Work takes place at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam near Guba, Ethiopia, last December. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images)

Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan at Loggerheads over Nile Dam Agreement

Egyptian sources fear US pressure to accept untenable conditions, call talks “disaster”; in October, Ethiopia threatened war if agreement could not be reached

CAIRO – Egyptian diplomats and water management experts remain on edge after the latest round of US Treasury- and World Bank-mediated talks in Washington, which ended last Wednesday without a comprehensive agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

The 510-foot-tall, 5,840-foot-long structure cements Ethiopia’s dominance over the headwaters of the Blue Nile, source of 80% of Egypt’s water.

Once operational, the GERD will produce over 6,000 megawatts of electricity and will become Africa’s largest hydropower dam.

As negotiators prepare to return to the US capital on January 28, knowledgeable sources in Cairo say on background that despite the urging of US President Donald Trump that parties reach a mutually beneficial agreement, “the talks have turned into a disaster.”

They fear the American administration is urging Egypt to accept untenable conditions to finalize a deal to validate the US as an effective “deal-maker” in African disputes.

On Tuesday, Trump met with the foreign affairs and water resources ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan at the White House to discuss progress on dam talks.

Wednesday’s joint statement issued by Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, the United States Treasury and the World Bank underscored a “joint commitment to reach a comprehensive, cooperative, adaptive, sustainable, and mutually beneficial agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.”

“The statement issued Wednesday is just an indicator of the possibility of an agreement,” said Tarek El Khouly, deputy chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in Egypt’s House of Representatives. “But we cannot say that we are yet in agreement, even in principle.”

On Thursday, the independent website Mada Masr reported the “administration pressuring Egypt to accept Ethiopia’s proposals in return for compensation from the World Bank” for water shortages likely to be caused by the filling of the reservoir behind the GERD.

That reservoir’s total capacity is 74 billion cubic meters while a 1959 treaty gives Egypt the right to 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water yearly.

“The main point is that Egypt should not experience years of drought while Ethiopia is filling the dam,” El Khouly told The Media Line.

Last week’s communique confirmed common understandings that the dam’s fill time would be executed in stages” during Ethiopia’s rainy season.

“We [already] know that the Blue Nile is a seasonal river and the rain in Ethiopia starts around June and ends in November,” said Nader Noureldeen, a soil and water resources professor at Cairo University. “These are the only months the reservoir can be filled anyway.”

“The statement does not mention ensuring a minimum level of water to be allocated to Egypt,” Noureldeen told The Media Line. “We need to ensure a minimum amount of not less than 40 billion cubic meters annually.” The average flow of the Blue Nile before the building of the Renaissance Dam has been around 50 billion cubic meters.

While the agreement in principle released Wednesday outlines mitigation measures for Egypt and Sudan in case of severe drought, the parties have yet to agree on how these provisions will be implemented.

“There are many issues that must be addressed to reach an agreement,” explained Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who called into the highly rated Rami Radwan show broadcast Friday on the army-owned DMC channel.

Addis Ababa started construction on the dam in 2011 when Egypt was in the midst of the popular uprising that ousted longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

“It is necessary to translate the concepts contained in the statement into specific numbers and to specific times that are legally formulated before we can conclude a final agreement that can be signed,” Shoukry added.

But with three-quarters of their country lacking electricity, Ethiopian leaders say that the dam is necessary to power their fast-growing country.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed warned last October that if the need arose to go to war over the dam, his country could ready millions of people.

Before last week’s talks, a coalition of Egyptian academics and civil society leaders circulated a petition calling on the United Nations and African Union to exert pressure on Ethiopia to “avert potential conflict in the region” over GERD.

Their core concerns have yet to be addressed.

They note that only one single number has been agreed upon – which allows for Ethiopia to rapidly achieve a water volume of 595 meters above sea level behind the dam’s reservoir. This level enables Addis Ababa to start generating electricity from its $5 billion investment in the facility by the end of 2027.

However, a crucial and much-discussed “mechanism” to gauge water flow over the dam and set guidelines for its operation in drought years has yet to be defined.

“The implementation mechanism has not been clarified for filling the reservoir other than laying down general unspecified principles,” said Abbas Sharaky, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University.

“The [Washington] statement does not specify what the filling conditions are or the storage requirements for [Egypt’s Aswan] High Dam or the Sudanese dams,” Sharaky told The Media Line.

A May 2017 study by the Geological Society of America predicted that Egypt would suffer a 25% shortage in its annual water quota if the reservoir were filled in five to seven years.

Ethiopia’s continued insistence that the reservoir fill time can only be drawn out over seven years is deeply worrisome to Egyptians.

Water shortages would pose “a great danger to the Egyptian Delta,” said Mahmoud Farouk, program coordinator for civil society partnerships at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington. “Moreover, 17% of Egypt’s agricultural land could be destroyed if Ethiopia fills the reservoir in six years, and that figure rises to 51% if they fill it within three years.”

“My main fear is that Ethiopia might continue to ignore these concerns,” Farouk said. “Water is a matter of life or death to Egyptians – putting Egypt in the corner isn’t the right policy at all.”

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