 2013, the public pledged about 10 billion birr, while almost 5 billion birr has been paid.

The same goes with the Ethiopian diaspora. Though I couldn't find a comprehensive listing of the funds raised from the Ethiopian diaspora, media routinely reported grants and bond purchases made at various places across the globe in the past two years.

The government also intends to employ various fundraising methods, including lottery tickets, and financing schemes. It is to be recalled that the National Bank of Ethiopia issued a directive requiring all banks to spend 27% of their cash deposit on purchase of treasury bonds. Addis Ababa based think-thank, Access Capital, estimated last year than more than 800 mln birr per month is being collected this way.

It should be noted that, despite the 5.5 billion birr reduction of the project cost, the capacity of the project is not affected. To the contrary, the project design was upgraded to increase the dam’s power generating capacity by 750 MW. The original design indicated that the dam will have 15 turbines with the total installed capacity of the dam was expected to be 5250MW. However, the design was upgraded last year and he revised design indicates that there will 16 turbines with total installed capacity of 6000 MW.

All said, the fact of the matter is that, this is not an ordinary project that depends on sheer availability of surplus cash.

Old fashioned politicians in Cairo should be aware of the extent of Ethiopia's resolve.

As the former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said during the launch of the dam: "As we will be financing several other projects in our plan, the expense will be an additional and heavy burden on us. All our efforts to lighten this have been unsuccessful, leaving us with only two options. Either to abandon the project or do whatever we must to raise the required funds. I have no doubt which of these difficult choices the Ethiopian people will make. No matter how poor we are, in the Ethiopian traditions of resolve, the Ethiopian people will pay any sacrifice. I have no doubt they will, with one voice, say: “Build the Dam!”

That is the promise Ethiopians made two years ago and they intend to honor it.

It is time Egyptian pundits sojourn unhelpful speculations and wishful thinking and start playing their part for this project of regional significance.

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