Great Britain’s textile industries were dependent on cotton production in Egypt during colonization. Since cotton production was possible only through irrigation from the Nile, Great Britain was interested in the flow of the Nile from the onset of its Egyptian occupation.
To conserve water during the rainy seasons for dry seasons, British hydrologists developed the Full Nile control or the Century Storage Plan. Evolved from several sources, the plan envisaged the regulation of the Nile waters along different seasons and years (drought and flood) through dams and reservoirs built in Ethiopia and other upstream countries. The plan, developed as a means for safeguarding Great Britain’s imperial interest in Egypt, did not consider the interest of upstream countries and, in fact, relied on colonizing Ethiopia, which never came to pass. Reprehensible as colonialism was, the plan was based on scientifically sound thinking. It even ruled out any possibility of storing the Nile waters in the downstream countries (mainly because of immense water losses to evaporation).
Immediate Post Colonization: Aswan High Dam and the 1959 Nile Waters Treaty
Nasser, Egypt’s president after a military Junta overthrew Egyptian King Farouk, decided to build a high dam at Aswan disregarding all scientific studies. Building the Aswan High Dam (AHD), initially described as “not worthy of serious consideration” and “full of mad ideas for the Nile,” was the antithesis of the Century Storage Scheme and the basin-wide approach that had dominated Nile discourse since British dominion over Egypt.
The dam offers enormous benefits to Egypt while it has, and continues to, impose great socio-economic and environmental costs on the Nile Basin, and the communities that live in and depend on it. Egypt has cast itself in the role of “owner” over the Nile waters and can often be seen attempting to prevent other countries like Ethiopia from utilizing this shared natural resource. The costs imposed on Nile Basin inhabitants by Egypt, according to Professor Robert Collin, include the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Sudanese Nubians; destruction of the historical cities and history of the original inhabitants of Egypt; increase in soil salinity and waterlogging within the basin itself. The AHD has also caused an increase in seismic activity from the weight of the reservoir on fault lines. The environmental degradation and impact has spread to the Mediterranean Sea with a large drop in fish populations. The implication of these costs over time is staggering by itself. But, what is truly remarkable is the 10-15 BCM annual water evaporation at Lake Nasser that makes the AHD “the wrong dam in the wrong place,” providing “a local, short-term, and one-sided political solution.”
When Sudan gained its independence in 1956, it opposed the colonial treaties and construction of the AHD. Sudan favored the scientifically sound Century Storage Scheme Nile management plan, which involved a series of smaller dams in Uganda and Ethiopia. Sudan also favored the construction of another controversial project with severe environmental damage, including destruction of wetland, in South Sudan, the Jonglei Canal. The construction of the Jonglei Canal was started in 1978, but for various reasons, including the civil war in South Sudan, the project was suspended in 1983. Though it opposed AHD, Sudan also decided to construct the Roseires Dam on the Blue Nile and expand the Gezira irrigation scheme.
To implement their respective projects, both Egypt and Sudan tried to get funds from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), which later became the World Bank. Since the Roseires Dam would alter the flow of the Nile, and since the AHD would have significant socio-economic impact on Sudan, including the displacement of local inhabitants and flooding of fertile lands, the IBRD required the two countries to reach an agreement to get the funds.
Because of the socio-economic costs of the dam, the then Sudanese Parliament refused to consent to the construction of AHD and prevented the IBRD from funding the dam. Irritated by Sudan’s refusal to strike the deal, Nasser, who had stronger relations with the Sudanese military, helped General Ibrahim Abboud (who served in the Egyptian military before independence) depose the Sudanese Umma government in 1958.
Acting against the interest of the Sudanese people, Abboud signed the 1959 Nile Waters Treaty with Egypt and consented to the construction of AHD. The Treaty, which allocated 55.5 BCM to Egypt, 18.5 BCM/year to Sudan, and left the remaining 10 BCM for evaporation, was met with huge social opposition in Sudan. Ethiopia also refused to be bound by the treaty that carved out shares of waters it contributed the majority off. Abboud had to rely on Egypt’s military to administer Sudan until he was forced to resign in 1964.
Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: A Sudanese High Dam?
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which was first conceived in the study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), has enormous benefits to Egypt and Sudan, including a more regular flow of water, better siltation prevention, a reduction in evaporation, and cheaper electricity. Currently, Egypt is using around 61 BCM of the Nile waters annually (more than its 55.5 BCM water “share” in the 1959 Nile Waters Treaty), while Sudan uses around 12 BCM from its 18.5 BCM “share” in the Treaty. In ensuring the regular flow of the Nile, the GERD will, therefore, increase the irrigation potential of Sudan, and enable Khartoum to use more water from the Nile (even more than 18.5 BCM “share”). Simply put, GERD is important to Sudan as the AHD is important for Egypt.
Because of these benefits, Sudan has been showing unwavering support for GERD since 2012. However the current military regime, like Abbodud, is acting against the interest of the Sudanese people in the GERD negotiation. Disregarding all scientific findings that affirm the safety of the GERD and its importance to Sudan, the military regime is working to advance the hegemonic interest of Egypt to impose a neocolonial treaty on Ethiopia. The regime is using dam safety as a pretext, although the Sudanese Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources, Yasser Abbas publicly admitted that “[t]he Renaissance Dam’s degree of safety is better than that of Sudanese dams and Egypt’s High Dam.”
In a flagrant violation of international law, it has invaded and occupied Ethiopian territory and has issued several bellicose statements whose inflammatory rhetoric has been matched by Ethiopian nonchalance. Sudan’s military leaders and their Egyptian sponsors are trying to exploit Ethiopia’s recent internal issues. All Ethiopians unity on the GERD, and their commitment to defend their national interest over Nile seems lost on Sudan and Egypt, both victims of military dictatorship that kill and imprison their people at will. Sudan should understand that resilient Ethiopians, who just celebrated the 125th anniversary of their victory over an invading European army at Adwa, will protect their national unity and independence without fail. Instead of following such an unsustainable and self-destructive strategy, Sudan’s military leaders should protect the interest of Sudanese people by making use of the aforementioned benefits from the GERD.