Construction of Tanzania dam by Egyptian builders raises eyebrows

Sunday February 06 2022
The Julius Nyerere dam on the Rufiji River in Tanzania.

Nyerere dam project. Once completed, the $3 billion the Julius Nyerere dam on the Rufiji River could be Africa’s fourth biggest by power production, producing up to 5920GWH of power annually. FILE PHOTO | COURTESY


Later this year, Egyptian engineering firm Arab Contractors is expected to complete the construction of the Julius Nyerere dam on the Rufiji River. Once completed, the $3 billion dam could be Africa’s fourth biggest by power production, producing up to 5920GWH of power annually, enabling Tanzania to close the gap between those with electricity and those who have no access.

The Egyptian firm has used the dam, to be run by the Tanzania Electricity Supply Company (Tanesco), to market its prowess, depicting it as a symbol of Egyptian engineering capabilities. The facility, according to the company’s profile of it, is erected at 440 feet with a reservoir of about 100km long, enough to hold 34 billion cubic metres

The firm says there will be two external outlets to drain excess water of the reservoir, should it fill beyond capacity. This, it argues, will prevent any flooding from the dam, ensuring safety throughout operations.

But the dam is not just an engineering depiction. The Egyptian government has been pressuring the contractors to complete the dam as scheduled, and within the standards approved by Cairo. President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s office last year indicated the dam will be erected “within the framework of distinguished relations between Egypt and Tanzania,” according to a dispatch from his spokesman Bassam Radi.

Beyond the dam in Tanzania, however, Egypt appears focused on much more. In a dispute with Ethiopia over the construction design and operational safety of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam, (GERD) Egyptians have ramped up cooperation deals with Nile Basin countries – Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Elusive deal


When the GERD, built through local fundraising, was set up, Cairo opposed it, arguing downstream countries Sudan and Egypt needed to agree on the safety operations as well as the amount of water it can take in during filling. That dispute has raged on with no deal in sight, in spite of previous efforts by the African Union to mediate.

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

General view of the construction works at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, near Guba in Ethiopia, on December 26, 2019. PHOTO | AFP

Egypt rejects the accusation that it is entirely opposed to the project for the sake of it. Cairo says it has “unwavering commitment to support its fellow Nile Basin states to pursue economic growth and development, including by harnessing the resources of the Nile River through waterworks and hydropower projects, while ensuring that such projects do not inflict significant harm on Egypt,” according to a bulletin shared with news outlets recently.

Cairo’s worry, the bulletin charged, is that Ethiopia doesn’t understand how vulnerable it is, relying on the Nile for most of its water use. Cairo’s argument is that it could face a shortage of 123 billion cubic metres of water in 20 years of filling, more if it takes shorter to fill, causing serious losses of livelihoods.

Egyptians though reject the idea that its foreign policy in the region is determined by the Nile waters alone. Khaled el Abyad, the Egyptian ambassador to Kenya told The EastAfrican Cairo is looking for closer ties with the region because they face similar problems.

“It is critical to note that Egypt’s eagerness to shore up its ties with fellow African countries in the region and beyond cannot be attributed to a single issue. This would be a gross oversimplification that overlooks the rich mutually beneficial cooperation that continues to blossom between Egypt and its fellow African countries in all areas,” el Abyad told The EastAfrican on email.

“The opportunities for this collaboration are boundless — including in commerce and trade, political and diplomatic cooperation, cultural and educational exchange plus security cooperation.”

Trade windfall

Egypt, he argued, is targeting the benefits of the African Continental Free Trade Area, and is “committed to ensuring that no one is left behind and that the legitimate development ambitions and aspirations of our beloved continent” are realised.

Experts though say the Nile is so important to Egypt that it must work hard to ensure the Basin is a friendly zone.

“River Nile is their lifeline and Egypt must find ways of working together with these countries so they do not take positions that will affect the flow of the water,” said Dr Mustafa Ali, chairman of the Horn Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in Nairobi.

Dr Ali told The EastAfrican that Egypt may not find ground sticking to Nile water sharing agreements reached during the colonial period, but could use economic leverage to make it less attractive for the riparian countries to make drastic changes in policies over the Nile.

“It is inevitable (that they have to renegotiate). They need to find ways of building interconnected economies of these countries and look after the security of the region. That will pave the way for renegotiation,” he said in an interview.

Shipping lanes

In President Sisi’s tenure, he has met or at least telephoned all leaders of the riparian countries, emphasising cooperation. Last year in May, he became the first Egyptian leader to visit Djibouti.

Both countries have cooperated to ensure security of the Baab al-Mandeb strait, one of the busiest shipping lanes. But Djibouti is also host to the regional bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) which comprises six Basin countries.

In Djibouti, Sisi stressed his country is opposed “to any attempt to impose a [different] reality on the ground through unilateral decisions that do not consider the interests and rights of the river’s two downstream countries.”

Befriending riparian countries has the advantage of them readily supporting Egypt should the matter escalate, Dr Hatem Sadiq, an academic, argued, but cautioned there was no likelihood of war yet, over the Nile. But Egypt has recently signed military cooperation agreements with South Sudan and Uganda, adding to existing arrangements with Kenya, Tanzania and Sudan.

“Undoubtedly, coordination with South Sudan and Uganda is closely related to the Gerd file. From the beginning, political leaders dealt with the dam file as a national security issue, and decided its position more than once, considering that prejudice to any water drop from Egypt’s historical share is a red line that should not be approached.”