Impact of $4bn Nile dam project, Africa's largest, comes under spotlight

Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have commissioned studies into the environmental and economic impact of a US$4 billion dam on the Nile that Addis Ababa aims to make the centrepiece of its bid to become Africa’s biggest power exporter.

The 6,000-megawatt Grand Renaissance Dam, situated close to Ethiopia’s border with Sudan and being built by Italy’s largest construction firm Salini Impregilo, is due for completion next year.

It has become a bone of contention between Ethiopia and Egypt, downstream from the dam and relying almost exclusively on the Nile for agricultural, industrial and domestic water use.

Addis Ababa has complained Cairo has pressured international donors and lenders to withhold funding for the project, while Egypt has sought assurances the dam will not significantly cut the flow of water to its rapidly growing population.

It draws 87 per cent of its water from the Nile, which runs north from Khartoum where the Blue Nile and White Nile rivers converge.

Ethiopia had said the project would not adversely affect Egypt’s share, but Cairo has maintained its “historic rights” to the Nile, which it says are guaranteed by treaties from 1929 and 1959.

These grant it 87 per cent of the river’s flow, as well as the power to veto upstream projects.

On Tuesday, however, the three water ministers said they were optimistic about the project.

“We are keen to have everyone satisfied with what we are doing … we are for regional integration and prosperity,” said Egypt’s water resources minister Mohamed Abdel Aati.

The Egyptian, Ethiopian and Sudanese water ministers also attended Tuesday’s signing ceremony.

Ethiopia began building the huge dam on the Blue Nile in 2012, and when completed in 2017 it will be Africa’s largest.

The dam is designed to feed a hydroelectric project that will produce 6,000 megawatts of power.

The Egyptian state news agency Mena said the two countries plus Sudan signed contracts on Tuesday tasking two French firms, BRL and Artelia, with conducting studies into the dam’s impact.

Gilles Rocquelain, BRL director general, said after the contract was signed in Khartoum that the studies will begin after two months and “will take 11 months to complete”..

The leaders of the three countries signed a co-operation deal in Khartoum last year to pave the way for a joint approach to regional water supplies.

In all, Ethiopia plans to spend some $12bn on harnessing its rivers for hydro power production in the next two decades.

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