Ethiopian attempt to begin filling Renaissance Dam may scupper deal with Egypt and Sudan, say experts
CAIRO: There are fears that a unilateral attempt by Ethiopia to begin filling a huge new dam on the Nile will lead to the failure of technical discussions with Egypt and Sudan.
Disagreements between Ethiopia and Egypt on filling the reservoir and generating power within a few months on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which will be the largest in Africa, could not be resolved during the Tripartite National Technical Committee’s meeting, which brought together the Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian ministers of water and was held in Addis Ababa on Oct. 19.
The day before the meeting, Ethiopia’s Communication and Information Technology Minister Debretsion Gebremichael announced that the construction of the dam had reached 62 percent and generating power would start this Ethiopian year and before construction is complete. The new Ethiopian year started on Sept. 11 and ends in October 2018.
Considering the slow pace at which the French consulting firms BRL and Artelia are preparing technical studies, it is speculated that before Ethiopia begins storing the Nile’s water in the dam, studies necessary for reaching a final agreement between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the rules of filling and operating the dam will be completed.
If no agreement takes place between the three countries, Ethiopia’s next step would be considered a clear violation of the tripartite Declaration of Principles on Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam signed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in Khartoum on March 23, 2015.
“Ethiopia has named two phases of the filling process: ‘The first filling,’ which it targets during the current stage in order to start generating power, and ‘the complete filling,’ which means filling the dam reservoir to its full capacity of 74 billion cubic meters,” he continued, “And it only associates the completion of technical studies and the filling and operation rules with the complete filling and not the first filling.”
In spite of this, unofficial Egyptian sources acquainted with water management suggested that, to avoid the discussions failing, Egypt agree to the first filling of the GERD reservoir under three conditions:
Second, the target water level of the first filling must be only enough for operating the two turbines installed by Ethiopia at the dam’s lower part, provided filling stops immediately after reaching this level and is resumed only after the completion of technical studies and reaching a final tripartite agreement on the rules of filling and operation. Egyptian sources estimated the amount of water needed for this purpose would be around 15 billion cubic meters.
Third, the first filling must be completed over two years, according to the same unofficial Egyptian sources, and not one year or less as planned by Ethiopia.
Dr. Shabana, of the Institute of African Studies at Cairo University, agrees with the above insight, stressing that “any step taken by Ethiopia toward initiating the filling process must be for trial purposes only and in full coordination with Egypt, as required by the declaration of principles.”
He also pointed out that the time at which the Ethiopian government announced its unilateral intention to start filling the GERD reservoir, which coincided with the tripartite technical committee’s meeting in Addis Ababa, confirms Ethiopia’s approach of refusing legal commitment as well as negotiations about its construction of GERD and development of its filling and operation rules. “Ethiopia refused to discuss the matter. Instead, it unilaterally announced it,” he said.
On Sept. 20, 2016 in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, the three countries signed the contracts for the technical studies with the two French firms, marking the preparation for a technical file on the Renaissance Dam and its effect on downstream countries. The studies were supposed to be finalized by the two French firms last August according to the time frame of 11 months defined by the declaration of principles agreement, followed by the Khartoum Document, which was signed by the three countries’ foreign ministers in December 2015, in addition to a period of four months dedicated for the technical committee’s members to reach consensus on how to implement the studies’ outcomes.
“Ethiopia’s strategy is to either impose its views during the technical discussions or withdraw from all agreements and restart negotiations from scratch,” Raslan said. “Faced with this approach, Egypt had no decisive negotiation strategy and relied instead on successive concessions in hopes of mellowing Ethiopia, which never happened.”
Egypt’s Water Resources and Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel Ati predicted earlier that Ethiopia would start storing water in the GERD reservoir next year.
On Sept. 28, 2017, Misr News Agency quoted the minister saying: “The impact of the Renaissance Dam has not yet been experienced because the flow of water into Egypt is no different from that experienced during previous years, but it is very likely that part of the dam will be filled next year.”
He also stressed the importance of consensus on the method of filling and operating the dam.
In a press statement published on Oct. 18, 2017, the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation said that Egypt confirmed no water had been stored behind GERD this year and nothing was impeding the flow of water into the country until now.
The press statement was released a day after an Egyptian delegation, headed by Abdel Ati, on Oct. 17 visited the dam in Benishangul, which is 20 km from the Sudanese border, and “the visit was the first of its kind for an Egyptian government official.”
“Ethiopia insists on filling the reservoir within three years, which will deprive Egypt of around 25 billion cubic meters of water every year — almost half of its annual allocation of the Nile’s water,” Raslan explained. “Egypt, on the other hand, demanded filling the reservoir over a period of nine years.”
“If we take into account the annual loss of water caused by leakage and evaporation, the complete filling is expected to drain almost 90 billion cubic meters of water, not 74 billion cubic meters, which represents the final storage volume,” he added.
In the context of a strategic approach supported by several international and regional parties to reshape and strengthen Ethiopia’s influence and turn it into the greatest power in East Africa and the Nile basin, Addis Ababa has plans to export hydroelectric power.