The Ethiopian Dam: Escaping the deadlock

Doaa El-Bey , Monday 1 Jan 2018

Construction of the Renaissance Dam continues apace despite the failure to complete technical studies

Renaissance Dam
File Photo: Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam (Reuters)

Though more than one round of technical talks took place this year, the Ethiopian minister of foreign affairs visited Cairo in April and Egypt’s minister of irrigation made an official visit to the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in October these potentially positive signs appeared to lead nowhere.

The same is true of the issuing of a preliminary report on Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam in March and Addis Ababa’s repeated reiteration that it remains committed to the2015 declaration of principles which includes a provision none of the signatories will cause harm to the others.

In meetings on the periphery of the African Union Summit in June and during the UN General Assembly in September, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri voiced Egypt’s worries about the failure to finish the required technical studies on the hydrological, environmental and economic impacts of the dam on Egypt and Sudan, yet as the year ends 62 per cent of construction work on the dam has been completed.

“Egypt initially dealt with the file as a chance for cooperation between downstream and upstream Nile Basin state that could benefit all. Unfortunately, the deadlock on the technical track does not reflect the timetable recognised in the Khartoum Agreement which states studies on the impact of filling the reservoir must be undertaken before the work continues,” Shoukri said during a meeting with his Italian counterpart earlier this month.

Mona Omar, former assistant foreign minister for African affairs, argues that while the past 12 months saw a clear failure to progress on the technical track, issuing the preliminary report on the planned studies, increased cooperation between Cairo and Addis Ababa, and greater understanding on the part of the political leadership in both countries of the others’ position could be seen as positive developments.

“While the technical track is very important it cannot be divorced from the political process. The problem is not the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Irrigation but must be tackled on all levels,” she told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Mohamed Hegazi, an expert on Nile-related issues, believes “involving a third party” could help break the deadlock on the technical track.

The tripartite technical committee has held three meetings since September, the last of them in Cairo in November, in the hope of reaching agreement on the preliminary report prepared by two French consultancy firms which outlines the methodology to be adopted by the technical studies which will assess the effects of the dam on downstream countries. Following the November meeting Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Ati declared that the technical track had failed. “The constant delays have raised concerns about the three states’ ability to work together to ensure Egypt’s water security,” he said.

The technical committee also failed to agree on a timetable for the filling of the reservoir and protocols for the operation of the dam once it is complete.

Ethiopia wants the reservoir filled within three years whereas Egypt is seeking a seven to 10 year period in order to minimise the impact of water flow.

The Khartoum Agreement, signed in December 2015, stipulates that the reservoir can only start to be filled once all technical studies are complete. The studies were supposed to begin in September 2016, with preliminary reports issued every three months and a final report after 11 months at most. Yet 15 months later a single preliminary report has appeared.

The agreement also allows for field visits to the construction site by Egyptian and Sudanese experts, and in October the ministers of irrigation of Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt visited the site.

With no solution to the deadlock found in 2017 most analysts believe a breakthrough now hinges on the exercise of sufficient political will.

Hopes are being pinned on a visit to Cairo by the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn initially scheduled for December but now delayed – tentatively – to January.

Egyptian officials are also raising the issue of the dam during bilateral meetings, which is what Shoukri did this month with his Saudi and Italian counterparts.

“We can also refer the issue to international bodies like the African Union and the UN. After all, water security is a human right,” says Mona Omar, former assistant foreign minister for African affairs.

Hegazi argues that pushing ahead with the Nile Corridor Project which seeks to establish a mechanism by which dams in Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt are linked in a manner that ensures the level and storage capacities of one and are not adversely affected by another that could help facilitate wider cooperation. The project envisages a network of links that will include roads, railways and power grids which Hegazi says will boost political understanding and have a positive effect on relations between the three states.

Since Addis Ababa began building the dam in 2011 Cairo has repeatedly voiced its concern the dam will reduce Egypt’s annual share of Nile water.

The dam will generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity. It is planned as Africa’s largest hydro-electric power plant with a storage capacity of 74 billion cubic metres. Partial operation is likely to start by the middle of 2018.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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