When Egyptian politicians discussed sabotaging the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in 2013, they naturally assumed it was a private meeting. But amid all the scheming, and with a big chuckle, Muhammad Morsi, then president, informed his colleagues that their discussion was being broadcast live on a state-owned television channel.
Embarrassment apart, it was already no secret that Egypt wanted to stop the largest hydroelectric project in Africa. When Ethiopia completes construction of the dam in 2017, it will stand 170 metres tall (550 feet) and 1.8km (1.1 miles) wide. Its reservoir will be able to hold more than the volume of the entire Blue Nile, the tributary on which it sits (see map). And it will produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, more than double Ethiopia’s current measly output, which leaves three out of four people in the dark.
This boon for Ethiopia is the bane of Egypt, which for millennia has seen the Nile as a lifeline snaking across its vast desert. The river still provides nearly all of Egypt’s water. Egypt claims two-thirds of that flow based on a treaty it signed with Sudan in 1959. But even that is no longer enough to satisfy the growing population and sustain thirsty crops. Annual water supply per person has fallen by well over half since 1970. The UN warns of a looming crisis. Officials in Egypt, while loath to fix leaky pipes, moan that the dam will leave them high and dry.
Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, called the fertile land of Egypt the Nile’s gift. Countless Egyptian leaders have rattled their sabres in defense of the water supply. This has soured relations with the eight other countries that share the Nile basin. Most of them have agreed to co-operate with each other, dismissing another old treaty which, Egypt claims, gives it a veto over upstream projects.
Only recently has the Egyptian government adopted a more conciliatory tone. In March of last year Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who ousted Morsi in a coup, joined Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia’s prime minister, and Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, to sign a declaration that tacitly blesses construction of the dam so long as there is no “significant harm” to downstream countries. The agreement was affirmed in December, when the three countries settled on two French firms to study the dam’s potential impact.
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