GERD fears

Doaa El-Bey , Tuesday 2 Apr 2024

As Ethiopia prepares for a fifth filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Cairo has warned Addis Ababa of the possible impacts on Egypt, reports Doaa El-Bey

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam


“Any dam constructed on the Nile affects Egypt. Some impacts are manageable, others are not. Ethiopia will be liable for any impact on Egypt,” said Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Hani Sewilam during last week’s World Water Day.

Sending a clear message to Ethiopia, Sewilam referred to the 2015 Declaration of Principles (DoP) which states that any party responsible for downstream harm must bear the costs.

Sewilam also said Egypt will not continue with negotiations in their present form, describing them as a “waste of time”, and renewed calls for a binding legal agreement covering periods of drought, prolonged drought condition, the filling phase of the dam’s reservoir, and the operation of the dam. 

“In referring to one of the articles in the DoP signed by Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia in 2015, Sewilam was reminding Ethiopia that it is Egypt’s right to ask for compensation for any harm caused,” explained Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University.

The DoP states that “in case significant damage is caused to one of these countries, the country causing the damage should take all the necessary procedures to alleviate this damage and discuss compensation.” But any compensation, points out Cairo University professor of land and water resources Nader Noureldin, would require the file be referred to the International Court of Justice and the consent of all involved parties, a long and difficult process.

Addis Ababa is preparing for a fifth filling of the dam’s reservoir. Ninety-four per cent of the construction work is complete, according to Sileshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s chief GERD negotiator. Work on raising the height of the middle passage began in December and it has now reached 630 metres above sea level. 

Given the current height of the middle passage, the fifth storage will involve seven billion cubic metres (bcm), bringing the total amount of water stored in the dam’s reservoir to 48 bcm.

“But if they continue to raise the middle passage, the next storage could reach 23 bcm, taking the total amount of water stored to 64 bcm,” warns Sharaki.

Storage will start in the rainy season which lasts from July to mid-September when Ethiopia is also expected to start installing the dam’s higher turbines.

Tripartite talks between Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia were revived last year following a meeting in July between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on the sidelines of Sudan’s Neighbouring Countries Summit in Cairo during which the two leaders agreed to finalise an agreement on the filling and operation of GERD within four months. Though Ethiopia expressed its commitment to respecting Egypt and Sudan’s water needs, Addis Ababa nonetheless unilaterally stored 24 bcm of Nile water during the fourth filling of the dam.

The talks, which were abandoned in December after failing to make any progress, were the first since negotiations sponsored by the African Union collapsed in April 2021.

Last year’s negotiations were expected to discuss the timeframe for filling the dam’s remaining capacity, says Noureldin. The reservoir has a projected capacity of 75 bcm. Addis Ababa insisted on filling 23 bcm this year and the remaining 10 bcm next year while Egypt wanted the 33 bcm to be filled over three years.

“The talks ended without any information on the size of the fifth filling which Egypt needs to calculate how much water to release from Lake Nasser. Will it be 23 bcm as some media leaks have stated, or 17 bcm over two years or 11 bcm over three years as Egypt wants?” 

The negotiations were also expected to address the flow of water. Egypt and Sudan wanted Addis Ababa to operate the 13 turbines in a way that guaranteed downstream water flow while Ethiopia insisted on operating the turbines according to its own timetable, details of which it failed to divulge.

“Now the operation process has effectively been left in the hands of Ethiopia there are no guarantees that enough water will be released to ensure a sufficient supply to Egypt and Sudan during periods of drought or double drought,” says Noureldin.

Cairo and Khartoum have consistently opposed the continued filling of the dam in the absence of a binding agreement on GERD’s operation. Cairo fears the process will reduce the flow of Nile water on which Egypt depends while Sudan is worried Ethiopia’s unilateral actions will endanger its own dams.

Egypt’s per capita supply of water stands at 550 cubic metres, well below the international threshold for water scarcity. Countries are considered water scarce when their annual supplies drop below 1,000 cubic metres per person.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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