Ethiopia has a very diverse topography that includes both flat and mountainous areas and receives an average of about 1.2 metres of rainfall annually, generating several rivers that originate in Ethiopia and flow through its southern, eastern, northern and western borders. Forests and wildlife are common, with huge pastures and rain-fed crops.
It is believed by many Ethiopians that Egypt has captured their Blue Nile waters, established its ancient civilisation and present renaissance, leaving them in poverty and deprivation. This is not true; Ethiopia has built a great history and civilisation in East Africa. Currently, Ethiopia is trying hard to revitalise and develop its security in the region, as well as promote the vision of electrical links between its dams and neighbouring countries to export electricity, just like the Congo in West Africa.
Unfortunately, Ethiopia, like many others, believed that Egypt after the 2011 unrest would be too overwhelmed to fight for its water rights and made sure to use that opportunity and lay down the corner stone of the Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile in April 2011. They increased the capacity of the dam several times until it reached the latest design capacity of 74 billion cubic metres in the beginning of 2012. It should be mentioned that a dam with this capacity gives Ethiopia total control over the Blue Nile waters. However, Egypt returned to the negotiating table in June 2013.
The negotiations on the Renaissance Dam were a ploy to distract Egypt and Sudan until it becomes a reality that cannot be changed. Egypt has been negotiating in good faith until it was obvious that the negotiations were not going anywhere, and announced the failure of negotiations and the need for an international mediator to facilitate the GERD talks and ensure that negative impacts are minimised on the downstream countries Egypt and Sudan.
In November 2019, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia agreed to a time frame for the negotiations under the supervision of the United States of America and the World Bank, with the aim of reaching an agreement on the rules for filling and operating the dam so as not to cause significant harm to the downstream countries. The negotiations continued with positive statements from all participants, until we Ethiopia did not attend the last session in Washington in February 2020, and announced its sudden withdrawal from the negotiations.
Ethiopia has argued that the draft of this agreement is an extension of the old colonial agreements for the management of the Nile Basin water, in an attempt to provoke upstream countries aiming to be strengthened by them in this international confrontation.
Ethiopia has since made statements filled with violent accusations and false allegations, including that the Washington agreement did not highlight Ethiopia's right to "reasonable and equitable utilisation of the waters of the Blue Nile" and that the US should not underestimate this Ethiopian right under the pretext of water needs in the two downstream countries. In addition, Ethiopia has been calling for the redistribution of the Nile waters according to the Entebbe Agreement – which was previously rejected by Egypt, Sudan and the Congo – meaning enforcing the water allocation according to the Ethiopian preference and that of some upstream countries.
Ethiopia continued to claim that it took all steps that ensure that the Renaissance Dam would not harm Egypt, but rather claimed that the dam will bring Egypt tremendous benefits, playing the role of the adversary and the judge at the same time. If we examine the Ethiopian actions regarding other transboundary rivers, we can notice that this same exact ploy has happened before with its neighbouring countries Somalia, Eritrea and Kenya, where it built dams on shared rivers without prior notifications, studies, negotiations, or agreements, and without taking into consideration the reasonable and equitable utilisation of water.
Recently, the Ethiopian media has repeatedly stated that Ethiopia’s plan was initially to fill the Renaissance Dam in three years, but agreed to Egypt's request to extend the period to seven years, in order to not harm Egypt, which will cause tremendous losses in the dam's electricity sales during this period. The truth is that the Ethiopian demand to fill a dam of this magnitude in three years is a provocative request, whereby Ethiopia seeks to deepen its policy of domination in the region. The dam has a capacity of 74 billion cubic metres, and filling it over three years requires 25 billion cubic metres annually, in addition to 3 billion cubic metres lost annually to evaporation from the reservoir surface, meaning, storing 28 billion cubic metres annually from the river’s natural flow.
The average annual flow of the river is around 49.5 billion cubic metres, meaning that Ethiopia wants to store 28 billion cubic metres annually, which leaves Egypt and Sudan together with 20 billion cubic meters, that is of course assuming it is not a dry year. Which leaves us with the question: what would happen in a dry year scenario? Will Ethiopia store the water in the dam, while Egypt and Sudan suffer?
Ethiopia claims that the Renaissance Dam is for development purposes and for the good of the Ethiopian people. Let’s examine that claim carefully.
The GERD will supposedly generate 12,000 gigawatts of electricity annually, meaning that the annual electricity production of the Renaissance Dam will reach 12 billion kilowatt-hr. The price of electricity in Ethiopia for household use is only one US cent, and the commercial price is 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour, making the average local price (domestic and commercial) about 1.4 cents/ kilowatts-hour. This means that if the electricity of the Renaissance Dam is used solely within Ethiopia, then the total revenue of electricity production is about $160 million annually, which will not be enough to cover the expected annual expenses for operating and maintaining the dam and paying the annual instalments for the dam loans.
Assuming the government raises the local electricity price 3-4 times in order to cover the annual income for operation and maintenance costs, and the instalment loans, can the Ethiopian citizen live with this increase in power prices? In order to be able to afford the operation and maintenance costs of the dam, the Ethiopian government must raise the local electricity price and export part of the electricity abroad. The economic feasibility study of the electrical connection with Egypt and Sudan was based on the export of more than 3 megawatts to Egypt and Sudan (about more than half of the dam's electricity, one-third for Sudan and two-thirds for Egypt) at a price of 8 US cents per kilowatt-hour, which increases the annual income of the dam to about $550 million, which covers the costs of operation and maintenance, and provides an annual premium for dam loans to be repaid over 15-20 years. It may be necessary to double the internal price several times and increase the export price to 9-10 cents per kilowatt to be able to better pay the dam debt.
However, after Ethiopia has revealed its true face with Egypt during the negotiations, Egypt will of course, not import any electricity from Ethiopia. On the other hand, Sudan alone will not be able to absorb this large amount of electricity aside from the fact that it has not yet started the construction of electricity transmission lines from the dam site and its need to develop its own internal electrical network. Moreover, Ethiopia has not finished the transmission line to transfer the dam's electricity to its own internal network (financed by a Chinese loan), and it may need one to two years to be completed, and it is desperate to double the price of local electricity three or four times to compensate for the deficit resulting from Egypt not purchasing Ethiopian electricity. Meanwhile, there are many obstacles that prevent the filling and operation of the dam, since the middle part of the dam still has a long way to go and the establishment of electricity transmission lines for the Ethiopian and Sudanese internal networks could take years. Now the question to ask here is: why is Ethiopia in such a hurry to start filling the GERD?
* The writer is the former Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation in Egypt