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Ethiopian dams on Nile stir river rivalry

by Staff Writers
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (UPI) Mar 16, 2011
Ethiopia is pressing ahead with plans to build large dams on the Nile as upstream African states put pressure on a reluctant Egypt to share the waters of the world's longest river more equitably.

The Ethiopian Electric Power Corp. has awarded the Italian construction firm Salini Costruttori a contract to build three giant dams intended to generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity.

Addis Ababa, which has built other dams that have infuriated Cairo, stepped up its plans after Burundi joined a May 2010 treaty signed by upstream states Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda to pressure Egypt, along with Sudan, to accede to their demands for a bigger share of the Nile's water.

Burundi's action Feb. 28 means the Parliaments of the six states can now ratify the pact, the Nile Comprehensive Framework Agreement.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the only upstream state that hasn't signed the 2010 agreement, although it is expected to.

Ethiopia and its allies can be expected to intensify their campaign following the Feb. 11 downfall of Egypt's longtime president, Hosni Mubarak amid a wave of reformist rage sweeping the Arab world.

Mubarak was virulently opposed to giving up any of Egypt's long-held riparian rights, with Sudan, to 74 percent of the Nile's flow. That was enshrined in a 1929 agreement with the British who then ruled the region. It gave Cairo veto power over any upstream project that could interrupt the Nile's flow.

The upstream states brand that pact a relic of the colonial era that no legal weight because they weren't party to it. The treaty affords them no rights to the Nile waters.

Mubarak and his regime insisted that the Nile is Egypt's lifeline and that the country cannot afford to relinquish its rights.

Some 95 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million lives within 12 miles of the river basin. The Aswan High Dam, built by the Soviets and inaugurated in 1970, provides most of Egypt's power supply.

For Egypt, the Nile -- "the Eternal River" -- is viewed as a national security issue and one whose importance is growing.

As it is, Egypt, with miniscule rainfall, can barely make ends meet with the lion's share of the Nile waters as its population swells. It will need even more water in the future as the climate gets drier because of global climate change.

However, 85 percent of the Nile's waters originate in the Ethiopian Highlands, the source of the Blue Nile that meets the White Nile in Khartoum, capital of Sudan.

The upstream states say they too need to accommodate swelling populations and need water to irrigate more farmland and to power hydroelectric projects.

The grandiose dam projects developed by the regime of Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi, who was one of Mubarak's most militant critics, have incensed Cairo.

Apart from the three dams Salini Costruttori is to build, Zenawi inaugurated the 460MW Tana Beles dam on the Blue Nile in May 2010 and the 420MW Gilgel Gibe 2 dam on the Omo River.

Cairo is deeply concerned about the plans for more dams, such as the 300MW Tekeze 1 and 2 projects, because it fears the cumulative effect will mean much lower water levels downstream.

After Tana Beles began operating in 2010, Mubarak talked with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi seeking to persuade him to curb funding for the Ethiopian hydropower projects.

Mubarak's downfall will encourage Zenawi and others, most notably Uganda, to defy Cairo's protests.

The military-run government that has taken over from Mubarak has given no indication what it plans to do about the Nile issue.

But in December, Cairo indicated it would agree to certain projects on the Nile, including a joint venture with Uganda to construct a 1,000 MW dam.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has said he plans to have a generating capacity of 17,000 MW by 2025.

Whether Cairo's willingness to deal with Uganda, where the White Nile rises, points to a more accommodating policy with the other upstream states is still not clear.

It may be part of a plan to divide the upstream states, and in particular target Ethiopia, the driving force behind the campaign to end Egypt's monopoly over the Nile's waters.

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