An American-brokered deal is now set to end a nine-year-old stalemate involving three regional powers in Africa that has delayed construction of the continent’s biggest hydroelectric power plant and dam.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
Begun in 2011, the construction of the 6,000-megawatt Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Ethiopia’s northern highland may eventually become a reality after Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan agreed to sign a preliminary agreement. The deal is set to be complete by end of February, paving the way for completion of the project after four days of talk in Washington late this January.
The US Treasury has been sponsoring the talks with the participation of the World Bank since last November after Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi sought intervention from his U.S counterpart Donald Trump, who has been a close ally.
Additionally, on two occasions this January officials from the three countries delayed signing of the deal, resolving the dispute.
‘Close To Obtaining Solutions To The Issues’
“Since the involvement of the observers, it is encouraging that we [Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt] seem to get close to obtaining solutions to the issues that used to take extended time,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was quoted saying by the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA) when he gave a speech at a hearing session within the Ethiopian parliament, this past February 3.
Ethiopia’s Minister of Water, Irrigation, and Energy Sileshi Bekele said Feb. 7 that Egypt and Ethiopia had “solved the main disputes,” related to the dam as a consequence of the US-led mediation, according to the Asharq al-Awsat, an Arabic international newspaper headquartered in London.
Dam Still Not A Done Deal
However, the nations still have to finalize several aspects of the dam, including its safety and provisions for the resolution of disputes, according to a statement released after the U.S.-brokered deal.
“Documents to be signed will be further deliberated by legal team supported by technical team. This will continue beginning February to complete comprehensive document within 30 days,” Bekele recently wrote on Twitter.
How The US Is Helping
After years of trilateral negotiations failed, the US hosted several rounds of talks in Washington with ministers from the three regional powers and the World Bank, eventually clearing the way for the final stages of the dam agreement.
The dam is being built near the Ethiopia-Sudan border along the Blue Nile tributary in Ethiopia’s northern highland region which accounts for 90% of Egypt’s main source of water for consumption, industry and farming. Egypt is concerned that filling the reservoir behind the dam could significantly reduce the amount flowing into its borders from the upper Nile basin.
Even without taking the dam into account, Egypt—which is largely a desert—is significantly short of water. It imports about half its food products and recycles about 25 billion cubic meters of water annually. Cairo worries that the dam’s reservoir could lead to a reduction in the freshwater flow of the Nile into its territory. The Nile River flows through Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, but the largest share of the river runs through Egyptian territory.
Why Has The Dam Caused A Dispute?
The dam has been the source of a major dispute since it was announced. The main contention is the dam’s reservoir, which has a capacity of more than 74 billion cubic meters and will be flooded to form an artificial lake.
Cairo has consistently voiced its concerns that building the dam could harm its 55.5 billion cubic meters share as 80 percent of Egypt’s share comes from the Blue Nile.
Egypt seems reluctant to recognize any potential benefits, and openly dismissive of Ethiopia’s right to develop its own water resources. Research shows that the effects of filling the dam may initially dent Egypt’s water supply but that this trend will reverse once the dam is fully operational. Egypt can improve its irrigation practice and demand management to reduce the impact of reduced flow.
Another study suggests the dam will actually provide considerable long term benefits to both Egypt and Sudan by providing steady flow and reducing evaporation losses.
In the past, Ethiopia has said it wants to fill the reservoir as quickly as possible — ideally within the next seven years — to ensure the dam can operate at full capacity as soon as possible, an idea opposed by Egypt, fearing that if the dam is filled too fast, it could badly affect amount flowing into the country.
In turn, Egypt has accused Ethiopia of dismissing its concerns about water security, especially in the case of drought.
Experts: Cooperation On Dam Is Possible
International experts say it should be possible to reach an agreement on the joint management of the river system and that there are examples from other river basins such as the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan.
“Agreements for filling the GERD should consider the possibility of droughts occurring during the filling process, which may include arrangements on how the three countries might adapt under these conditions,” said Kevin Wheeler, of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University. “Considering shared drought management strategies over the long term—after the filling process is complete—is also very important.”
Egypt’s farmers are already facing dry fields because of water scarcity due to a combination of factors such as rapidly growing population, climate change and antiquated irrigation systems. The United Nations has predicted Egypt will face an “absolute water crisis” by 2025.
Also the Egyptian government had feared that Ethiopia’s dam will make the situation worse.
Egypt Wants To Project Power In The Region
However, some also believe Egypt’s protests are about asserting its power in the region.
“It’s not about technical [aspects], it’s not about harming the downstream countries,” Meressa Kassu, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, was quoted by Deutsche Welle (DW) saying this January.
“I think showing [their] power and hegemony in the region could be [Egypt’s aim],” he said. “In the Declaration of Principles on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, it is clear that any [upstream] countries will not significantly harm the downstream countries,” added Kassu.
Initially Addis Ababa was saying Egypt wantd to control Ethiopia’s water system and had rejected Cairo’s call for international mediation. With Ethiopia’s envoy to London, Fesseha Shawel Gebre saying: “Egypt wants to have veto power, telling Ethiopia what it can do.”
Ethiopian economic researcher Amen Abdela has also dismissed Egypt’s claims.
“The claims of the Egyptian government are not, by any means, supported by evidence,” he told DW.
The The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI)
Diplomatic concerns include the fact that, for a long time, Egypt and Sudan have believed that they have more right to the waters of the Nile than other countries. Previous rounds of negotiations, of which there have been many, had failed to reach a comprise.
The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), an intergovernmental partnership of 10 Nile Basin countries set up in 1999 to foster cooperation among the 11 countries that share the river, has had its work hindered by Sudan and Egypt’s attitude, among other issues.
The biggest mega-structure on the Nile River is the Aswan High Dam built in Egypt which has stood for the last 60 years as a symbol of Egypt’s hegemony on the river, and provided Egypt with power, water security and a strategic geopolitical advantage.
GRED Could Make Ethiopia Africa’s Largest Power Exporter
When completed, the GRED will become the centerpiece in Ethiopia’s bid to become Africa’s biggest power exporter including challenging the status quo set by the Aswan High Dam. Both dams, then, will tower over different portions of the Nile River, starkly representing the dependence of the two nations on the river’s water.
In Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous nation, constant power shortages stifle economic growth. The hydropower plant is expected to bring the country’s electricity generation to more than triple its current capacity. Aside from a $1 billion loan from China for a transmission line—the government projects a $4.02 billion cost for the dam—with more than $1.3 billion already spent.
Invariably Ethiopia sees the dam as fundamental to its economic development. Because of this, the government wants the dam completed as soon as possible as it seeks to transform the country into an industrial nation and boost the economy.
“The government expects a return on this investment,” says economic researcher Abdela. “The issue that Ethiopia should complete the project [on time] is very important, otherwise prolonging the period of [construction] will further impact the economy.”
Ethiopia’s Current Power Grid Instability
Just half of Ethiopia’s population of 105 million is connected to the main grid. Even those with access to electricity, including those living in the capital Addis Ababa, have to contend with frequent blackouts.
The government also hopes to export surplus electricity generated by the dam to neighboring nations. During the January meeting the three countries reached an agreement on only three points of contention regarding the construction of the controversial dam.
Consensus Reached At January Meeting On GRED
During this January’s meeting a consensus was reached including a plan for filling the dam in stages, and on mechanisms for dealing with droughts, prolonged droughts, and years of water scarcity during the process of filling the dam, and during the dam operation.
The US drafted a document of agreement regarding the three above-mentioned points and was unilaterally signed by Egypt. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that three primary elements, which are a large percentage of the final agreement, had been agreed upon paving way for the next round of talks.
“All remaining issues will be addressed during the next discussion. There is a need for political intervention on them, and there is recognition that within 30 days a comprehensive final decision will be reached,” Shoukry said in a televised address.
The joint statement, released after three days of meetings in Washington however failed to give details on how long it would take to fill the dam, saying only that it would start in the 2020 rainy season and occur in stages.