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Dam could provoke water wars

The construction of the Merowe Dam in northern Sudan later this year is bringing to the surface the discontentment of Nile River countries over the unequal use of the Nile waters, a situation caused in part by an outdated treaty.
Matthias Muindi

Even as discontent simmers over the unequal use of the Nile waters by the nine countries sharing the expansive Nile Basin, Sudan has indicated it will go ahead with the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam in the northern part of the country.

That was one of the issues Khartoum discussed during a meeting held in the first week of January in Cairo on the effective use of the Nile waters. Organised under the auspices of the Nile Basin Initiative, a regional grouping of international organisations and nine African countries sharing the Nile River, the meeting brought together representatives from Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Why other members didn’t turn up in Cairo is not known, but it is these three countries that have the greatest stake in the Nile. Sudan and Egypt literally depend on the river, while Ethiopia, through the Blue Nile tributary, contributes most of the Nile waters.

If the construction of the Merowe Dam starts later this year, it will be Khartoum’s latest investment in a series of Nile-related projects in recent times. And that might not be music to some countries sharing the basin. But for a country where foreign investment has slashed inflation from 200 percent to five percent in three years, the water wars can wait.

In June of last year, Jalal Yousif al-Dagir, Sudan’s Minister for Industry and Investment, announced that new sugarcane plantations would be established on the eastern bank of the White Nile to produce 300,000 tonnes of sugar annually. The US$325 million, to be co-financed by Kuwaiti investors, would add to those owned by the country’s largest sugar investment, Kenana Sugar Company, which produces 700,000 tonnes of sugar each year. In recent years, the company has been registering an annual growth rate of 15 per cent. It is Nile dependent.

Then in November of last year, Khartoum announced that it planned to increase the country’s wheat growing area from the current 300,000 to 500,000 acres by April of this year. According to Ahmed el Badawi, the country’s Director of Irrigation, all farm inputs were already in place in the wheat-producing regions of Shalamliyya, Nahr el Neel, and Gezira. It was during the same month that some financiers from the Arab and Muslim world signed agreements with Ahmed Hassan al-Zubeir, Sudan’s Minister of Finance, for the first phase of Merowe Dam to be located on the fourth cataract of the Nile.

Other financiers are expected to fall in line by the end of this year. First was a US$100 million loan agreement with the Kuwait Fund for Economic Development, then a US$150 million grant from the United Arab Emirates-based Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development. Similar agreements with Saudi Fund for Economic Development and the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development were to be signed by the end of last year, with each granting US$150 million towards the construction.

In total, the Arab Funds are supposed to comprise approximately US$780 million of the US$2 billion that Kamal Ali Mohammed, Sudan’s Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources, says is the estimated total cost of the dam. Malaysia, which has invested heavily in the Sudanese oil industry, is also expected to contribute an undisclosed sum following an agreement in August last year between Sudanese President Omar el Bashir and Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohammed.

Khartoum has indicated that the government and loans from foreign lending institutions will meet the additional funding. Already, tenders for the phase, which will involve the construction of the dam’s concrete body, have been floated in Khartoum and London. The dam is expected to generate 1,250 megawatts of electricity against a national demand of 3,000 MW. The projected output is expected to overcome the perennial deficits that the country’s two other hydro power plants, El-Rosieres and Sennar, have been unable to get over.

“The electric power to be generated from the dam,” said Abdulhameed el Naglai, who signed for the Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development, “will constitute a U-turn in the life of the Sudanese.”

Rosieres, the largest hydroelectric plant in Sudan, lies 500 kilometres southeast of Khartoum on the Blue Nile and has a capacity to generate 250MW. Sennar is further downstream, while the smaller Khashm al Qirbah Dam on River Atbara serves a small area, Gedarif-Kassala in eastern Sudan.

Sennar and Rosieres, constructed in 1925 and 1966 respectively, are inefficient because the two plants were not originally meant to be hydro power plants. Rather, they were build to provide water for massive irrigation investments in central Sudan, especially in Gezira. But the demand for electric power in the 1960s and 1970s led to power generation facilities being inserted in the plants. Poor co-ordination between the country’s power and irrigation authorities is also to blame for the perennial blackouts. Each of these government departments seems keen to use whatever water is available to develop its own sphere.

Of the three dams that Awadh al-Jaz, Minister of Energy and Mining, approved in April 1998, the Merowe Dam will be the second to be constructed. The other, Kajbar Dam on the second cataract, has been under construction since late 1998. It is co-financed by the Sudan and China governments and is expected to add another 300 megawatts. China, which is financing 75 percent of the project, has so far spent US$200 million on the project.

In the past, say analysts, the only sizeable area in Sudan having electric power available to the public was the central region along the Blue Nile between Khartoum and Damazin town near the Ethiopian border. It has been reported that for much of the past decade, this region accounted for approximately 87 percent of Sudan's total electricity consumption. It is related to the fact that the area is served by the country’s only major interconnected generating and distributing system, the Blue Nile Grid. The grid provided power to both the towns and the irrigation projects in the area.

A smaller system served areas in the east towards the Ethiopian border. The Western Grid serves some of the western areas, while the rest of the urban centres have had diesel-powered generators. The latter have been boosted by the graduation of Sudan to the ranks of a middle-level oil exporter. Out of the 220,000 barrels produced every day, between 60,000 to 70,000 barrels are retained in the country for domestic consumption.

The shambles in the electricity sub-sector could also change soon after the Sudanese government indicated last year that it was keen to open up the state-run electrical power industry to private investors, including foreigners. In September 1999, the Cabinet passed a draft law permitting local and foreign investors to get into the country’s electricity sub-sector. Under the law, interested investors have permission to build power stations and use the national grid that, however, will remain under government control.

But if Khartoum is determined to solve its energy crisis and increase the irrigated area in the country, it will definitely provoke other Nile Basin countries now unhappy with the 1959 Nile Waters Treaty that governs the usage of the waters. In recent months, some of these countries have been loudly calling for a review of the treaty, arguing that it is an unfair one.

By the time the treaty was revised - from an earlier version of 1929 - under the British in 1959, only Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia were independent countries in the region. Curiously, Ethiopia, whose Blue Nile tributary contributes 60 percent of the Nile waters, wasn’t included as a beneficiary of the 1959 treaty that allocated to Egypt 82 percent of the 3.1 billion litres shed per second by the 6695-km long river, with Sudan taking the rest. Since then, the rest of the countries along the Nile Valley have had to do with minimal waters from the river, as they cannot encroach on the volumes allocated to Egypt and Sudan. The countries jeopardised by the treaty are Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eritrea has been enjoined as an observer.

The resentment hasn’t reached alarming levels yet, but some countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, and Tanzania have been firm that it is time that the legal status was revisited. “Equitable management of the Nile waters should bring benefits to all the peoples of the Nile Basin,” says Manasse Nduwayo, Burundi’s representative to the Nile Basin Initiative. For the Great Lakes countries of Rwanda, DRC, Burundi, and Uganda, the importance of the water is not for the development of agriculture as such but for the generation of hydropower. But for countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya, water is valued for irrigation purposes. Ethiopia’s fast rising population (estimated to be 69 million) is desperately in need of more food.

Founded in Dar es Salaam in 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative seeks to eliminate poverty in the Nile Basin through effective water management practices, trade promotion, and power generation. However, tangible results are yet to be seen. The only achievement so far has been to attract scores of high profile financiers ranging from the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). That was during a meeting held in Zurich, Switzerland in June last year when these donors pledged US$140 million for the first phase of the project that is expected to cost US$3 billion. But it will take more than money to ensure peace in the Nile Basin.

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