While Egypt and Ethiopia have publicly stated that they will resume negotiations aimed at producing a legally binding agreement on the rules for filling and operating the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), neither side has stated when the talks will begin, where they will be held, who will take part, or what the agenda will be.
The last round of negotiations took place in April 2021. Hosted by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the then chair of the African Union (AU), the talks broke down when Ethiopia rejected an Egyptian proposal to allow the US, EU and World Bank to join the AU in the mediating process.
According to local and international press reports, the decision to return to the negotiating table came after months of secret mediation efforts by Russia and South Africa, and after President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met twice with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, once on the sidelines of the global finance summit in Paris in June, and then during the summit of Sudan’s neighbours which Cairo hosted in mid-July.
It is still unclear whether Sudan will take part in the talks given the ongoing conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces.
When talks do resume, Egypt is expected to present a comprehensive vision for the filling and operation of the dam and a proposal for integrating the electricity produced with the Egyptian grid preparatory to its export abroad. The revenues generated would be a boon for the struggling Ethiopian economy.
Egypt has extensive experience in dam construction and operation, irrigation systems and electricity, starting with the Qanater barrages (1860) and the Aswan Dam (1902) and culminating with the construction of the High Dam in 1971. Egypt has helped many Arab and African countries build dams for irrigation and electricity generating purposes and is home to one of the largest electricity grids in the developing world, with linkups to neighbouring countries.
Though GERD was designed primarily to generate electricity, so far only two of its 16 planned turbines have gone into operation. Egypt hopes that at least 13 turbines can be brought online so that some of the energy produced can be exported via Egypt, with the water used for hydroelectric production released into the Nile again.
“The negotiations will not be easy,” says Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University. “The dispute has lasted more than 10 years and the failed rounds have generated sensitivities and mistrust.”
The negotiations aimed to reach agreement on the rules for operating and filling the dam. Disputes included how to manage periods of drought and the mechanisms needed to resolve disputes.
Lower than average rainfall could affect Egypt and Sudan’s water quotas as set out in internationally recognised agreements.
“The filling of the dam is linked to rainfall. Most of the filling should take place in the rainiest seasons and be scaled down when rainfall is lower,” says Sharaki. It is also important to sustain the levels of the reservoirs behind Sudan’s own dams, making it imperative “the countries that rely on the Blue Nile coordinate”.
According to Sharaki, Ethiopia “used various ruses to procrastinate,” including insisting on a Nile quota of its own and suggesting all Nile Basin nations take part in the talks.
Before the High Dam, Egypt and Sudan had a quota of 48.5 billion m3 and 4.5 billion m3 respectively. Once the dam was complete, it made 23 billion m3 more water available. This was divided between the two countries, bringing Egypt’s quota up to 55 billion and Sudan’s to 18.5 billion.
GERD has been raised by another 25 metres to reach 125 metres above the riverbed. It is now scheduled for its fourth filling and the amount of water that can be stored in the reservoir will increase considerably as a result. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has said the fourth filling will take place in August and September to ensure the continued flow of Nile water to Egypt and Sudan, as reported by Ethiopian news outlets.
Sharaki notes, however, that “Ethiopia does not control how the dam releases water.”
“The height of the body of the dam does not offer options for postponing or reducing the filling. There are only two openings at the bottom of the dam to release water in the event of emergencies, and they only allow 30 million m3 to pass through a day.”
According to the Ethiopian Ministry of Irrigation, the reservoir has grown to 22 billion m3 over the past three years. Sharaki maintains that while the quantity is considerably lower, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 17 billion, it has already resulted in losses to Egypt’s and Sudan’s quotas.
“Egypt has had to compensate for these losses by tapping the High Dam reservoir and through industrial and agricultural water treatment projects that cost hundreds of billions of pounds,” he says.
Khaled Mahmoud, a journalist specialising in the Horn of Africa, believes it will take more than one negotiating round to reach a binding reaching agreement on the rules for filling and operating the dam.
“We have to build trust after years of tension and foot-dragging tactics,” he notes. And while the mediating efforts of other parties will be helpful, as would more Ethiopian flexibility, “none of this will yield satisfactory results in a single round, meaning we’ll have to wait and see.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly