GERD: Potentials and pitfalls

Doaa El-Bey , Friday 11 Mar 2022

The European Union says it is willing to play a greater role in pushing for an agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

The site of GERD in Guba, Ethiopia, on February 19, 2022.  Photo: AFP
The site of GERD in Guba, Ethiopia, on February 19, 2022. Photo: AFP

Minister of Water Resources Mohamed Abdel-Ati, and EU Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Annette Weber linked regional integration and cooperation to resolving the ongoing dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Last week, Abdel-Ati said that an agreement on GERD between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia would pave the way for future cooperation and regional integration, though he added, during his meeting with Weber in Cairo, that finalising any agreement on the filling and operation of the dam would require Ethiopia to exhibit the necessary political will.

He stressed that unilateral operation of the dam could only lead to disruptions in water management that will harm Egypt and Sudan.

Weber called for a tripartite agreement that would enhance regional integration, and in a meeting with the press during her visit, expressed the EU’s readiness to play a greater role in resolving the dispute between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over GERD.

The EU’s present role is to follow and observe the African Union (AU)-sponsored talks that ground to a halt in April 2021, explained a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.  

“Now the bloc is saying it wants to engage more to help reach an agreement. What it needs to clarify is whether that will be under the umbrella of the AU or not, and how the EU’s role might differ from that in previous negotiations. Whatever happens, it needs to be done quickly, and within a set time frame, because time is tight,” he said.

Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, agreed with the diplomat that time is running short, and there is an urgent need to reach an agreement before Addis Ababa takes further steps towards a third filling of the dam.

Ethiopia has already started generating electricity from the dam, with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declaring last month that GERD’s first turbine was now operational. The Ethiopian News Agency has reported that preparations for the operation of the second turbine are currently underway.

In response, Egypt sent a letter to the UN Security Council describing the operation of the turbine as “another fundamental breach” of the Declaration of Principles (DoP) signed in 2015 in the Sudanese capital Khartoum by the then leaders of the three countries.

The letter, which was handed last month to Vassily Nebenzia — Russia is the current president of the UNSC — stated that Cairo categorically rejects Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to begin operating the dam, and pointed out that Ethiopia has consistently failed to conduct studies assessing GERD’s hydrological, social, economic, and environmental impacts.

“The letter is an attempt to remind the world of Addis Ababa’s unilateral actions, including the filling of the dam in 2020 and 2021,” said the anonymous diplomat. “These have now been followed by the pilot operation of the first turbine, yet another breach of the DoP which stipulates clearly that a legally binding agreement must be reached ahead of any filling and operation of the dam.”

Sudan characterised Ethiopia’s unilateral action in operating the turbine as “incompatible with the spirit of cooperation” and a “fundamental breach” of Addis Ababa’s international commitments.

In the absence of any corroborating evidence, Addis Ababa continues to insist that GERD will cause zero harm to downstream states. Dina Mufti, spokesperson of Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry, described Egypt and Sudan’s criticism of the operation of the first turbine as “absolutely absurd”.

But is the turbine actually working? Satellite images taken two weeks after Ahmed’s announcement, says Sharaki, show no sign that the turbine is operating. Instead, they reveal that water is still running through the central passage of the dam, and the basin that is supposed to receive water from the turbine appears to be empty.

It would appear that Ahmed’s announcement was directed towards appeasing domestic opinion, Sharaki told Al-Ahram Weekly. If anything was done during the supposed test run, it was for far too short a duration to have produced any electricity, he added.

Whatever the substance of Ahmed’s announcement, Sharaki warns that it is yet another sign that Ethiopia has no intention of abandoning its unilateral actions, and that “restarting the negotiation and reaching a deal are urgently required to avoid more unilateral steps.”

Egypt and Sudan, that do not oppose the construction of the dam, have been engaged in on/off negotiations with Ethiopia for a decade in an attempt to agree rules for the filling and operation of GERD, only for their every suggestion to be rejected by Addis Ababa.

Egypt fears that the continued filling of the dam in the absence of an agreement will reduce the flow of Nile water on which Egypt depends. Sudan is worried Ethiopia’s unilateral actions will endanger its own dams.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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