The Right Dam in the Right Place

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“It is of paramount importance to Ethiopia, and a problem of the first order, that the waters of the Nile be made to serve the life and needs both of our beloved people now living and those who will follow us centuries to come. However generously Ethiopia may be prepared to share this tremendous God-given wealth of hers with friendly neighboring countries for the lives and welfare of their people, it is Ethiopia’s  primary and sacred duty to develop her water resources in the interest of her own rapidly expanding population and economy.”

Haile Selassie’s Crown Speech, 12 November 1957.

After having an enlightening zoom conversation with the Historian and Ethiopianist, Prof. Haggai Erlich, about the “Historical Perspectives on Ethiopia, Egypt and the Nile and Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD),” I am stuck with a phrase from the conversation “The right dam in the right place….on the highlands of Ethiopia.” It captured my imagination so much that I decided to share our zoom conversation alongside this article. 

Ethiopia and Egypt have been connected since antiquity because of the Nile, church affiliation, and Red Sea strategy. Their shared history is ancient, one of the more diverse cases of international relations that at certain historic junctures has produced chapters of mutual cooperation and understanding, as well as conflict. The 1950s are the years where the upper and downstream Nile riparian states took unilateral actions that brought thousands of historical and cultural relations to a rupture. 

Since the imperialist British occupation of Egypt in 1882, engineers brought from Britain were assigned to determine “the most advantageous utilization of its water for the benefit of the inhabitants downstream countries.” The British knocked at the Ethiopians’ door for 50 years in the name of Nile development, but only to be rejected by the highlanders. The British hoped to revolutionize the Nile irrigation system by building a dam at Lake Tana in Ethiopia and turning it to a major water reservoir with minimal evaporation while significantly enlarging and regulating the amount of water flowing to Sudan and Egypt. 

From 1902 to 1958 the British continued to toy with the Tana Dam idea, but Haile Selassie discouraged any constructive discussions over this Nile project. The Ethiopians who were suspicious of the British approach conducted prolonged and ultimately aimless negotiations, frustrating British policymakers. Furthermore, in 1924 when Haile Selassie was still Ras Tafari and his country’s regent, his visit to Cairo en route to Europe revealed how the British had kept the Egyptians in the dark, and the prolonged correspondence shows London’s paternalistic approach towards Egypt. (Erlich & Gershoni, 2000). 

But the young officers who took over an independent Egypt continued the efforts for a major dam project, only now a dam—for instance, considered at Aswan—would be under their control. Nevertheless, the Egyptians relied for technical expertise on the British, who rejected the idea of building the dam on the downstream as the reservoir couldn’t conserve water for more than a year and much water would be lost to evaporation. 

The wrong dam in the wrong place

Barely two months after the last attempt by the British to negotiate the Lake Tana dam idea with the Ethiopians,  Gamal Abdel Nasser and the young officers who led the Egyptian revolution in 1952 came up with a plan to erect a high dam in Aswan, which became a reality in 1971. The High Dam brought both opponents and supporters of the revolution together, from inside and outside of Egypt. From within the well-known critic Sabri Hafiz, wrote: “The sixties was indeed a decade of confusion, …the construction of the High Dam and the destruction of the spirit of opposition, the expansion of the free education and the collective arrest of intellectuals.”

A fair amount of scholarship reinforces the view that the Aswan High Dam was essentially a political project rather than a developmental one. The fundamental reason behind its conception was Egypt asserting control of its water from Cairo through the lake to be created behind the dam. This eventually led to abandonment of the “Unity of the Nile Valley.” And in turn, the ambitious project resulted in a crisis for the West; the nationalization of the Suez Canal, the Suez Crisis in 1956 involving Britain, France, and Israel, and eventually Egypt’s closer relations with the Soviet Union. The chain of events culminated in Egypt’s formation of the United Arab Republic, UAR and its historical injustice executed on Ethiopia by signing a water agreement with Sudan and recognition of its entitlement to share in “historic rights.” 

Recent works on the Nile hydropolitics by Robert Collins, Yoram Meital, Rushdi Saíd, and John Waterbury, basically conclude that “the Aswan High Dam is the wrong dam in the wrong place.” (Meital, 2000) and assert that the High dam “provided a local, short-term, one-sided political solution where hydrological irreversible shortcomings, exposed more forcefully after the Ethiopian droughts of the mid-1980s, are becoming more and more painfully visible.” 

The right dam in the right place

Robert Collins, in his chapter of In Search of the Nile Waters, for the book, The Nile, edited by Haggai Erlich and Israel Gershoni (2000) argues that the British spent time “deciphering the hydrology of the Nile basin” to regenerate their client-state, Egypt, in order to defend a distant empire. And Prof. Haggai in his book The Cross and the The River (2002) examines the various plans to control the Nile. Britain, first being the major power enforcing its will on Egypt and Sudan and later its economic and political weight in the post-war period, published three reports on Lake Tana dam from the beginning of the 20th century until 1958.  The report published in 1946, by Harold Hurst, “The Future Conservation of the Nile,” proposed dams at the outlet of the Lake Tana in Ethiopia and the Great Lakes sources, which would save evaporation for every year or “century.”

The proposals by the British did not materialize for one fundamental reason: Haile Selassie was suspicious that the Lake Tana dam project would jeopardize the sovereignty of his country and fall under the control of the British imperial control. History has proved him right, in that immediately after the Liberation from the Fascists, British military forces mercilessly stripped and looted the infrastructure and industrial goods left by the Italians, literally carting away huge amounts of goods, and then occupied the Ogaden for seven years (Pearce, 2014). 

As per the request of Ethiopia, the U.S. in 1964 published a result of a five-year study, “Land and Water Resources of the Blue Nile Basin” where it planned 26 projects in Ethiopia, including four dams that would direct waters from the Lake Tana and the Abbay gorge to the primary Nile reservoir, supply electricity and irrigation, and significantly enlarge and regulate the amount of water flowing to the downstream countries. While this time Ethiopia was ready to build the dams, Cairo supporters opted to appease Egypt at the expense of children of Ethiopia. In fact, Egypt has been hindering Ethiopia’s water resource development agenda for almost a century. 

What is noteworthy is all reports by the British and U.S. have demonstrated that the right place to build a dam for all the riparian states is in the highlands of Ethiopia.  

It is against this background that it is argued that building dams on the Blue Nile would generate benefits to the river and to Eastern Nile countries. Numerous scholars suggested the dam on the Ethiopian plateau, one like the Great Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) could regulate the river flow, control floods, sedimentation and siltation, produce cheap hydropower, and reduce water losses by moving storage in areas with lower evaporation rates upstream (Allan, 1994; Blackmore & Whittington, 2008; Guariso & Whittington, 1987; Tawfik, 2016; Tvedt, 2010). This is why these benefits are echoed by Ethiopians from the last monarchial Emperor Haile Selassie to the communist Mengistu HaileMariam, the pluralist EPRDF the late Meles Zenawi, Haile Mariam Desalegn, and to current Abiy Ahmed’s government.  

Professor Haggai Erlich reveals that Meles Zenawi had dusted off the plan for a dam on Abbay River from the shelf of Haile Selassie and was secretly studying it before he came up with the plan of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in 2008. After nearly 50 years, Ethiopia started constructing its dam in 2011, funded by its own people in the right place to the benefit of all the riparian states. 

About the Author: 

Mahlet is an independent Pan-African researcher. She holds a Research Masters in African Studies from Leiden University and MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Ben Gurion University. She can be reached at  [email protected] 

Selected Bibliogrpahy

Erlikh, Ḥagai, and Ỳ. Hagai Erlikh. The cross and the river: Ethiopia, Egypt, and the Nile. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002.

Gershoni, Ḥagai Erlikh I. The Nile: histories, cultures, myths. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000.

Pearce, Jeff. Prevail: The Inspiring Story of Ethiopia’s Victory over Mussolini’s Invasion, 1935-? 1941. Simon and Schuster, 2014.