By Mabior Philip
Through a concrete barrier, water flush forcefully, producing a froth. Maelstroms crash against the other and against eddies and rocks to produce a fascinating mixture of buzz and sparkle.
This is the Ethiopia’s new dam on the Blue Nile, 40 kilometers away from the border with the Sudan.
The dam, with a power capacity of 6,000 megawatts and a volume of 74 million cubic meters, lies in a low land surrounded by hills extending from the Ethiopian highlands.
Launched in 2011 amidst an outcry from Egypt – which feared that the project would stifle its share of the Nile water – the $4.8 billion project is now roughly 50 percent complete, according to the site manager.
It is being implemented by Ethiopia’s national company METEC Metals and Engineering Cooperation jointly with the Italian firm, Salini Impregilo.
A colonial era agreement of 1929, reviewed in 1959, gives both Sudan and Egypt a near-monopoly of the exploitation of the waters.
In 2010, just ahead of the launch of the project, six riparian countries – Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Burundi – signed the new Nile Basin Cooperation Framework Agreement with the view of replacing the old deal.
So far, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania have gone ahead to ratify it.
But Egypt said the new deal did not resolve underlying “controversial issues” related to building of a future dam along the Nile. These concerns resurged with the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
“If it [Egypt] loses one drop [of water], our blood is the alternative,” former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi told a crowd in Cairo in June 2013, according to al-Jazeera.
“The great Nile is that which all our lives are connected to. The lives of the Egyptians are connected around it … as one great people,” he added.
But at the site here, some of the water, currently mixed with red mud to form a dark brown flow, is to be diverted to a reservoir and controlled by a saddle 5.6 km long and 15 million cubic meters in capacity.
On the northern bank, the hills are high enough to provide a natural blockage of water, so that the saddle becomes the minimal height required to store the water even at maximum capacity.
“This water will not be taken anywhere. Some of it will be stored and released,” says project manager Semegnew Bekele, standing at the edge of the concrete being built to make the saddle and gesturing to a green low land below.
“It is being constructed for the purpose of generating electricity with total installed capacity of 6,000 MW, which is an affordable, green and non- consumptive use of the water scheme,” he told the team of journalists who visited the site during a one-week Eastern Nile media training organized by the Swedish International Water Institute.
The reservoir, Mr Bekele explained, will cover 1,874 square kilometers at full capacity. It is 640 meters above the sea level and extends, from the root of its reservoir to the dam site, over a corridor of some 246km.
The area that will be flooded is still savanna grassland, but a section of it has been trimmed into shrub.
For Ethiopians, Mr Bekele said, the dam “is a reflection of their lasting commitment to the eradication of poverty and to the world of cooperation among the countries of the Nile Basin and the Horn of Africa.”
“It is our precious gift that propels all of us, cruising healthily and noticeably.”
So far, a 240km length of power transmission lines has been installed and more than 10,000 hands have been employed by the project.
Mr Bekele gave the details in a power point presentation on arrival of the Egyptian, South Sudanese, Ethiopian and Sudanese penmen at the site: the project would reduce the likelihood of drought in Egypt and Sudan, reduce emission of carbon dioxide, and reduces evaporation.
Experts at the training had corroborated some of these benefits.
“The GERD will reduce downstream variability of flows, reduce downstream sedimentation,” says Kevin Wheeler, an independent technical analyst from Oxford University, basing on findings of different researches.
Benefits for Sudan and Egypt
He said Sudan currently spends roughly $12 million per year in dredging at Rosaries and Senar dams and Gezira canal. Yet, despite these huge spending, the storage capacities for the Senar and Rosaires have significantly reduced by 60 and 34 percent respectively.
With the GERD, Mr Kevein said while still referring to different findings, “this sedimentation could reduce by 86 percent.”
The analysis indicates that there would be full reliability for Sudanese water users, greater efficiency in operating the reservoirs and maximized agricultural efficiency.
For Egypt, the analysis continued, additional storage of Nile water would allow for greater drought resilience, efficient flood planning for Aswan High Dam and minimal evaporation changes.
“GERD can provide flood safety net for Sudan and Egypt … provide flood control space for downstream reservoirs,” Mr Kevin said.
These gains from the GERd, he continued, would require a coordination agreement, real time sharing of data and joint seasonal planning.
Such a cooperation would be required in filling the dam, mainly by either an agreed amount of water to continue being released to the Nile at a given period or a target level to be filled.
“[The dam] offers prospects for regional economic development and integration,” says economic analyst Alan Nicol, a senior researcher on political economy at the International Water Management Institute based in Sri Lanka, basing on studies.
He also noted that “inadequate planning and consultation over infrastructure construction and operation leads to costly impacts,” adding that “agreements between countries establish basis for future cooperation.”
His analysis also indicates that “long-term adverse impacts create conditions for reduced cooperation at basin level across a range of sectors and projects” while “agreements and joint operation lead to significant economic wins.”
Sudan has indicated it has no objection to the dam and has been taking part in tripartite discussions about the project.
“Our policy is that the River Nile is for all riparian countries who can use the water without affecting others,” says Prof Seifeldin Abdalla, head of the Technical Organ of the Ministry of Water Resources of Sudan and also Chair of the Trilateral National Committee for the GERD.
If reports from the Egyptian media are anything to go by, then Egypt has been skeptical on the project because it felt isolated; that it was not given a prior notice about the dam.
However, Prof. Seifeldin says enough information was shared among the three countries and that Egypt even signed up to the design of two outlets, but later proposed another two to make a total of four.
“This suggestion”, he said, “was difficult to prove because of added cost and technicalities.”
He said further tripartite meetings are ongoing between the three countries.
“We share the data. Sudan has been conducting its own research and we are aware of information about the dam,” says fellow Sudanese Yasir Mohamed Abas, from the Hydraulic Research Center.
However, the Ethiopian chair of the National Tripartite Committee, Gedion Asfaw, said the view from Cairo has changed over time since the beginning of the dam.
The change, in any case, coincides with the leadership changes in Cairo, from the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, through the deposition of Mohamed Morsi, to a military Council, and now the current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
But even as the consultations continue, the project manager Bekele is convinced the dam is a “platform for regional cooperation” and will “pioneer an era of cooperation.”
“It will also stabilize power prices and supply in the region” because of its independence from fluctuating oil prices, he said.
27 year old Maria Malik (not her real name for she did not give consent to be quoted) carried in her grinning face this prospect of regional cooperation when I met her at a village two-hour drive to Guba.
Ms Malik, a mother of four – herself and family displaced by war in the Blue Nile region in Sudan – came from a neighboring camp to sell some food items: salt, sugar and others.
“Traders are bringing them from Sudan to us at near the border,” she said in a simple Arabic, shyly pointing to an assortment of items packed into a large basket – only a quarter filled because some had been bought.
She had spent the previous night here due to lack of transport back to the camp, and when we met, she wanted to return, although not all her goods had been bought.
“We want them to open up this area to move freely; I can be in Ethiopia or in Sudan and there is no problem,” she said.