Tanzania begins filling Egyptian-built Julius Nyerere dam

Cairo's foreign affairs and housing ministers attend Rufiji River ceremony

A Tanzanian Maasai man near the Kenyan border. The Tanzanian government says the dam project cost $3 billion. EPA
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Tanzania on Thursday held the inaugural filling of the Egyptian-built Julius Nyerere dam, with Cairo's foreign affairs and housing ministers attending the ceremony.

The dam on the Rufiji River in south-east Tanzania, in one of the world’s largest nature reserves, was constructed by Elsewedy Electric, a private company, and the Arab Contractors, a state-owned company.

The Tanzanian government said the project cost $3 billion but estimates put the figure far higher once with peripheral expenses.

Egypt's foreign ministry said the completion of the dam and its hydroelectric power station were of “great interest” to the country.

“We join the Tanzanian leadership, government and people in their celebration of this very important event for our brothers in the United Republic of Tanzania,” the Egyptian delegation at the ceremony said in the ministry’s statement.

A project to build a dam on a stretch of the Rufiji called Stiegler’s Gorge, named after a German engineer killed by an elephant in 1907 while measuring the chasm for an infrastructure plan, has been planned since the 1960s.

The contract for its construction was awarded to the two Egyptian companies after an international tender in 2018.

The dam, along with its 34-billion-cubic-metre reservoir, occupy an area of 1,350 square kilometres within the Selous Game Reserve, a Unesco heritage site. When complete, it is expected to generate 5,920 gigawatt hours of power annually.

The dam is owned and managed by the government's Tanzania Electric Supply Company (Tanesco).

Despite being lauded by the Egyptian and Tanzanian governments as a boon for development, the project has caused an outcry among environmental agencies.

In 2018, the Unesco World Heritage Convention said the project would be severely detrimental to the local ecosystem and facilitate more animal poaching in the reserve.

Egypt's foreign ministry says the dam is expected to reduce deaths from annual flooding on the Rufiji and the formation of swamps that spread contagious disease.

“As of today, the Rufiji River delta bids farewell to the floods that caused the death and loss of thousands, most of them children, and the seasonal swamps, which are the main cause of the spread of dangerous diseases,” the ministry said.

The project is a milestone in Egypt’s effort to bolster its foothold in Africa, mainly through building power projects for the Nile basin's energy-starved countries.

The Arab world’s most populous nation is seeking to use its influence in Africa to settle a lengthy dispute with Ethiopia over the mega dam it built on the Blue Nile. Since the start of the dispute, Cairo has markedly Africanised its foreign policy.

Egyptian companies are building a number of other projects in Nile basin countries including two solar power stations in Eritrea and one in Uganda. Cairo also hosted the Djiboutian energy minister earlier this year for talks on increasing bilateral relations.

Additionally, when Egypt hosted the UN climate change conference (Cop27) in November, it campaigned for international funding for African countries that are among the world’s most affected by climate change.

Egypt sought to use the conference to position itself as an African leader and a bridge between the continent and the West.

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi discussed possible solutions to Egypt’s standoff with Ethiopia over its dam project during his visit to Washington this month to attend the second US-Africa summit.

Updated: December 22, 2022, 1:47 PM