Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan may be poised to end a decade-long dispute over waters from the River Nile, agreeing on June 27 to conclude trilateral negotiations and reach final agreement about the first filling and annual operation of the massive 6.4-GW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) within the next two weeks.
The agreement announced on Friday marks an important reprieve in escalating tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt after U.S.-mediated talks collapsed in February. But reaching a concrete resolution won’t be easy, owing in large part to the demands of each country, as well as the ever-more complex negotiating landscape in which the resolution is being sought.
According to the Ethiopian Office of the Prime Minister, Ethiopia is scheduled to begin filling the GERD reservoir on the Blue Nile—a significant Nile tributary—within the next two weeks, “during which the remaining construction work will continue.” The office added: “It is in this period that the three countries have agreed to reach a final agreement of [a] few pending matters.”
But in a series of public statements from the Egyptian government over the past week, Egypt appears to be pushing for a legally binding agreement under international law before filling can begin. Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, meanwhile, summarized the outcome of the summit last week simply: “It has been agreed upon that the dam filling will be delayed until an agreement is reached.”
A Gigantic Dispute
The agreement to invigorate talks last week was brokered by the African Union (AU) in an executive council virtual session that was chaired by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and attended by notable African leaders, including the presidents of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and Kenya.
It’s also especially notable that during that “Extraordinary Bureau of Assembly of Heads of State and Government” session on June 26, the AU pointedly requested the UN Security Council to “take note of the fact that the AU is seized of this matter.” The AU noted Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan are founding members of the pan-African body, and it underscored that the GERD project holds remarkable potential for the entire continent. AU Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat also stressed that more than 90% of the issues in the “Tripartite Negotiations” between the three countries “have already been resolved.”
However, all three countries had representatives at a UN Security Council meeting held three days later, on June 29, to discuss the contentious dispute. In opening remarks on the matter, members from Indonesia, Belgium, and France applauded the AU’s leadership role in the matter. The Council’s involvement “should not be seen as precedent, but should be part of our collective efforts to resume negotiations, and to come up with amicable, acceptable, and implementable solution,” as the member from Indonesia noted. “In line with our long-standing position in advancing regional organization, we believe that resolving this issue in its original context is one of the best options.”
But in a strongly worded speech delivered at that meeting, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said the Security Council’s involvement is “necessary,” because the “eventuality” of any unilateral action by Ethiopia to begin filling the dam without a legally binding agreement under international law “represents a serious threat to international peace and security.” The dispute could “provoke crises and conflict that [could] further destabilize an already troubled region,” he warned.
Egypt said it elected to bring the matter to the Security Council “to forestall further escalation and to ensure unilateral actions do not undermine efforts to reach an agreement on the GERD.” As significantly, however, Egypt also introduced a draft resolution that Shoukry said was in line with the AU summit. “It encourages the three states to reach an agreement within two weeks, and not to take any unilateral measures in relation to the GERD, and emphasizes the important role of the U.N. Secretary General in this regard,” he said.
Why Is GERD So Contentious?
The developments are the latest in a long string of diplomatic haranguing about the mammoth $4.6 billion hydropower project. Since Ethiopia launched GERD in 2011, the project has garnered significant international scrutiny about its potential political, hydrological, environmental, and economic consequences, especially on Egypt and Sudan. These countries, which lie downstream from the dam’s location on the Blue Nile in the Eastern Nile basin, heavily depend on the Nile for freshwater supplies.
Egypt’s Shoukry put it starkly on Monday: “We in Egypt populate the most arid of the Nile Basin riparian states and one of the most water-impoverished nations on earth. This harsh reality compels us to inhabit no more than 7% of our territory along a slender strip of green and a fertile delta teeming with millions of souls, whose annual share of water is no more than 560 cubic meters, which places Egypt well below the international threshold of water scarcity,” he said.
“Survival is not a question of choice, but an imperative of nature,” he said.
But for Ethiopia, GERD is a landmark project with extraordinary national significance—and Ethiopia frequently describes it as a pillar of its future economic and energy security. If built, it could more than double Ethiopia’s power capacity and render it into a formidable energy exporter in the energy-hungry East African region.
Located about 500 kilometers northwest of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, in the region of Benishangul-Gumuz-Gumaz, along the Blue Nile, the project is being built by Webuild Group, a subsidiary of Italian construction giant Salini Costruttori S.p.A., for state-owned Ethiopian Electric Power.
Webuild says GERD is more than 70% complete. When completed, the hydroelectric project will be 1,800 meters (m) long, 155 m high, and have a total volume of 10.4 million cubic feet. The project involves construction of a main dam in roller compacted concrete (RCC), with two power plants installed at the foot of the dam. It uses 16 Francis turbines each offering 375 MW. The project also involves a 15,000 m3/s capacity concrete spillway and a rockfall saddle dam.
A key point of contention is that the project will flood 1,700 square kilometers of forest in northwestern Ethiopia, creating a dam reservoir that could become nearly as large as Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake. Egypt contends that the structure is being built without “sufficient scientific data.”
On Monday, Shoukry said: “If, God forbid, the GERD experiences structural failures or faults, it would place the Sudanese people under unimaginable peril and would expose Egypt to unthinkable hazards. Indeed, our concerns in this regard are not unwarranted. In 2010, the headrace tunnel of the Gibe II dam constructed across the Omo River collapsed within days of the completion of its construction.”
A Project of National Prosperity for Ethiopia
Despite various delays, Ethiopia asserts it has spared no effort in ensuring GERD will be successful. In a letter submitted to the UN Security Council in May, Ethiopia claimed that though it is the source of 86% of Nile waters, for close to a century, “Egypt, through colonial-based treaties to which Ethiopia is not a party, saw to it that it received the lion’s share of Nile waters and introduced the self-claimed notion of ‘historic rights and current use’, leaving nothing to the remaining nine riparian countries.”
A landlocked country, Ethiopia claims it does not have a significant amount of groundwater resources or aquifers, or access to seawater for desalination, and owing to “climate change, drought, and erratic rains,” famine is a “constant threat” to around 8 million people.
Another 65 million residents—nearly 60% of Ethiopia’s population—have no access to power. The country’s total power capacity is today only 4.5 GW, mostly derived from biomass, and “rising energy demand is exacerbating its energy insecurity,” the country noted. GERD is slated to play such a significant role in its energy future, Ethiopia is funding it “solely through the direct contributions of all Ethiopians because Egypt persistently blocked international financial institutions from supporting the construction of the dam,” it said.
It’s also notable that Ethiopia deems GERD a vital project “of enormous potential for cooperation, regional economic integration and mutual benefits for countries in the region, including Egypt itself.” But though Ethiopia claims it has “demonstrated its commitment to foster cooperation and attain a win-win outcome,” it claims Egypt has been “dragging, stonewalling, and delaying the process as far and as long as possible.”
It adds: “Although Ethiopia could fill the dam in two years, factoring in downstream concerns, we agreed to fill the GERD in stages that could take four to seven years. This filling schedule was accepted by Egypt.”
Tensions Cresting, Negotiations Continue
Shoukry noted on Monday that Egypt’s address to the UN Security Council and its participation in the AU summit stem from “successive stages of negotiations on GERD,” including “countless trilateral meetings” between the ministers of water affairs and their technical teams, ministers of foreign affairs to provide political support.
The most significant of these is the March 2015 Agreement on Declaration of Principles (DOP) for the GERD project. Under that legally binding treaty, the countries established an “independent committee of hydrologists” to provide impartial scientific analysis of the scenarios of the filling and operation of the GERD. “Unfortunately, however, all of these efforts came to naught,” Shoukry told the Council, suggesting studies were impeded and never completed.
Tensions began to crest more aggressively in late February, after Ethiopia shunned a U.S-brokered agreement with technical input from the World Bank, deeming it incomplete. In a Feb. 28 statement, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy suggested a request for more time to deliberate the process went unrecognized by Egypt, Sudan, and the U.S. It then went further, however, declaring that as the owner of GERD, Ethiopia retained the right to commence first filling of the reservoir during the rainy season in July in accordance with principles outlined in the 2015 treaty.
“Ethiopia, with the full knowledge and agreement of Egypt and Sudan has addressed all dam safety related issues during the International Panel of Experts process,” the ministries said. “Egypt and the Sudan had expressed their appreciation under Principle 8 of the DOP and Ethiopia will continue to implement it in good faith.”
As the rainy season drew closer and Ethiopia prepared to move forward, trilateral negotiations were finally resumed by video conference between May 19 and June 17. But on June 19, Egypt raised the issue with the UN Security Council, urging the body in a letter “to intervene to emphasize the importance that three countries … continue negotiations in good faith.”
In that letter, notably, Egypt pushed back strongly on a number of Ethiopia’s claims, including that Ethiopia lacked water resources. Egypt claimed Ethiopia “is a water rich country that mismanages its water resources,” while Egypt is a “water-scarce country that is entirely dependent on a single source of water that it uses with very high systemic efficiency.” Egypt also contended Ethiopia’s claims that Egypt sought to impose a “historic right and current use” on Nile waters. Egypt asserted plainly that it is “entirely supportive of the right” of Ethiopia, and other riparian countries to Nile waters. It also stressed again that GERD must be governed by principles applicable to international law, “which require preventing the causing of significant harm to existing water uses.”
Sudan, meanwhile, sent its own letter to the Security Council on June 25, warning that unilateral action would “compromise the safety of Sudan’s Roseires Dam and thus subject millions of people living downstream to great risk.”
Though Sudan decries unilateral action on GERD, it has also functioned as a notable intermediary to help resolve the dispute. Last week, the country reported that while the parties made significant progress on the main technical issues during conferences earlier this month—including as they pertain to the first filling, annual operation, mitigation measures, dam safety, data exchanges, and environmental and social issues—“a widening gap emerged” on issues of the “binding nature of the legal agreement, including amendments and termination.”
Also still to be resolved—though Egypt claims these are external to negotiations on GERD—are Ethiopia’s demands that it become part of a 1959 water sharing treaty between Egypt and Sudan within 10 years, Sudan said.
Updated (July 3) : Adds details about Ethiopia’s statements about the Feb. 28 U.S.-brokered agreement, which the country deemed incomplete.