The war in Ukraine has led to a sharp hike in food and energy prices worldwide, raising more concerns about developments on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2022 and Addis Ababa’s continuous resolve to act unilaterally in making it operational.
Breaking the deadlock on the dam was complicated before the outbreak of the war, and its repercussions have introduced further obstacles.
“I would not be surprised if Ethiopia soon declares the preparation for the fourth filling of the dam reservoir as planned. That will definitely cause problems with water supply to Egypt, which is already in need of more water to ease the impacts of the war,” said one diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Dwindling wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine as a result of the war will force Egypt to increase cultivating domestic wheat and will make it more conscious of the threats posed to its agriculture and water needs by the GERD.
Political analysts have expressed concerns that the war has also weakened the international momentum to solve the dispute between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over Addis Ababa’s resolve to act unilaterally on the dam.
The situation is more uncertain given the assumption that the impacts of the war are likely to continue through 2023 at least, in addition to Egypt’s growing population and consequent increasing need for water.
All these factors are putting more pressure on Egypt to seek a formal commitment from Ethiopia to reach an agreement on the filling and future operation of the dam. This should guarantee that the flow of the much-needed water will not be affected by it.
The war in Ukraine has had repercussions on Egypt, given that it depends on external sources for its food, especially wheat. Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world, and it imports more than 60 per cent of its needs, most of which comes from Ukraine and Russia.
Wheat is a staple food for most Egyptians, who depend on subsidised bread at a cheap price.
Throughout 2022, Egypt has continued to assert its firm stance regarding the necessity of reaching a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD in order to achieve the common interests of all parties and preserve Egypt’s water security.
Early this month, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi renewed demands that Ethiopia engage in good faith with Egypt and Sudan to reach an agreement on the GERD in his speech during the first Arab-China Summit meeting in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
“I renew the call for the brothers in Ethiopia to necessarily engage in good faith with Egypt and Sudan to reach a legally binding agreement that ensures the right of development of the current and future generations and spares them something that threatens their stability, security, and integrity,” Al-Sisi told the summit.
The same calls were repeated by Al-Sisi and other officials at various international forums earlier in the year.
Underlining the fact that the GERD represents a threat to Arab security, as a threat to Egypt is a threat to all the Arabs, Al-Sisi said in a speech at the 31st Arab Summit in Algeria last month that the water security issue caused by the dam impacts on a number of Arab countries and will bring serious consequences for water supplies if concerns continue to be ignored.
He called on Addis Ababa to show the necessary resolve and good will by negotiating to reach an agreement.
The UN COP27 Climate Conference in November was another chance for Egypt to draw international attention to the GERD. Cairo highlighted the urgency of ending its struggle to secure its water resources and resolve the existential threat of reduced water supplies from the Nile because of the GERD.
“Egypt managed to a great extent to draw the attention of the international community to the pressing water issue it is facing because of climate change on the one hand and the GERD on the other. However, the international community seems to be burdened by other more pressing matters, namely the impacts of the war in Ukraine,” the diplomat said.
During the COP27, Al-Sisi raised the GERD issue during a meeting with Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and her accompanying delegation. He stressed the necessity of reaching a binding legal agreement on filling and operating the dam in order to achieve the interests of all parties and maintain Egypt’s water security.
Ethiopia, for its part, sought to promote the GERD as a project to confront climate change during the COP27 sessions. In his speech at the conference, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said that the dam was expected to be “a vital source of energy for the country and the region”, pointing to the fact that access to electricity in his country was still below 50 per cent.
Following the third filling of the dam in July, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri sent a letter to the UN Security Council expressing Egypt’s “total rejection” of Ethiopia’s approach to filling the reservoir.
photo: Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian
Shoukri urged the international body to assume its responsibilities and intervene to ensure the implementation of the presidential statement issued last year by the Security Council.
Egypt has referred the GERD to the UN twice before. In 2021, Cairo and Sudan petitioned the Security Council on it. During a meeting in July 2021, Tunisia, then a non-permanent member of the council, submitted a draft resolution calling on Ethiopia to negotiate in good faith and set a timetable of six months to reach an agreement under the umbrella of the African Union. The session concluded without a vote.
However, in mid-September the international body issued a presidential statement calling on Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan to “take forward the AU-led negotiation process in a constructive and cooperative manner… and to resume negotiations at the invitation of the chairperson of the African Union to finalise expeditiously the text of a mutually acceptable and binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD within a reasonable time frame.”
The Arab states and EU countries supported the statement, saying that Egypt’s interests must be protected.
Egypt sent its first letter to the Security Council in June 2020 requesting, under Article 35 of the UN Charter, a meeting of the body on the GERD. The meeting was held later in the same month, and the international body urged the three countries to return to the AU-sponsored tripartite negotiations.
International pressure is still widely regarded as the most effective means to bring the involved parties, especially Ethiopia, back to the negotiating table. However, many political analysts have expressed their belief that the US is capable of convincing or putting pressure on Egypt and Ethiopia to reach an agreement.
Throughout 2022, there were some signs of a more active US role, raising hopes of an imminent breakthrough on the GERD.
On the sidelines of the COP27, US President Joe Biden reiterated his country’s support for Egypt’s water security and water rights during a meeting with President Al-Sisi. This was the first visit by Biden to Egypt since taking office in 2020.
In July, the US administration reiterated its support for Egypt’s water security and also called for an agreement over the use of water from the Nile that addressed the concerns of each country.
The US administration appointed Mike Hammer as special envoy for the Horn of Africa in June, a move regarded by political analysts as an indication of the seriousness of the US in resolving the dam file.
Hammer paid the region two visits in July and October as part of ongoing US efforts to support the launch of AU-led peace talks between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia.
There are hopes of a breakthrough during the US-Africa Summit meeting in Washington from 13 to 15 December. The meeting will be attended by the three states involved and other African states, showing the US commitment to Africa.
Although the US has repeatedly expressed its concern about Egypt’s water security this year, noted the diplomat, “its statements have been vague and non-committal, which is why they are not followed by action.”
Sudan, the other downstream country that is likely to be affected by the GERD, has also continued to call for dialogue to resolve the differences over the GERD and reach a legally binding agreement between the three states.
One of the poorest countries in the world, Sudan has been going through political uncertainties, a change of regime, a transitional government, and an arduous road to democracy. It continues to face intersecting political and economic challenges. Over and above the already difficult situation in Sudan, the war in Ukraine has made living conditions even more difficult.
These difficult conditions further underline the urgency of reaching a deal that will allow Khartoum and Addis Ababa to arrange the filling of the dam in a way that will protect Sudan from the disastrous impacts of floods.
The same stand was reiterated earlier this month during a meeting of Sudan’s GERD negotiating team with Transitional Sovereignty Council (TSC) Vice President General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who said that settling the GERD issue can only be achieved through dialogue.
Egypt is one of the most arid countries in the world and relies on the Nile for over 90 per cent of its water resources and fears that the GERD could limit water flows.
Although Egypt has adopted a policy to rationalise water consumption and established various projects to preserve water, the country’s water resources are not sufficient to meet growing demand.
It has drawn up a strategic plan for managing its water resources until 2037 at an estimated cost of $50 billion. This is based on four main pillars: improving water quality; establishing bilateral and tertiary treatment plants; developing new water resources through seawater desalination; and rationalising the consumption of available water resources.
However, its dependence on the Nile will not change. Water demand is also likely to further increase in the coming decade due to the growth of population as well as climate change.
The GERD’s reservoir capacity is 74 billion cubic metres (bcm) of water. Ethiopia’s aim is to fill 10 bcm annually until the target of 74 bcm is reached. Its original plan was to store 18.5 bcm in the first filling, but only five bcm were stored in 2020 and three bcm in 2021. Another nine bcm were stored this year.
The project’s current timeline calls for total commercial operation to begin in 2025. The construction of the dam began in 2011.
The GERD is located on the Blue Nile, a major tributary of the Nile River, about 500 km northwest of Ethiopia’s capital and just 15 km from the border with Sudan.
The dam is supposed to have more than a dozen 375 MW turbines. The first of these began delivering power in February this year, and a second turbine entered service in August.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly