On Monday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi called on his army to prepare for combat over Ethiopia’s plans to start filling its hydropower Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in the rainy season. He ordered the armed forces to be on the “highest state of alert.” In response, Ethiopia reportedly deployed anti-aircraft missiles in the vicinity of the Renaissance Dam.
Formerly known as the Millennium Dam, GERD is a gravity dam on the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia that has been under construction since 2011. At 6.45 gigawatts, the dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa when completed, as well as the seventh largest in the world. And as of October 2019, the works on the dam stood at approximately 70% completion. Once completed, the Dam’s reservoir could take from 5 to 15 years to fill with water, depending on hydrologic conditions, and, even more important: depending on the reactions of the countries most likely to be affected: Egypt and Sudan.
An Ethiopian Foreign Office spokesperson has stated on Monday that “Ethiopia’s plan to start filling GERD this rainy season is part of the scheduled construction without needing to notify Sudan and Egypt.” According to Ethiopia’s news agency ENA, the spokesman said: “There is no way that we have necessarily inform them (Egypt and Sudan) when we will start filling.”
On May 11, Egypt submits a 17-page letter to the United Nations Security Council protesting Ethiopia’s actions and demanding that it halt construction until an agreement is reached. On Monday, Addis Ababa sent a letter to the UNSC saying Ethiopia has no legal obligation to seek Egypt’s approval to fill GERD, and blamed Cairo for the deadlock in talks between the two countries.
The real impact of the dam on the downstream countries is not clear. Egypt fears a reduction of water availability due to the filling of the dam combined with evaporation from the reservoir. But the GERD reservoir is located in the temperate Ethiopian Highlands, and is 140 meters deep, so it is expected to experience considerably less evaporation than the downstream Lake Nasser reservoir in Egypt, which loses 12% of its water to evaporation each year. In fact, a controlled release of water from the GERD reservoir to downstream countries would actually increase Egypt’s and Sudan’s water supply by up to 5%.
The reservoir volume (74 billion cubic meters) is about 1.5 times the average annual flow of the Blue Nile at the Sudanese-Egyptian border. The loss to downstream countries could be spread over several years if the countries reach an agreement – but so far there has been more brandishing of swords than fruitful negotiations.
In January, delegations from Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan met three times in Washington, and Ethiopia pulled out of the final meeting, in February, where a deal was to be signed, calling for more time for internal consultations. After holding bilateral talks with Egypt and Sudan, the US released a statement saying it believed an agreement had been reached. On April 1, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced his country would start filling the GERD reservoir during the coming rainy season.
Depending on the initial storage in the Aswan High Dam, the filling schedule of the GERD would reduce water flow into Egypt, which will affect the livelihood of two million Egyptian farmers. It would also reduce Egypt’s electricity supply by 25% to 40%.
According to the UN, Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum have all indicated their willingness to resume discussions, but differences linger over the appropriate mechanism for such talks. UN experts say that Egypt wants to put international pressure on Ethiopia to agree to the proposal put forward by the United States and World Bank on the dam’s first filling and annual operation.
But Ethiopia is rejecting that idea as severely limiting the dam’s capacity to generate electricity and curtailing rights to future upstream development, among other reasons.
Egypt also insists that Ethiopia must not start filling the reservoir until an agreement is reached, in line with its interpretation of the Declaration that Ethiopia is contesting.
The semi-official newspaper al-Ahram wrote in an editorial on Tuesday (Ethiopian ruses): “After a decade of haggling, maneuvering, and time wasting, Ethiopia still thinks it can dupe the African and international communities into its falling for its narrative that the question of the dam is about national sovereignty and African identity rather than about international law, common rights to a shared watercourse and substantial threats to downstream nations. But it has fooled no one. All are aware that a country that cannot bring itself to respect international law and honor its commitments under international treaties and conventions will naturally try to exclude impartial third parties.”