22 Nov 2021

Nile crisis long-term alternatives: Why is Egypt expanding dam construction in Africa?

22 Nov 2021

Nile crisis long-term alternatives: Why is Egypt expanding dam construction in Africa?

The word “dams” has become, without doubt, the most controversial word related to development projects in Africa since the Ethiopian authorities filled a part of the reservoirs of the Blue-Nile-located Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in July 2021.[1] That filling was the second in two consecutive years in the absence of a satisfactory and binding agreement on the management and operation of the dam with the two downstream countries; Egypt and Sudan,[2] which severally expressed their fears that the unilateral operation of the dam will affect their shares of Nile water.[3]

Concurrently with the disputes and controversies in which Egypt is deeply involved over GERD, Ahmed el-Sewedy, the managing director of El-Sewedy Electric Group announced on September 15 that the Egyptian authorities supported a coalition between his company and The Arab Contractors company to bid for the tender of constructing Stiegler’s Gorge dam in Tanzania.[4] Earlier, in August 2021, the Egyptian Presidency announced that Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi was following up on the developments of the dam construction with the Egyptian companies.[5]

This paper examines a hypothesis that the Egyptian authorities are prioritizing irrigation and hydroelectric power projects among the opportunities of partnerships with African countries in development projects, and that they are also adopting a strategy to expand the construction of dams in Africa. The paper starts with a general look at the Egyptian-African partnerships in development projects, particularity those connected to irrigation and hydroelectric power for Egypt and African countries, and the aims of the Egyptian strategy concerning expansion in the construction of dams in Africa. It finally evaluates the effects of such a strategy, including its impacts on the GERD crisis.

The Egyptian role in the development of Africa

According to the estimates of some newspapers that are close to the Egyptian ruling regime and government, Egyptian institutions, whether state-owned or private, contribute about $21.06 billion to development and infrastructure projects in African countries.[6] According to the Egyptian State Information Service (SIS), the most prominent examples of these projects include: irrigation, agriculture, drinking water networks, the establishment of residential and governmental complexes, construction of roads and electricity networks, construction of ports, and development of railways.[7]

Abstractly, Egypt’s contribution to development and infrastructure projects in Africa may seem huge; however, it can also be viewed as modest compared to the needs of African countries, which are estimated by the African Development Bank (AfDB) to amount to $130- 170 billion annually for 10 consecutive years.[8]

Bearing in mind the relatively modest Egyptian contribution to the development and infrastructure projects in Africa, Egyptian institutions – including government, state-owned and private companies – are likely to place irrigation and hydroelectric power projects, especially dams and power stations attached to them, at the top of their list of priorities in the African continent as these projects are characterized by:

First: The depth of the multi-level impact on African societies: According to the United Nations (UN), 40% of all water-poor people worldwide live in sub-Saharan Africa.[9] This means that at least 320 million Africans in 46 African countries lack access to clean water sources. According to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), about 600 million Africans[10] – or 43.8% of the continent’s total population of 1.37 billion people – do not have access to electricity.[11] Accordingly, irrigation and hydroelectric power projects, including dams, have a profound impact on African societies on at least two levels, namely solving the related problems of water availability and electricity availability. Dam reservoirs can redistribute river water to the areas which are most in need rather than wasting it in estuaries or swamps, while dams produce electricity from a renewable source of energy to cover the growing needs of the continent’s population.

Second: The correlation with other development projects: By the virtue of their ability to provide water and electricity, irrigation and hydroelectric power projects – to a greater extent than others – provide Egyptian authorities, state-owned companies, and the private sector with a range of opportunities to engage in other development projects such as land reclamation and the establishment of cities and residential complexes. Of course, land reclamation or the construction of cities requires the availability of water and electricity that are provided by hydroelectric projects. The most prominent example of this case is the participation of the Egyptian government in improving the productivity of 30-40 thousand acres around the Wau Dam, planned for construction in South Sudan, as the dam’s reservoirs are intended to provide the supplementary irrigation water required for this agricultural area.[12]

Features of Egypt’s strategy to expand dam construction in Africa

Target Countries

So far, the Egyptian authorities are involved in studying, financing, and constructing 6 dams in two Nile Basin countries, namely the Wau Dam on the White Nile,[13] which is a tributary of the Nile in South Sudan, and 5 small dams/rainwater harvesting reservoirs in Uganda[14] in which Lake Victoria, a tributary of the Nile, is located.

With regards to other Nile Basin countries, Egypt is linked with the Democratic Republic of Congo by cooperation protocols for training Congolese cadres on the construction, management, and maintenance of dams.[15] It is also engaged in negotiations with Burundian authorities on joint work to establish dams to harvest a large share of annual rainwater in Burundi.[16] Egypt may also be exploring negotiations on dam projects with other Nile Basin countries whose identities have not yet been disclosed by the Egyptian authorities.[17]

More broadly than the Nile Basin countries, the Egyptian strategy to expand dam construction in Africa also appears to be targeting and paying special attention to East Africa. In addition to South Sudan, Uganda, and Burundi, Egyptian companies such as El-Sewedy and The Arab Contractors are building, under the auspices of the Egyptian authorities, the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam on the Rufiji River in Tanzania and the Julius Nyerere power station attached to the dam.[18]

The Egyptian role

Given that Egypt has achieved remarkable development in its infrastructure and relative economic prosperity compared to many African countries, the Egyptian government, state-owned companies, and the private sector can find plenty of scope to play multiple roles in the field of dam construction in Africa. However, the Egyptian policy to expand dam construction in Africa is based on two main objectives:

1- Filling the financial deficit: The African Union has estimated that African governments can annually bear 17%-60% of infrastructure development costs ($130-170 billion).[19] The Egyptian authorities are working to fill the funding gap by providing direct government grants to build some dams through financial allocations such as, for example, providing $9 million to the Ugandan government to build the five aforementioned dams.[20] At the same time, the Egyptian authorities sometimes mediate between the African authorities and local and international financial institutions to obtain the necessary loans and grants to bridge the financing deficit for such infrastructure projects. The most prominent examples of this type of mediation are the Investment for Africa Forums of 2017, 2018, and 2019, to which the Egyptian authorities invited representatives of African governments and representatives of financial institutions such as the European Investment Bank (EIB), the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development (ADFD), the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD), the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KFAED), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the World Bank, the African Development Bank (AfDB), EFG Hermes, and the Egyptian banks Commercial International Bank (CIB) and Bank of Alexandria.[21]

2- Filling deficits in trained manpower and technology: In addition to the presence of representatives of African governments and representatives of financing institutions in the Africa Forums, which were held in Egypt, representatives of major Egyptian contracting companies such as the Arab Contractors and major energy companies such as El-Sewedy Electric also attended. These companies, especially the Arab Contractors-El-Sewedy alliance, are working alongside governmental institutions to bridge the inability of some African countries to provide trained manpower and the technical and engineering expertise needed to construct the dams or examine the feasibility of their construction. This alliance is responsible for the construction of the Stiegler’s Gorge dam and the Julius Nyerere power station in a partnership between the Egyptian and Tanzanian labor forces. In addition, the Hydraulics Research Institute and the Construction Research Institute of the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation have undertaken the preparation of feasibility studies for the Wau Dam project.[22] Finally, within the framework of the cooperation protocol between Egypt and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation is training 437 Congolese cadres in 35 training courses on the management, design, construction, and maintenance of dams.[23]

Opportunities and gains for Egypt

Political Opportunities

As Ethiopian authorities have accused their Egyptian counterparts of resisting the development that can be achieved through GERD,[24] Egyptian local media outlets and some regional ones have highlighted Egypt’s participation in the construction of dams in Africa as a practical refutation of the Ethiopian authorities’ accusations.[25] In January 2020, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry also accused the Egyptian authorities of trying to monopolize the Nile for Egypt and of being intransigent about filling the GERD reservoirs.[26] Egypt’s flexibility regarding the exploitation of the Nile in building dams and generating energy is demonstrated by the participation of the Egyptian authorities in the Wau Dam project and Uganda’s five dams, all of which would be situated on the Nile or its tributaries.[27] In contrast to its relations with the Ethiopian authorities, Egypt has no disputes with the authorities of South Sudan or Uganda concerning the construction or the operation of the dams.

Commentators also highlighted Egypt’s history of supporting African countries in building dams along the Nile. The most notable examples of such dams were the “Owen Falls” Dam (currently “Nalubaale”) and the “Kiira” Dam on the northern shore of Lake Victoria in Uganda.[28] The priority for the Egyptian authorities is to effectively coordinate with Uganda and South Sudan on dam construction and not harm their mutual shares of the Nile water, in contrast to the potential impact of the Ethiopian dam.

Besides the case that Egypt can make against Ethiopian accusations, Cairo can achieve wider and deeper gains through its strategy to expand dam construction in Africa. In particular, it can create an opportunity for the Egyptian authorities to be a key player in meeting the energy needs of African countries as an alternative or competitor to Ethiopia, whose authorities aspire to export surplus electricity from GERD to its neighbors in East Africa. According to Financial Times estimates, Ethiopia is aiming at generating $1 billion annually from exporting surplus electricity to Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, South Sudan, Eritrea, and Djibouti.[29] For example, the Stiegler’s Gorge dam, concerning which Egypt is the executive partner, could export surplus electricity to East African countries according to the statements of the Egyptian Minister of Electricity, Mohamed Shaker, in November 2020.[30]  The Tanzanian dam is projected to produce about 5920 GWh of electric power annually.[31]

Although this production is not comparable in magnitude to the potential production of GERD, which is supposed to reach 16,153 GWh of electric power annually,[32] the Tanzanian dam retains competitive advantages, especially in the short term. The aforementioned expected electricity production of GERD would represent the output of 16 turbines.[33] However, during the early stages of operation, no more than two turbines will operate according to the announced plans of the Ethiopian authorities.[34] This means that the initial production of GERD will most likely not exceed 12.5% of its maximum production capacity, i.e. 2,020 GWh annually. In contrast, the Tanzanian Stiegler’s Gorge dam would be capable of providing East African countries with a greater surplus of energy, bearing in mind that Tanzania will be better able to export its surplus given its domestic need for energy is lower than that of Ethiopia. According to the World Bank, the number of people without electricity in Ethiopia is about 58 million (51.7% of the total population)[35], while in Tanzania about 36 million people (62.3% of the total population) do not have access to electricity.[36]

Also, small dam projects in which Egypt is participating, such as the Wau Dam, which is supposed to produce 64 GWh of electricity annually[37] and Uganda’s 5 dams, could contribute to offering a local alternative to importing electricity from Ethiopia.

Economic Opportunities

For the Egyptian private sector, it is evident that economic profits are the first factor that comes to mind when analyzing the opportunities and benefits that Egypt can reap from participating in the construction of African dams. Regarding the Stiegler’s Gorge dam, the initial cost announced by the Tanzanian authorities is $2.9 billion,[38] which would place it among the largest projects in Africa. Therefore, it seems natural that Egyptian private sector companies have been seeking to participate in it and win the tender for its construction and the construction of the power station attached to it.

As for the Egyptian authorities’ provision of support to the two Egyptian companies that are building the dam, it should be taken into account that the economic policies of the Egyptian authorities are likely to place construction and contracting companies and infrastructure development projects at the top of the list of priorities. The Egyptian authorities may look at such companies and projects as a locomotive for development as they are labor-intensive, contribute substantially to GDP, and also stimulate industrial production due to the increasing demand they create for building materials. Since the Egyptian authorities’ launch in 2016 of their economic reform program accompanied by a huge number of construction and infrastructure projects, the contracting sector alone is contributing about 17% of Egyptian GDP.[39] Since then, about 15.5 million Egyptians are working in this sector, with 3.5 million of these jobs being permanent and 12 million seasonal.[40] In total, construction sector employees represent 53% of the total Egyptian workforce of 29 million citizens.[41] Due to the sector’s increasing demand for building materials, factories producing these materials contribute about 6% of the total contribution of the industrial sector to the GDP, while employing 11% of the total Egyptian workforce.[42]

Concerns and Weaknesses

Although Egypt’s strategy to expand dam construction in Africa does not entail any risks, it is not without some concerns. In light of the warnings that have continued for several years about the negative impact of GERD on Egypt’s share of the Nile water, there are similar worries about the impact of other dams on the Nile. Among the most prominent of those projects that have raised fears is the Wau Dam planned to be built on the course of the White Nile. However, the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation dispelled most of these fears with an urgent statement on June 27, 2021, in which it explained that the Wau Dam would not have any negative effects on Egypt’s share of the Nile water as it would be a small dam[43] like the dams of Uganda, which differ from GERD with regards to storage capacity.

In contrast to these unserious concerns surrounding Egypt’s plans to expand dam construction in Africa, the overall strategy has a weak point that appears to be the most serious. The effect of such a strategy on the GERD crisis is limited to the long-term, during which Egypt will be able to exploit the electricity production of the African dams as an alternative for East African countries to the GERD’s electrical power exports. However, in the short term, it is difficult for this strategy to reduce the growing concerns of citizens and some observers concerned about the potential water poverty that may result from filling the reservoirs of GERD in the upcoming years, without reaching a satisfactory and binding agreement between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia.

Prospects for the Egyptian role

In light of what was previously mentioned about the Egyptian strategy to expand dam construction in Africa, the prospects for the Egyptian role in Africa and the GERD crisis can be summarized in the following points:

  • Creating stronger East African alliances: the partnerships between Egypt and the African governments for building dams in Africa are at the top of the list of determinants that could encourage those governments to align themselves with the Egyptian authorities’ stance on the GERD crisis. This alignment should be strongly driven by African governmental ambitions to meet the growing and urgent needs of African peoples for water and electricity. The possible African bias to Egypt, as a key partner in water and electric power projects, along with its stance on the GERD crisis, should play an important role during the vote on international and regional resolutions relating to Ethiopia before the UN Security Council or the African Union (AU). In addition, encouraging alternatives to GERD may threaten the project’s economic feasibility and put the Ethiopian authorities in a critical economic situation, given that the $4.5 billion cost of the project has been mainly financed by massive domestic and foreign investments in debt instruments, mostly through the sale of bonds which they have sold both at home and abroad.[44] Most likely, the Egyptian authorities will exploit the possibilities of East African countries to diversify away from GERD electric power production, especially in light of the availability of the alternatives, as a pressure card on the Ethiopian authorities to push them to engage in serious negotiations and reach a satisfactory agreement or at least ensure that the Ethiopian authorities will avoid harming Egypt’s water interests in the event an agreement is not reached.
  • Engaging similar projects: achieving or renewing confidence in Egyptian institutions in the public and private sectors by accepting their participation in dam construction in some African countries should be an incentive for other countries to develop existing or create new partnerships. Engaging with such projects is of paramount importance for Egypt, as many irrigation and hydroelectric projects can play a role in compensating Egypt for the share in water resources that citizens and experts fear losing as a result of filling and operating GERD, especially during drought years. Among the most prominent of these projects are the Bahr el-Ghazal basin purification project in South Sudan, which is expected to add about 4 billion cubic meters of water annually to the Nile[45]; and the project to link Bahr al-Jabal in South Sudan to the Nile through the Jonglei Canal, which is expected to add 3.2–7 billion cubic meters of water to the river annually, according to some observers.[46] Finally, there is an ambitious project to link Lake Victoria in Uganda to the Mediterranean Sea.[47]
  • Developing partnerships with African organizations: as African organizations are always welcoming the construction of dams as development projects for the entire continent, the Egyptian strategy to expand dam construction in Africa is of major importance as it can create broader prospects for cooperation and partnership between Egyptian institutions and those organizations. Consequently, it is possible that the broader prospects for cooperation will create greater opportunities for African organizations to align with Egyptian interests and stances, unlike the stance of the AU – as an example – to the GERD crisis. This view was expressed by the Sudanese Minister of Irrigation Yasser Abbas in April 2021, when he said that the AU was biased to Ethiopia to some extent.[48]
  • Attracting investments related to the development of Africa: in the absence of a common market that includes all African countries, the Egyptian-African partnership agreements in the construction and infrastructure projects, especially dam projects, can play a role in facilitating increased trade volumes of associated Egyptian products to African markets. Given the country’s expertise in the sector, Egypt could also be an incubator for foreign industrial investments related to the construction of dams. In Egypt, there is an appropriate investment environment for related industries including cement manufacturing; indeed, 20% of the investment received by the cement industry in Egypt is from foreign sources.[49]

Conclusion

To a great extent, Egyptian authorities are keen on maximizing the participation of Egyptian institutions in development and infrastructure projects in Africa. Based on the intensity of the country’s participation in irrigation and hydroelectric power projects, it is clear that the Egyptian authorities are adopting a strategy to expand dam construction in Africa, especially given such projects’ importance in securing water resources, generating electricity and facilitating the execution of related development projects.

The mapping of the countries that are targeted by Egypt’s strategy suggests that dam construction is intricately related to the GERD crisis, as most of the target countries for potential new projects are Nile Basin or East African ones. Egyptian decision-makers may be encouraged that providing African countries with the proper alternatives to electric power could dissuade them from importing GERD’s surplus power capacity.

Securing alternatives to Ethiopian electric power could be achieved if the Egyptian institutions gained more influence over the African authorities by bridging the financial, technical, and manpower deficits that may prevent dam construction and other development projects. Besides its effect on the GERD crisis, the Egyptian strategy to expand dam construction in Africa may help Egypt to achieve economic goals and play a growing role in other large projects in Africa. Such an approach could also help Egypt to be a key partner for a range of African organizations and a hub for many foreign investments that are related in various ways to dam construction.

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[13]  Mohammed Aby Zaid (2021), ‘Egypt signs cooperation protocol with South Sudan to build Wau Dam’, Arab News. Source: https://www.arabnews.com/node/1884416/middle-east

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[17] Ashraf Abdel Hamid (2021), ‘Egypt plans to build dams to harvest rainwater in the Nile Basin countries’, Al-Arabiya. Source: https://bit.ly/3k8iaAe

[18] Jean Marie Takouleu (2018), ‘TANZANIA: Arab Contractors and Elsewedy to build Stiegler’s Gorge dam’, Afrik21. Source: https://www.afrik21.africa/en/tanzania-arab-contractors-and-elsewedy-to-build-stieglers-gorge-dam/

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[21] Investment for Africa Forum (2019), ‘Sponsors’. Source: https://www.investmentforafrica.com/sponsors

[22] Ahram Gate (2015), ‘Egypt and South Sudan are preparing to hold an international conference to finance the multi-purpose “Wau” dam’. Source: https://gate.ahram.org.eg/News/647557.aspx

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[24] Al-Jazeera (2020), ‘GERD: Ethiopia discusses a “new defense strategy” and accuses Egypt of evading negotiations’. Source: https://bit.ly/3hDY3IO

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[26] Gomaa Hamdallah and Youssef al-Awmy (2020), ‘Egypt responds to Ethiopia’s “fallacies” regarding the GERD meeting: “Totally and completely rejected”‘, Al-Masry Al-Youm. Source: https://www.almasryalyoum.com/news/details/1460245

[27] Al-Jazeera (2021), ‘Contrary to its stance from GERD, dams that Egypt have supported on the Nile River’. Source: https://bit.ly/3ecuvQl

[28] Al-Jazeera (2021), ‘Contrary to its stance from GERD, dams that Egypt have supported on the Nile River’. Source: https://bit.ly/3ecuvQl

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[30] Asmaa Dosouky (2020), ‘Minister of Electricity: Rufiji Dam provides a surplus of electric power to be exported to East Africa’, Shorouknews. Source: https://www.shorouknews.com/news/view.aspx?cdate=18112020&id=c7bd4942-5a58-41c9-a9fd-ebdcffbe7a5a

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[33] Noha el-Tawil (2021), ‘Is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam really functional?’, Egypt Today. Source: https://www.egypttoday.com/Article/1/105861/Is-the-Grand-Ethiopian-Renaissance-Dam-really-functional

[34] Getahun Legesse (2021), ‘GERD two turbines to go operational by August’, Ethiopian Press Agency. Source: https://www.press.et/english/?p=33793

[35] The World Bank, ‘Access to electricity (% of population) – Ethiopia’. Source: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.ELC.ACCS.ZS?locations=ET

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[37] Zawya (2021), ‘Egypt, South Sudan cooperate to establish multi-purpose Wau Dam project’. Source: https://www.zawya.com/mena/en/projects/story/Egypt_South_Sudan_cooperate_to_establish_multipurpose_Wau_Dam_project-SNG_219879912/

[38] Fumbuka Ng’wanakilala (2019), ‘Tanzania makes $310 million advance payment for dam on heritage site’, Reuters. Source: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tanzania-hydropower-idUSKCN1S02BX

[39] Hapi Journal (2021), ‘In a survey, Hapi: Expected growth in the profits of construction companies’. Source: https://bit.ly/36xnMfC

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[41] The World Bank, ‘Labor force, total – Egypt, Arab Rep’. Source: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.TLF.TOTL.IN?locations=EG

[42] Industry Modernization Center (IMF), ‘Building materials and metallurgy industries’. Source: https://www-imc–egypt-org.translate.goog/index.php/ar/2020-12-14-09-32-25/2020-12-30-06-04-04?_x_tr_sch=http&_x_tr_sl=ar&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en&_x_tr_pto=nui,sc

[43] Sky News Arabia (2021), ‘A new dam on the Nile River, and an official comment from Egypt’. Source: https://bit.ly/3zGSnDD

[44] Iain Millar (2020), ‘Selling Egypt down the river? China supercharges Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam.’, U.S.-China Perception Monitor. Source: https://uscnpm.org/2020/03/12/selling-egypt-down-the-river-china-supercharges-ethiopias-grand-renaissance-dam/

[45] Adel Darwish (2020), ‘There is no alternative to an Egyptian-Ethiopian deal’, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. Source: https://bit.ly/2U28pJo

[46] Al-Monitor (2021), ‘Egypt explores water alternatives with Nile dam set to fill’. Source: https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/04/egypt-explores-water-alternatives-nile-dam-set-fill

[47] Omaima Saudi (2019), ‘Egypt and Africa: promising development projects”, Egyptian State Information Service (SIS). Source: https://bit.ly/36vVhyO

[48] Egypt Today (2021), ‘Sudan considers filing lawsuits against Ethiopia, Italian construction contractor’. Source:  https://www.egypttoday.com/Article/1/101216/Sudan-considers-filing-lawsuits-against-Ethiopia-Italian-construction-contractor

[49] Shaimaa Hefzy (2019), ‘Cement Division: The sector’s investments exceed 250 billion pounds, 52% of which are foreign’, Masrawy. Source: https://bit.ly/3wxFCtj

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