As Ethiopia prepares to open the continent’s largest hydroelectric dam, East African Catholic leaders have emphasised that water is a resource that must be shared equitably.
The Nile passes through 11 countries, but the conflict over the dam pits Ethiopia against Egypt and Sudan.
Ethiopia constructed the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, one of the major Nile River tributaries. Ethiopia sees the dam as key to ending poverty for its more than 110 million people.
With concerns over conflict continuing to grow each day, Ethiopian Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel urged leaders – including religious leaders – to share the resource.
“All must stand for the truth on equitable and just use of the Nile water as a God-given resource. Water is not only life, but life for all,” Cardinal Souraphiel told Catholic News Service on the telephone from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
In mid-July, the conflict escalated further after Ethiopia allegedly started filling a reservoir of the dam against the wishes of Egypt and Sudan. Earlier, talks over the dam had ended without an agreement.
Ethiopia broke ground on the dam in 2011; since then it has been a source of tensions in the Nile Basin region. Egypt and Sudan, which are downstream countries, feared the dam would regulate the flow of the Nile and limit water access for millions of their people.
Cardinal Souraphiel said there was optimism, since the countries have held talks, mediated by the United States and the African Union. He emphasised that the discussions should be held in Africa as a way of finding “African solutions to African problems”.
The source of the Blue Nile – named after the colour of the water – is the Gish Abay Springs in Ethiopia, hence Ethiopia’s claim to the water. The White Nile originates from an outlet of Lake Victoria on Uganda’s side. Both tributaries meet in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, and flow 4,100 miles northward as the Nile, before draining into the Mediterranean.
For thousands of years, the Nile has been crucial to Egypt’s life: the Bible gives accounts of farming canals, ponds and water pools. At the moment, the North African country relies on the Nile for more than 90 per cent of its water needs for its 102 million people.
In talks, Egypt and Sudan have sought an agreement binding the three countries on how the dam will be operated. But Cardinal Souraphiel notes the Ethiopian government raised the money for the dam “to generate electricity, which millions of Ethiopians need to light their homes. Ethiopia needs electricity, but also needs to help its neighbours with it.”
The Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa has been monitoring the conflict. Fr Paul Igweta, AMECEA’s coordinator for the Department of Promoting Integral Human Development, said the best approach was for an “independent body to be involved … in mediating through the process. The conflicts could escalate to a higher magnitude … if not handled carefully,” he said.
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