President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and his US counterpart Joe Biden called for an agreement to be reached on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) without delay.
“President Biden reiterated US support for Egypt’s water security and to forging a diplomatic resolution that will achieve the interests of all parties and contribute to a more peaceful and prosperous region,” read the joint statement issued after their meeting in Saudi Arabia this week while attending the Jeddah Summit for Security and Development.
In addition, during their meeting in Germany on Monday, President Al-Sisi and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz underlined the importance of breaking the current stalemate in GERD talks to reach a balanced, legally-binding solution on the filling and operation of the dam.
Addis Ababa, however, started the third filling of the GERD reservoir last week in a flagrant violation of the conventions governing international rivers.
Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor, believes it is high time for the US to intervene and resolve the matter given that Biden has clearly stated Washington’s support of Egypt’s water security and underlined the importance of complying with international laws.
“We should still stick to the political track. The US needs to play a role — before and after the filling. It has, after all, appointed an envoy to follow up on all the issues,” he said.
Abbas Sharaki, a professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, said that this year water shortages will not pose a threat though the filling does present a fait accompli for the third year in a row. He explained that work is ongoing to raise the height of the middle passage so that as much water can be stored as possible.
“Technically speaking, it remains unclear how high the middle corridor of the dam will be. Construction work on the corridor will continue until the last moment before the flood. The third filling is expected to be between 4 to 5.5 billion cubic metres (bcm), meaning the total amount of water stored will be between 12 and 13.5 bcm,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
A diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that projects established to optimise water supplies, including new water treatment plants and schemes to reuse agriculture waste water, mean that Egypt has yet to feel the impact of the third filling. “There is a dire need, however, to reach an agreement as soon as possible to regulate the filling and operation of the dam and avoid water shortage in the future,” he said.
Ethiopia’s aim is to add an additional 10 bcm of water annually until the reservoir target of 74 bcm is reached. Its original plan was to store 18.5 bcm in the first filling, but only 5 bcm were stored, and just 3 bcm in the second.
Sharaki insists that any water stored this year or in the coming years is actually Sudanese-Egyptian water which Egypt could have used in agriculture, making a return of $1 billion per billion cubic metres.
The situation in Sudan is even more grave, he said, because of the inadequate exchange of information. “It causes confusion in the operation of Sudan’s own dams. Advance knowledge of the filling and release of water by GERD helps Sudan decide on how to operate its own small dams in a way that avoids the possibility of damage,” he explained.
“In addition to seeking a US role, Egypt and Sudan can work together to lobby for support within the African Union (AU), especially among the Nile Basin countries such as Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania,” Fahmi said.
GERD’ s first turbine, which is supposed to generate 375 megawatts, began partial operation in February, and at the time Ethiopian officials said a second turbine would be tested “within weeks” though there is no evidence that this has happened.
Cairo and Khartoum vociferously oppose Ethiopia’s unilateral filling of the dam. Negotiations ground to a halt in April last year, since when Egypt and Sudan have repeatedly expressed their willingness to resume talks to reach a legally binding agreement.
When the UN Security Council met last July to discuss the issue, Tunisia — the only Arab (non-permanent) member of the council — submitted a draft resolution calling on Ethiopia to negotiate in good faith and setting a timetable of six months to reach an agreement under the umbrella of the AU, but the session concluded without a vote on the draft resolution.
The Security Council did, however, issue a presidential statement two months later urging Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt to resume negotiations under the auspices of the AU and “finalise the text of a mutually acceptable agreement on filling and operating the dam within a reasonable time frame”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.