Diversion causes alarm in Egypt, which relies almost exclusively on the river for water. Bradley Hope reports
Ethiopia diverts the Nile for Dh17bn dam, alarming countries downstream
Work on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile will begin at the end of next year, the deputy prime minister Debretsion Gebremichael said yesterday.
Ethiopia is the source of the larger of the two tributaries of the world's longest river for water.
The diversion is of particular concern to Egypt, which relies almost exclusively on the river for water.
The dam, set for completion in 2017, is part of Ethiopia's plan to invest more than Dh44 billion in harnessing the rivers that run through its rugged highlands and become Africa's leading power exporter.
The dam has been a point of contention between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia for years, and the tension was exacerbated after the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak's regime.
Just weeks after Mubarak's resignation as president, the Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi announced the dam would be even bigger and more ambitious than had previously been disclosed. Zenawi died in August 2012, but the dam has since forged ahead with construction.
Ethiopian officials said on Tuesday that engineers had begun redirecting the course of the Blue Nile, the larger of two tributaries that merge in Sudan to form the Nile river, by 550 metres to create a dry area for construction of the main dam infrastructure.
"The dam is being built in the middle of the river so you can't carry out construction work while the river flows," said Mihret Debebe, chief executive of the state-run Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation.
The diversion is unlikely to affect the volume of the water flow, but the milestone makes clear the intentions of Ethiopia to continue with construction even before negotiations with downstream countries are complete.
Egypt's real worry is several years away, when Ethiopia will begin filling a giant basin behind the dam. Every year that the basin is filled, the flow of water to Egypt and Sudan will be reduced.
Any reduction in Egypt's share of the waters would hurt farming, lead to water shortages and decrease power production, according to a 2012 book of studies edited by the former Egyptian water minister Mohamed Nasr El Din Allam.
"In short, it would lead to political, economic and social instability," he said last year. "Millions of people would go hungry. There would be water shortages everywhere. It's huge."
The government of Mohammed Morsi has strived to develop better relations with Ethiopia over the past year. One of Mr Morsi's first trips as Egypt's president was to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, where he pledged to work more closely with African countries and help them to develop their economies.
Mohammed Bahaa El Din, the minister of water resources and irrigation, said this month that Egypt was not opposed to the dam so long as it did not hurt downstream countries.
"Crises in the distribution and management of water faced in Egypt these days and the complaints of farmers from a lack of water confirm that we cannot let go of a single drop of water from the quantity that comes to us from the Upper Nile," he said.
Ethiopia maintains that it should be allowed to develop its economy through building hydroelectric plants on the dam. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will have a capacity to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to make Ethiopia into a regional power supplier.
Hindering efforts by Egypt and Sudan in negotiating to keep their supply of water at the same level is a coalition of upstream countries - Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya - who are pushing for a greater share of water.
The coalition sees the agreements and treaties that guarantee Egypt and Sudan a combined 73.5 billion cubic metres of water - 55.5 billion for Egypt and 18.5bn for Sudan - and granting them the right to veto any projects judged "harmful" to their interests as a colonial-era injustice.
Together the countries have proposed a rewording of the treaty so that no projects could be developed that significantly affect the water flow, which Egypt and Sudan believe is a clear signal that their share will be cut.
That prospect has led to speculation of a regional water conflict. The late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat said in 1979: "The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water."
* Additional reporting by Reuters