Few if any people who used to cross the Nile on the bridge over the Owen Falls Dam before it was closed to traffic in October 2018, were likely familiar with a small controversy with Egypt over the project. In the 1950s, as engineers hired by the British colonial authorities designed the 160MW Owen Falls Power Station that straddles the river in Jinja, they arrived at an optimal configuration between the height of the dam and the target output.
To Egypt, however, which from time immemorial has had its eyes on the over 4,800km stream, that design was not good enough. They wanted a higher dam that could store more water for “them” in Lake Victoria, the reservoir. Never mind that the UK as the colonial power called the shots, the dispute de-escalated when the Egyptians offered to fund the extra few metres. Today, Egypt has a permanent presence in Jinja, where Cairo’s representative takes a look at the readings on the flow metre every day.
That picture of brotherly harmony and shared prosperity is however, a far cry from the current sabre-rattling between Khartoum, and Cairo on one hand and Addis on the other. Talks to harmonise position between the trio in Kinshasa last week, failed to resolve the bitter conflict between the three riparian states over the operation of the 6,000MW power station on the Blue Nile.
Entitled to some 55 billion cubic metres of water annually from the Blue Nile, Egypt was opposed to the idea of the Grand Renaissance Dam (Gerd) even before the first bucket of mortar was poured. Citing threats to water security, Egypt and Sudan, which is assigned 18.5 billion cubic metres of water per year, are now at odds with Addis over the timeline for filling the dam and its operation during years of draught.
In reality, even before the Gerd was conceived, Egypt and Sudan had never got their official allocations of water under the 1929 and 1959 agreements. This is because of the fickle nature of the stream in pretty much the way it is described in the Pharaoh’s dream that Joseph interpreted as described in the scriptures.
Ethiopia argues that on the contrary, the water stored behind the Gerd will assure both her downstream neighbours of a more predictable and cleaner flow. The current dispute only makes sense when you look at the Gerd as a door. For the first time in history Egypt and Sudan face the prospect of someone locking and opening the door to their Nile as he chooses.
Those fears are unfounded, because dams can only safely carry so much water behind them. Ethiopia would risk seeing the billions invested in the Gerd washed away if it tried to store more water than the dam can hold. Generating 6,000MW of power also requires a certain amount of water to run through the dam. Sudan constructed the 1,250MW Merowe dam which has instead helped reduce silting in Egypt’s Lake Nasser.
As they waste time in unproductive talks, over the timeline for filling the Gerd, the opportunity from the current high rains regime that have caused considerable flooding downstream is getting wasted. Ultimately, downstream interests in the Nile will be secured only if the upstream hosts have an equitable stake in the river.