Early in July, Ethiopia announced that it had begun the second filling of its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The move came despite concerns by Egypt and Sudan, the River Nile’s two downstream states, about the impact of the GERD on their water security.
Egypt’s irrigation minister considered the new stage of filling the GERD to be “a violation of international law and norms that regulate projects built in the shared basins of international rivers.” He expressed his “firm rejection of this unilateral measure” by Ethiopia.
Last March during a conference in Cairo, Sudanese Foreign Minister Mariam Al-Mahdi warned that the second filling of the GERD would endanger the lives of 20 million Sudanese citizens. “We want the dam to serve as the basis of development cooperation between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. The first filling made Sudan suffer from thirst amid floods... The second one is even more alarming,” she said.
Neither country opposes the GERD as such. Instead, they are looking for a legally binding deal on how it will be operated — exactly what the Ethiopians have refused to give despite endless rounds of negotiations.
To understand the technical aspects of the GERD better, Al-Ahram Weekly approached Mohamed Basheer, a Sudanese engineering researcher at the University of Manchester in the UK.
With expertise in water resources, water economics, and the modelling and management of transboundary rivers, Basheer, a scholar in the university’s Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering, has been doing research about this topic for years. His scholarly work on the GERD has covered its engineering, hydropower, irrigation potential, and environment.
From a technical viewpoint, to what extent could the GERD be filled and operated without affecting the amount of water received by Egypt and Sudan from the Nile?
The initial filling and the long-term operation of the GERD have to be looked at separately in this regard. The initial filling of the GERD inevitably reduced the flow of the Blue Nile to Sudan and Egypt. This is because the initial filling implies retaining some water volume to increase the reservoir water level to enable hydropower generation, in addition to managing reservoir evaporation and seepage. This initial filling volume of water would have continued to flow to Sudan and Egypt if the GERD had not been there to stop it. However, whether this reduction in Nile water flows downstream will have an impact on Sudan and Egypt or not depends on the level of coordination on the filling process, the hydrologic condition (that is whether we are talking about a dry or a wet year), and how much water is stored downstream, notably in Lake Nasser when talking about Egypt.
In the long term, the average annual flow of the Blue Nile to Sudan and Egypt will see a reduction due to evaporation and seepage volumes from the reservoir of the GERD. These evaporation and seepage volumes are, however, relatively small. But the GERD will change the seasonality and the year-to-year variability of the Blue Nile. This will have two implications. First, operating the existing dams in Sudan will be challenging without a binding agreement and active daily consultation and data exchange on the GERD’s operation. Second, it will complicate the management of multi-year droughts (like the 1980s droughts, for example) in Egypt. For Egypt, it is crucial to know how much water will be released from the GERD during a drought. Following a multi-year drought, both the GERD reservoir and Lake Nasser will also likely be at low levels; the question is how fast each of these two large reservoirs should be refilled. This would have direct implications for Egypt’s ability to meet its water demands.
Ethiopian officials have said that the GERD is not an “irrigation or water-consuming project”, arguing that it mainly aims to generate electricity. If water is not a concern, why does Ethiopia oppose the filling and operation of the GERD in cooperation with Egypt and Sudan?
The GERD is indeed a non-consumptive project, apart from the evaporation and seepage losses from the reservoir. This means that the engineering role of the dam is to reduce the variability of the Blue Nile flow to enable the generation of hydropower on a reliable basis. I think the main issue from an Ethiopia viewpoint is how a binding agreement on the long-term operation of the GERD would affect future projects on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.
Egypt’s 100-million population relies on the Nile for more than 95 per cent of its renewable water resources, while Sudanese officials have complained that the GERD’s first filling made Sudan “suffer from thirst amid floods”. How might less Nile water affect both states environmentally and economically in the long run?
The Nile’s water is a critical resource for both Sudan and Egypt, but the potential long-term adverse impacts of the GERD on the two countries are different. For Sudan, the expected change in the seasonality of the Blue Nile will cause a loss of recession agriculture on which many households rely. In addition, adverse environmental impacts are expected due to changes in some physical and chemical characteristics of the Blue Nile water. Moreover, without active daily consultation and the exchange of data on the GERD’s operation, the management of reservoirs, irrigated agriculture, and hydropower on the Blue Nile and the Nile in Sudan will become very complicated, if possible at all.
For Egypt, the main issue is how multi-year droughts should be managed. Egypt’s situation differs from Sudan due to the presence of the Aswan High Dam at the border of the country, which provides a medium-term buffer against any natural or artificial reductions in the Nile flows to the country. The issue for Egypt is that during and following a multi-year drought, there would be a need to have sufficient water released from the GERD. This is necessary to tackle multi-year droughts and to plan for recovery from them.
What can Egypt and Sudan do to diversify their water resources?
The growing water demands of Sudan and Egypt necessitate raising the efficiency of water use and increasing water availability by looking for new sources. Desalination is a promising technology, but it is still in relatively infancy, as it is costly (and requires a lot of energy) and produces adverse environmental impacts. Groundwater is also a source that could be explored, but very carefully considering that the bulk of the groundwater resources in Sudan and Egypt are non-renewable. Rainwater harvesting is an approach that could be investigated, especially in Sudan.
What kind of technical arrangements could be made to settle the crisis over the GERD?
Many technical solutions are available, but the GERD issue is primarily political. Any technical solution will have political implications for long-term Nile water management. Ideally, an agreement based on “benefit-sharing” rather than “water-sharing” would help all three countries get as close as possible to an “ideal” solution.
Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt are each endowed with different resources that, if managed together, would maximise the benefits and reduce the costs of interventions in the River Nile system. Generating hydropower in Ethiopia is cheaper and comes with relatively low evaporation losses. The GERD, for example, could be used to generate cheap electricity to benefit Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt.
But the dam could also at the same time be operated to guarantee minimal changes to water availability in Sudan and Egypt in order to enable reliable agricultural production to improve food security in the three countries. Agriculture is cheaper and more productive in the relatively flat lands and floodplains of Sudan and Egypt. Such an alliance on natural resources could grow to become a form of economic integration that builds on the comparative advantages of each of the three countries.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.