Sudanese might be troubled with political unrest in a wave of antigovernment protests, but they spared enough time to discuss the fate of their greatest natural resource, which is considered their lifeline; the Nile.
Sudanese government officials, experts, consultants, and an outspoken opposition leader gathered in Khartoum a week before university students began a protest objecting to government austerity measures, on June 16, 2012. The gathering, organised by the Sudanese Engineering Association, witnessed an official turnaround of the Sudanese stand on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
The Association selected a theme for its symposium that intertwined the Dam’s construction with the future development of Sudan. The symposium revealed an unexpected positive attitude towards the construction of the dam and raised Sudan’s expected gains from the project.
The Renaissance Dam, which is under construction on the Abay (Blue Nile)River in Benishangul Gumuz Regional State, 45km east of Sudan, will be the largest hydroelectric power project in Ethiopia. The Dam will have a 63 billion-cubic metre reservoir when it is finalised in 2017. Along with its power generating capacity, this makes the project one of Africa’s largest.
Before officially launching the Dam’s construction in April 2011, Ethiopia, the source of 85pc of the Nile’s waters, was unable to utilise its naturally endowed resource for electricity generation. One of the reasons was the concern raised by Egypt and Sudan, countries that hugely depend on the Nile.
Egypt and Sudan are the only two countries that have refused to sign the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement. The Agreement proposes an equitable usage of the River Nile by all nine riparian states. When Ethiopia announced its plan to construct the Renaissance Dam and gave the contract to Salini Costruttori for 4.8 billion dollars, Egypt, a country that relies on the Nile River for 90pc of its water, openly protested.
Despite facing political turmoil in their country, Egyptian officials fiercely argued that they would not accept an Ethiopian solution that jeopardised either Sudan or Egypt. However, Sudan preferred to hold her discontent to herself.
Some Sudanese newspapers wrote stories about the country’s reservations on the Ethiopian Dam project. There was hesitation on the part of Sudan to realise the benefits of the Dam, Dina Mufti, speaker of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), confirmed to Fortune.
Sudanese officials, however, went as far as to deny press reports and insisted that the construction of the Dam would not affect the development of the country, if it is conducted in cooperation and harmony with the three countries.
To the delight of the Sudanese, Ethiopia agreed to the formation of a technical team, drawn from representatives of the three countries and embracing international water experts, to evaluate the potential impact of the Dam. The first meeting of the panel of international experts was held in May 2012, and a follow-up meeting was conducted in Khartoum in the beginning of July.
Such developments seemed to ease the tension created after the launch of the GERD. The Sudan-based symposium was also conducted with this essence. The discussion mainly emphasised the benefits of the Dam for Sudan. Reduction of alluvium, provision of water at a fixed and stable rate, reduction of soil erosion, and supply of electricity at a cheaper rate were among the advantages raised during the symposium.
“Sudan can make maximum use of this Dam, which will reduce clay [build-up], whose removal costs millions of dollars,” Saifuddine Hamad Abdallah (Prof), minister of Irrigation & Water Resources of Sudan was quoted as saying in the country’s independent daily, Sudan Vision. “The Dam will provide water at fixed levels that will help irrigated agriculture, especially on the wake of shortages of rain across the regions of the country.”
Like Egypt, Sudanese officials previously feared that Ethiopia’s mega Dam project would affect the water levels in the River. Egyptians argued that they were entitled to receive 55 billion cubic metres of Nile water, while Sudan was entitled to 18.5 billion cubic metres based on the 1959 agreement between the two.
Mohamed Akod Osman (Prof), dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Khartoum, believes that the construction of the Dam will bring a “stable rate” of water to the Nile throughout the year. Like other participants at the symposium, Mohamed stressed that the Dam would minimise the sedimentation problem the country faced.
“The Dam will reduce alluvium for Sudan by 100 million cubic metres,” he mentioned in his paper presented at the symposium.
Experts, who have studied the Nile Basin, state that sedimentation is one of the main pressing problems in water resource management in the Nile Basin. The Ethiopian highlands are considered the main source of sediment, pouring a huge amount of eroded soil into the Nile. The sediment from Ethiopia has negative impacts on downstream countries of the Nile, according to a study, entitled Sediment in the Nile River System.
A 2008 UNESCO’s study, conducted by Abdalla Abdelsalam Ahmed (PhD), revealed that the sediment deposition seriously reduced reservoir storage capacities leading to hydropower generation problems. When the bed of the River fills with sediment, it raises its course and later causes flooding, the study stated.
Agreeing with the GERD’s contribution to reducing sediment, the minister raised another benefit of the Dam. Confident enough of the Ethiopian government’s plan to sell electricity to its neighbours and other East African countries, he even went on to calculate the power production cost. He claimed that Ethiopia would sell power for 50 dollar cents for a kilowatt-hour, which is far less than the production cost in Sudan.
The production cost is, indeed, much cheaper when compared to the world average. To generate a megawatt of power in Ethiopia, it only costs 1.5 million dollars, while the world average demands 2.5 million dollars per megawatt, according to research conducted by Access Capital.
Ethiopia plans to export electricity to Sudan even before the completion of the GERD. The state-owned utility monopoly, the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo), planned to start the sale of 100MW of electric power to Sudan in May 2012. However, it was delayed. The EEPCo started its trial work mid June, according to sources.
Mainly relying on the GERD’s 6,000MW generating capacity, EEPCo has a plan to eventually increase its export to Sudan to 1,200MW within eight years. Osman Al-Tom Hamad (PhD), advisor to the Ministry of Water Resources of Sudan, has seen such export plans as compensation for the Dam’s potential consequences on electricity production at his country’s dams during summertime. The low water flow during the dry season, coupled with the intake of the Dam seems to make him fearful of the outcome.
Overall, Ethiopian officials and experts welcomed the positive outlook towards the GERD from the Sudanese side. The fact that the Sudanese consulted and decided in this manner on their initiative was taken as a “big step,” as they have a history of taking sides with the Egyptians on Nile-related issues.
Making repetitive efforts to assure both Sudan and Egypt of the benefits of the Dam since its official launch, the Ethiopian official seemed happy that such a consensus was reached at the Symposium. If it proves to be the official government stance on the issue, the Sudanese consensus at the Symposium indicates the righteousness of the project, according to Bereket Simon, secretary of the Public Participation National Council for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
For Bereket, such agreement among the Sudanese, which even includes the opposition camp, is a “victory” for Ethiopia. To his pleasure, Sadiq al-Mahdi, an outspoken opposition leader and known opponent of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, said that an agreement between the riparian states is a must.
“Lack of agreement among the Nile Basin member states will lead to a grave political crisis,” al-Mahdi, the two-time Prime Minster of Sudan and leader of the opposition National Umma Party, said.
“The Nile Basin member states must reach an agreement in a way that makes all of the states feel [like they are being treated] fair [regarding the] distribution of quotas.”
Ruling out a military solution to the issue, al-Mahdi instead proposed a compromise, by accepting the opinions of the countries in the Basin on the controversial 1959 and other colonial agreements. He believes that the solution rests with the recognition of the needs of the Basin states.
The symposium illustrates that Sudan is considering the issue based on evidence rather than political propaganda, according to Yacob Arsano (PhD), associate professor of political science and international relations and expert on hydro politics.
There is hope on the Ethiopian side that the Egyptians will also follow suit in considering the project with an open mind and an understanding that its intended purpose of power generation and not irrigation does not have a negative effect on downstream countries.
“Sooner or later, the Egyptians will come to agreement as well,” Yacob conferred.
For Bereket, the change that might come depends on the willingness of the new administration in power in Egypt. Seemingly cautious about making speculations, he remains interested to see what will happen in the future.
To get an indication of the motives of the new administration in Egypt, one should not have to wait too long. The discussion of the ministers of Nile Basin countries, which opened in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, on July 5, is expected to give a glimpse into the future course of action on the cooperation of the riparian states.