As Cairo and Khartoum continued to push for a legally binding agreement regulating the operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Addis Ababa disclosed that this year’s filling of the reservoir will be much less than it had previously, and repeatedly, announced.
Ethiopia’s Water and Irrigation Minister Seleshi Bekele said construction of the dam’s body had not reached the planned height needed for a full second-year filling. Last week he told the media that “the current height of the dam is 565 metres, and work is underway to reach 573 metres within 20 days.”
The targeted height of 573 metres is 22 metres below the previously declared figure of 595 metres, says Abbas Sharaky, a professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University.
Addis Ababa has for long insisted last July’s first filling of the reservoir with 4.9 billion cubic metres (bcm) would be supplemented this summer by a much more ambitious second filling of 13.5 bcm.
Although Bekele did not mention the amount to be stored this year it will not be more than 4 bcm at most, says Sharaki. Though the volume of water in the reservoir will not exceed 9 bcm, it will be enough to operate two turbines by August.
The amount of water stored in the dam reservoir should not change Egypt and Sudan’s position, says former Irrigation Minister Mohamed Nasreddin Allam.
“Regardless of the amount, any second storage without an agreement is an encroachment on the rights of Egypt and Sudan,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
This week, Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel-Ati underlined Cairo’s keenness to resume AU-sponsored GERD negotiations as soon as possible and reach an agreement before the start of the second filling during the flood season.
As Abdel-Ati re-affirmed Egypt’s determination to defend its water rights and reach a binding agreement, Khartoum continued with its own diplomatic campaign to secure international support for the two downstream countries’ positions. During a virtual meeting with the Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, Sudan’s Foreign Minister Mariam Al-Saddik Al-Mahdi warned that Addis Ababa’s “intransigence” could have “ominous repercussions”.
The meeting followed an African tour that concluded last week and took Al-Mahdi to Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, and Niger.
Ethiopia continues to insist it will go ahead with a second filling despite Cairo’s and Khartoum’s objections, and has stepped up military deployment near the dam.
“Ethiopia’s Air Force presence around the Renaissance Dam is stronger than ever,” said Ethiopian Air Force Commander Yilma Merdasa, according to a press release posted on Facebook.
“The Air Force is closely guarding the Renaissance Dam and pledges to protect it from any aggression,” Merdasa added during an EAF award ceremony.
Analysts say such statements are intended purely for domestic consumption, and serve to distract from Ethiopia’s twice postponed national and regional elections.
The announced reduction in the amount of water to be stored in the dam this year is being as a positive development in both Khartoum and Cairo.
Nader Noureddin, a professor of water and land use at Cairo University, suggests that future negotiations should focus on reducing the storage capacity of the dam to 40 bcm instead of 75 bcm. “This is enough to generate the electricity that Ethiopia maintains is the primary purpose of the dam, without exposing Egypt and Sudan to water shortages or other harm,” he said.
Negotiations between the three countries came to a halt in January after Ethiopia refused several proposals by Egypt and Sudan to advance the talks.
The dispute between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia dates back to May 2011 when Ethiopia started building the dam. In 2015, the three countries signed the Declaration of Principles which states that downstream countries should not be harmed by the construction of the dam.
The Anglo-Ethiopian treaty, signed in 1902 between the United Kingdom — representing Egypt and Sudan — and Ethiopia — represented by Emperor Menelik II of Abyssinia, prohibited the construction of any waterworks on the Blue Nile that would affect the river’s natural flow.
In 1993, Ethiopia and Egypt signed the Cairo Cooperation Framework pledging not to implement water projects harmful to the interests of the other, and to consult over projects to reduce waste and increase the flow of the Nile.
Ethiopia was not party to the 1929 Nile water agreement between Egypt and the UK, representing Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), and Sudan. The deal allocates 55.5 bcm of water to Egypt and 18.5 bcm to Sudan. Nor did Ethiopia take part in its 1959 supplementary agreement which confirmed Cairo and Khartoum’s annual quota and allowed the construction of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly