Millennium Dam: a report on the Ethiopian Millennium Dam, its impact on Sudan,

By: Ahmed Alhaj (Site Admin)

KHARTOUM,( sudanow.info.sd)The projected millennium dam is 12.5 kilometers away from the Sudanese border on the Blue Nile inside Ethiopian territories and is 35 kilometers behind the confluence of Ples River and the Blue Nile. The dam is 505 meters above sea-level while the water at the operational point is 610 above sea-level. The dam is 145 meters high and 1,800 meters long with a storage capacity of 74 billion cubic meters. Considering its height, the Millennium Dam is regarded among the world’s large dams.

This dam, of such a size, was not mentioned in anyone of the Ethiopia proposals and since the study that was made by the US Bureau of Reclamation in 1964. It was not either among the projects proposed by the Ethiopia government to the Nile Basin Initiative in 1999. The Ethiopian projects which were previously submitted, studied and accepted were: Karadobi, Mabil, Mandaia and Border dams which were all planned for hydro-electric power generation and designed to yield a total 5,570 megawatts.


              Formal Declaration of the Dam:-


Ethiopia formally and for the first time declared intention of constructing this dam on March 31, 2011, one day after signing a contract of 4.8 billion dollars, without international bidding invitation, with Italian company Salini Construttori. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zinawe laid down the foundation stone of the project on April 2, 2011.

Work on the project began by constructing a quarry and an air-strip on the site to ensure quick delivery of the construction materials. The construction is expected to take 44 months at the end of which the first and second turbines will start operation.

According to official documents and before its formal declaration, the protect was named Project X and after the declaration it was renamed Millennium Dam and then, at a meeting of the Council of Ministers on April 2, 2011, the project was renamed for the third time as the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam, a name that carries significant denotations.  

The power generation turbine compartments were designed on both sides of the higher spillways, the turbines on the right side consist of 10 units that will yield 350 megawatts each, while the turbines on the left side consist of five units. He total electric power generation amounts to 5,250 megawatts.


Official Notification of Sudan and Egypt on the Dam Project


Among the main aspects of controversy between the source and estiary countries in the legal framework for the Nile Basin Initiative was the prior notification of the projects the Basin states plan to implement, particularly by the high-land countries. However, this condition was rendered meaningless and became a mere notification to the other Nile Basin countries only for their information. Accordingly, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry notified the Egyptian Embassy in Addis Ababa on August 9, 2011 with a draft document on formation of the international committee of experts with regards to the Millennium Dam, provided that the draft document be sent to the concerned authority.

As for the Sudan, a letter was sent to the Sudanese Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources by the Ethiopian Minister of Water and Energy on October 4, 2011, notifying him of the same issue.

As indicated by the Ethiopian proposal, the International Committee of Experts is assigned to consider and evaluate the benefits of the Millennium Dam to the three countries and its impact on the countries behind the Dam (Sudan and Egypt).


Cost & Finance of the Project


The Ethiopian Government has declared it would bear the cost of executing the project and has issued bonds in contribution by the Ethiopian people in the country and abroad to the 6.6 billion dollars of the cost, including the power generation turbines and the conveying lines. Of this amount, 4.8 billion will be spent on building the dam and 1.8 billion on the turbines and the conveying lines. According to reports, the project is expected to be financed by the Chinese Government. The Ethiopian Government has declared it would bear the financing of the project because it is well aware that the international financiers would not get involved because they are aware of objection and non-acceptance of the project by countries which would be negatively affected by it.

Ethiopia is the world’s second country after Afghanistan that gets foreign aid and this aid is expected to increase during implementation of the project, taking the political developments in consideration and bearing in mind that the country has previously bee supported for taking part in the war in Somalia. 


Benefits & Effects of the Project:


The storage of the Nile water in the Abyssinian Plateau presents benefits to Sudan and Egypt, including a regular flow of water and curbing the high rates of silt. The previously proposed projects which were accepted by the Sudan and Egypt were expected to play this role, particularly as their storage capacity is much less than the Millennium Dam. Moreover, the storage on the Abyssinian Plateau greatly lessens the rate of evaporation compared with the evaporation at the dams in Sudan and the High Dam of Aswan, Egypt, due to the low temperature on the high Plateau, the storage depth of the lakes of the Ethiopian dams and the small water stretches due to the mountainous nature.

The Ethiopian reports also added that the Dam would curb the effects of the flood behind it for Ethiopia, bearing in mind that the remaining Ethiopian territories behind the Dam are not more than 12.5 kilometers in width up to the Sudanese borderline. Furthermore, the farming in the areas to be inundated by the overflow in this area will be adversely affected by the Dam.

According to those reports, the Dam could serve as a bridge that links the two banks of the Nile, complementing the bridge the building of which began in 2009 and is still going on and is higher than the site of the proposed Dam, implying that the idea of constructing the Dam arose after 2009.

Studies on the environmental and social impact of the Dam on the area and the communities have not yet been published; it is not even known whether such studies exist in the first place, a matter which makes it difficult to conduct assessment of the project.

This area, however, is thinly populated by Bene Shangoul and Gumz tribes (an average of 12 persons per square kilometers).


The Project Impact on Sudan and Egypt:-


1- The volume of the water to be stored in front of the Dam is estimated to be around 74 billion cubic meters which is higher than the ordinary flow of the Blue Nile (48 billion cubic meters). Filling the Dam up to the operational level will therefore significantly decrease the monthly flow of the Nile, especially during the period of the low water level (February-April) which is the winter farming season in Sudan. And the shorter the Dam’s filling period becomes (three consecutive years) the greater the harm will be on Sudan and the longer the overall filling period of the Dam (about 10 years), the lower its economic value becomes.


2- The more harmful and graver impact on Sudan will be withholding the silt in front of the Dam, denying the Sudan the huge quantities of silt usually brought in by the Blue Nile during the overflow period. Silt is very important for renewing the soil, sparing the Sudan the intensive use of fertilizers. This situation was experienced by Egypt after building the High Dam when the soil lost its fertility, making it imperative for Egypt to resort to intensive use of fertilizers. This has gravely impaired the country’s food production and the human and animal health to the extent that the occurrence of the infectious hepatitis has become the world’s highest rate (67%).  


3- The overflow inundates vast areas of the banks of the Blue Nile in the Sudan and, besides renewing the soil as we have previously mentioned, the overflow also feeds the ground water and raises the water levels of the ground wells in areas distant from the Nile. This very water flows back to the Nile during the subsidence of the river (low level). The blocking of the water flow by the Dam for regulating the water flow and protecting the Sudan against the high overflow gravely harms our ground water and affects the people of the remote areas who depend on the ground wells.


4- Another possible harm that will befall both Egypt and Sudan is connected with the current global climatic change, although the scientists have not yet identified the degree of its adverse impact on the Nile Basin region and the rate of the decrease of the rainfall on the Abyssinian Plateau which contributes 84% of the Nile revenue. If the climatic change decreased the water revenue to less than the current average revenue, the Dam storage would fail to satisfy the Ethiopian requirements for power generation and the agricultural requirements of the Sudan and Egypt.  


5- The real danger posed by the Dam on both Sudan and Egypt is the activation of the seismic activity in the region as a result of tremendously high weight of the silt-overladen water withheld in front of the Dam estimated to weigh 63 billion tons. This weight could cause a seismic activity that causes cracks in the body of the Dam leading to the collapse of the Dam and consequently to a disastrous overflow that sweeps all dams on the Blue Nile, Jebel Aulia Dam, the dams on the main River Nile up to the High Dam in Egypt, leaving nothing intact on its way.


The International Water Law and Agreements on Dealing with International Waters:-


The relations between nations are subject to the international law and the United Nations Charter and construction of the Millennium Dam in Ethiopia is subject to the International Water Law that is part of the Statute of the International Court of Justice which, in turn, is part of the UN Charter. The mandate of the International Court of Justice is restricted to cases submitted to it by the litigants and the cases specifically indicated in a convention or in valid treaties or agreements. A nation that is a party to the Statute of the Court may make a statement under which, without referring to a specific agreement, it will recognize arbitrary mandate of the Court to consider all legal disputes with another nation that accepts the same commitment so long as those legal disputes are connected with explanation of the treaties or the international law or instances of violation of an international commitment.  


International Agreements, Public & Private:-


Those are the agreements which lay down rules explicitly recognized by the disputing nations and which are of a wider scope than any other source, whether those agreements are public ones that apply to all nations committed to them or private agreements that apply to a limited number of nations. The public agreements include the UN Charter, the Maritime Law Agreement, the 1915 Vienna Water Treaty, the Rome Agreement of 1958, the Helsinki Water Agreement of 1966, etc. The private agreements which apply to a limited number of nations include the Mekong River Agreement, the Senegal River Agreement and the Nile Water Agreement between Egypt and Sudan, 1959.


The Ethio-Sudanese Agreements Before & After Sudan Independence:


Mentioned below are some international agreements and arrangements on use of the Nile water concluded during the colonization era between a number of nations that include the Sudan and Ethiopia and are now rejected by Ethiopia on grounds that they were signed by the colonization governments and countries to protect their own interests rather than the interests of the colonized peoples. But many of those agreements remained valid and binding, particularly those dealing with demarcation of the borders between the nations.  

These agreements include the following:-

1- Rome Protocol of 1891 which was concluded by Britain and Italy under which the latter pledged not to carry out any irrigation work on Atbara River that may change its flow towards the River Nile in a reasonable way.


2- Addis Ababa Treaty of May 1902 under which Emperor Melik XI pledged to the British Government not to carry out or permit the carrying out of any works on the Blue Nile or Lake Tana or Sobat River that might obstruct the flow of their water to the River Nile unless agreement is reached from the British and Sudanese governments. This treaty is binding to the two signatories and to their successors.   


3- The Exchanged Notes between the United Kingdom and Italy in December 1925 in which Itlay recognized the hydrological right of Egypt and the Sudan in the upper waters of the Blue Nile and White Nile and their tributaries and pledged not to carry out any works on the upper waters that might unreasonably adjust their flow into the main river. This provision does not prevent the reasonable utilization of the water by the inhabitants of the region, even if this necessitated erection of dams or hydro-electric power installations or reservoirs of the small tributaries for storing water for household purposes or for growing subsistence crops.


4- The African Treaty for Natural Resources Conservation of 1968 (under the national government of Sudan after independence) that was concluded by the African Heads of State in Algiers in 1968. Its provisions included the following:-

*Article II: The member nations commit themselves to taking arrangement for conservation of the soil, water, flora and fauna and utilizing and developing them in accordance with the scientific principles and in observance of the peoples’ best interest.

*Article XIV: Item 3 of this Article calls upon the nations for consultation amongst themselves on whether their development plans affect the natural resources beyond the borders.

*Article XVI: Item 1 of this Article, Part (b) calls upon the nations once again for cooperation amongst themselves if  their national arrangements would affect the natural resources of any other nation.


5- The United Nations Human Environment Conference of 1972: The declaration of the conference that was approved in Stockholm included the following principles:

*Principle 21: According to the UN Charter and International Law principles, the nations enjoy the sovereignty right to exploiting their own resources in line with their environmental policies and responsibility to ensure that the activities exercised within their powers and authority would not cause an environmental harm to the other nations or to environments of regions that lie beyond their national borders.

*Principle 22: The nations must cooperate amongst themselves for further development of the International Law regarding the responsibility for the victims of the pollution and other environment harms caused  by the activities practiced within the power and control of those nations on regions beyond their borders.


6- The Afro-Asian Legal Consultative Committee- The International Rivers Law of 1973:  The Afro-Asian Legal Consultative Committee endorsed in 1973 important statements related to the International Rivers Law. These statements were in line with the philosophy of Helsinki Rules which were formulated by the International Law Society. They included the following:-


*Proposal I: The general rules contained in those rules are applicable to utilization of the water of the international drainage basins, unless provided otherwise in accordance with a binding treaty, agreement or convention between the nations of the Basin (there is no such treaty or agreement between the Sudan and Ethiopia).

*Proposal IV:-

1- Each nation of the Basin should show good-will in exercising its rights to the water of the international drainage basin in accordance with the principles of the good-neighbour relations.

2- Accordingly, the nations of the Basin should not begin works or utilization acts related to the water of the international drainage basin unless those acts are approved by by the nations which could be adversely affected by them or are approved under a decision issued by a concerned international court or an arbitration board.


*Proposal V: The nations which propose an amendment of an existing utilization of the water of the international drainage basin that gravely affect utilization of the water by other nations sharing the same basin should first consult with the other benefitting nations. If no agreement is reached in those consultations, the concerned nation has to ask advice from a technical expert or organization. If this does not result in an agreement, other peaceful means provided for in Article 33 of the UN Charter, particularly international arbitration and justice should be approached.

All legal instances of evidence and testimonies support the Sudan in any position its takes to guarantee its right to survival and honorable living without a threat to imposing on it a situation that places it at the mercy of others.


The Approach:

First: Although the Ethiopian Government has virtually commenced implementation of the project since February 2011 and with reference to the delayed notification to the Sudan on October 4, 2011, there is still a chance for the Sudan to move as soon as possible to place an official objection to the Ethiopian authorities against implementation of the project. This move by the Sudan is to emphasize its natural and legal right to objection, particularly as the World Bank and the European Community have a clear opinion and general principles on the large dams due to their environmental and social risks and the poor economic viability. It has been decided since the 1980s of the last century that the factors of cost/benefit and environmental and social dimension be taken into consideration in the economic evaluation of the large dams projects (at this point, the civil society organizations can be used to protest continuation of constructing the Dam, in addition to invoking the international law and agreements).   


Second: The Sudan has to notify the Ethiopian authorities that it would not use or purchase the electricity generated by the Dam and would not allow passage of the current across the Sudanese territories. This will weaken the economic viability of the project, if it is originally planned to bring in economic benefits.


What is required now?

What is required now and urgently is the technical opinion of the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources on the Dam (including the design and operation) and the environmental, economic, social and political impact on the Sudan if the project is implemented. This opinion should be sent to the Ethiopian authorities prior to the meeting of the international technical committee proposed by the Ethiopian authorities.




Some views for and others against the Millennium Dam project were published on the daily newspapers attributed to Sudanese and Egyptian writers. Among the Sudanese writers was Dr. Salman Mohamed Ahmed Salman (a legal expert with the World Bank) who wrote a series of articles in Al Sahafa daily newspaper about the Nile Basin Initiative. Those included an article in which the writer called upon Sudan to approve and support implementation of the Millennium Dam.

Engineer Omar Abu Bakr Abu Haraz also wrote a lengthy article on Akhir Lahza daily newspaper enumerating the benefits of the Dam to the Sudan and demanding the Sudan to approve it. The A periodical of Technical Department of the Water Resources of the Ministry of Irrigation contained a report supporting and approving the construction of the Millennium Dam for benefits the report believes in would bring to the Sudan. The Technical Department periodical also contained opinions by some Egyptians in support of construction of the Dam.

By constructing the Millennium Dam, Ethiopia intends to emphasize that the Nile water is Ethiopian and can control it and has the right to sell its water to the Sudan and Egypt as the Arabs sell their petroleum. This makes it obvious that the Millennium Dam (Project X) and Nile Basic Initiative have originated from the same niche.


Eng. Haider Yusuf Bakheit

National Expert/ Ministry of Irrigation & Water Resources




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