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.
“The remaining 38 percent of the construction will be done while the dam is generating hydroelectric power,” Gebremichael had told the Ethiopian News Agency.
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.
“Any unilateral attempt made by Ethiopia to initiate filling the dam would lead to the failure of the current technical discussions between the three countries,” said Dr. Ayman Shabana, professor of political science at the Institute of African Studies, Cairo University.
However, Hani Raslan, an expert on the Nile basin and Sudanese affairs at Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, believes the declaration of principles does not provide a legally binding framework for Ethiopia since it obliges the three countries only to “respect” the terms and not “adhere” to them. “Respect can mean a different thing for each country,” he said.
“There are also controversial terms in the declaration of principles, especially the one that says filling the GERD reservoir is linked to completing joint technical studies,” he added, explaining that Ethiopia adopted “an elusive interpretation of this term.”
“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.”
Egypt is increasingly concerned about Ethiopia’s intention to start storing water in the GERD reservoir before completing the technical studies and reaching a final agreement on filling and operation rules.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry discussed what he called the “frozen negotiations” of the tripartite technical committee. During a meeting with his Ethiopian counterpart, Workneh Gebeyehu, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Sept. 21, Shoukry complained of the delay in issuing technical studies on the dam’s impact on Egypt and Sudan.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi also pointed out the urgency of the speedy implementation of the declaration of principles on Ethiopia’s dam in his speech to the General Assembly on Sept. 19.
Shoukri explained that the reason behind the “slowdown” of issuing technical studies on the dam’s impact was the presence of obstacles that none of the three countries could overcome at technical or political levels. “These obstacles are a threat to the foundations of the Declaration of Principles agreement,” he said in an interview with Al-Ahram newspaper, published on Oct. 4.
He then added: “Not completing the technical studies prior to completing the dam’s construction and launching the filling process would make everyone suspect negotiations are being stalled to impede the report’s issuance.”
First, the filling must be for trial purposes and not part of the actual filling process that leads to the dam’s official operation.
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.”
In Raslan’s opinion, Egypt currently lacks the tools for pressuring Ethiopia, which means it has to accept Ethiopia’s unilateral filling approach.
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.
“In practice, Ethiopia does not respect the declaration of principles nor the technical discussions, but uses them as a façade to show goodwill and an alleged desire to cooperate with Egypt and Sudan and not harm them,” he continued. “Ethiopia’s ultimate and strategic goal is to completely and unilaterally control the Nile’s revenue, which is 48-50 billion cubic meters of water annually and accounts for most of Egypt’s annual allocation of the Nile’s water.”
Arab News sought a comment on this information from the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, but the ministry’s spokesperson declined to comment.
Technical matters associated with the best mechanism for filling and operating the Renaissance Dam without affecting the two downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, are still being debated after the Tripartite National Technical Committee, composed of 12 experts from Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia, held 16 rounds of negotiations, the latest of which was on Oct. 15 in Addis Ababa, to reach an agreement on the initial technical report submitted by the two French consulting firms, BRL and Artelia, in late March 2017.
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.”
In addition to the dispute over Ethiopia’s intention to start the unilateral filling of the GERD reservoir as part of what it calls “the first filling,” what Ethiopia calls “the complete filling” poses a greater danger, said Hani Raslan, Nile basin and Sudanese affairs expert.
“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.