Tensions Intensify as Ethiopia Readies to Start GERD Mega-Dam Turbines

Despite continued pressure from Egypt and Sudan, Ethiopia will push ahead on the second-year filling of the 6.4-GW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) reservoir this summer with ambitions to begin operating two of its 16 planned turbines later this year. 

Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen, who also serves as the East African nation’s deputy prime minister, during a May 20 webinar said the massive dam’s second-year filling would be conducted as “scheduled and agreed [to] by the National Independent Scientific Research Group (NISRG).” The NISRG references a technical consultation conducted by 15 hydrologists from Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan starting in mid-2018. While the panel laid out four fundamental principles that should govern GERD’s filling, the countries ultimately failed to secure a complete consensus during its final meeting in October 2019. Ethiopia has said the consultation bolsters its plans to fill GERD in stages, over four to seven years, based on hydrology.  

However, Ethiopia’s move to proceed with its second-round filling has sparked new contentions in the decade-long dispute embroiling Ethiopia and its neighbors downstream the Nile River, as well as the international community. While the United Nations (UN) has sought to alleviate tensions between the three countries, the U.S. has now also ramped up mediation efforts with an emphasis on Egyptian interests, and the African Union (AU) continues to broker negotiations to invigorate talks between the three nations and maintain peace in the volatile dispute. 

A Giant Dispute 

The complex diplomatic haranguing stems from Ethiopia’s ambitions to complete GERD, a $4.6 billion hydropower project launched in 2011 on the Blue Nile—a significant Nile tributary. The country says GERD is a landmark project with extraordinary national significance for the future of its economic and energy security. 

For the latest update on the GERD project, read “Ethiopia Produces First Power at GERD Mega-Dam” at powermag.com.

Located in northwestern Ethiopia, about 500 kilometers (km) northwest of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa and 15 km from its border with Sudan in the region of Benishangul-Gumuz-Gumaz, 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. When finished, it will comprise a main dam in roller compacted concrete with two power stations installed at the left and right banks of the river. 

According to WeBuild, the power plants will be outfitted with 16 375-MW Francis turbines that could produce about 15,759 GWh per year. However, researchers from the University of Washington this March suggested the hydrology of the upper Blue Nile basin indicates an inflow to sustain 13,629 GWh per year, likely resulting in idled turbines. GERD’s capacity is more in line with a 5.1-GW capacity, compared with previous designs that have put it at 6 GW and 6.4 GW, the researchers concluded.

The 6.4-GW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is located approximately 500 km northwest of the capital Addis Ababa, in the region of Benishangul-Gumaz along the Blue Nile. Courtesy: WeBuild

Still, with more than twice the power capacity of Egypt’s 2.1-GW High Aswan Dam, GERD is slated to become the largest hydropower project in Africa. Ethiopia’s government has said GERD—which the nation states it is funding with citizen contributions—will more than double Ethiopia’s power capacity and render it a formidable energy exporter in the energy-hungry East African region.

That power is much-needed, the country says. The landlocked country 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,” it says.

Ethiopia: GERD Now 80% Complete

Despite various delays over the past decade, progress at GERD is now tangible. Ethiopia’s Ministry of Water, Irrigation, and Energy on Friday told reporters that GERD has now reached 80% completion. That includes the completion of 98.1% of civil works, 54.5% of the electric mechanical works, and 55.2% of the hydroelectric structure works. A 650-km transmission line has also been erected. 

GERD’s first-year filling, which wrapped up on July 19, 2020, impounded 4.9 cubic kilometers (km3) into the massive reservoir, which is designed to hold 74 km3. Ethiopia’s Minister of Water, Irrigation, and Energy, Dr. Seleshi Bekele, last year hailed that achievement as “historic,” claiming that the first filling was achieved without “interrupting the continuous flow of water to the lower basin.” The second-round filling anticipated this summer would boost the reservoir’s volume to 18.4 km3. While still a fraction of the reservoir’s total 74 km3 capacity, it would be enough to enable the operation of two of the project’s 16 turbines, the ministry said on Friday.

Images Maxar Technologies shared with POWER in July 2020 reveal that the Bameza region in Ethiopia where the 6.4-GW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is located had more rainfall than normal, and the most since 2013. Courtesy: Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies

Pushback from Egypt and Sudan

However, Egypt and Sudan, countries that lie downstream from the dam’s location on the Blue Nile in the Eastern Nile basin and heavily depend on the Nile for freshwater supplies, have expressed concerns about the project’s reservoir, an artificial lake that will span 1,874 square kilometers—twice as large as Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake. Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, sits 150 miles (240 km) away to the northeast in the Amhara Region. 

The hydrology of the Nile, which has been studied for decades, is characterized by high inter-annual variability, stark differences in geography and climate, and flows modified by natural features and water infrastructure. Source: Wheeler, K.G., Jeuland, M., Hall, J.W. et al. Understanding and managing new risks on the Nile with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Nat Commun 11, 5222 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-19089-x

While Sudanese authorities have said GERD could help regulate waters of the Nile and reduce the risk of flooding, it has expressed concerns about the project’s impact on the efficiency of its 280-MW Roseries Dam, and it has strongly decried unilateral action by Ethiopia to fill the GERD reservoir. The impact could be hefty, noted researchers from the University of Khartoum in a September 2020 paper that posited that GERD’s total reservoir capacity of 74 km3 is “approximately 1.5 times the mean annual flow of the Blue Nile, which contributes around 57% of the River Nile runoff. 

Suspicion clouding the dispute again spun into high gear this week after an unnamed senior Sudanese government official told Reuters that Ethiopia had begun filling the GERD reservoir “earlier in May.” However, Ethiopia refuted the claim. Ethiopian Water Minister Seleshi Bekele reportedly told Bloomberg in a text message on Tuesday: “This is not true.” The comments by Sudanese officials are “deliberately misleading statements targeted to confuse everyone,” he said.

Egypt, meanwhile, has similar fears concerning its 2.1-GW High Aswan Dam (HAD), which is today Africa’s largest hydropower facility. The dam also pivotally serves Egypt’s agricultural, municipal, and industrial water requirements through regular annual releases of 55.5 billion cubic meters (bcm). 

Last year, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry appealed to the UN Security Council, cautioning that Ethiopia’s filling of the dam wasn’t backed by a legally binding agreement under international law. Shoukry outlined the project’s potential impacts starkly: “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.”

But according to Dr. Kevin Wheeler from the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, Egypt’s risks of water shortages—at least for this year—may be overstated. “Egypt has proactively planned well, and the HAD is currently very full, therefore there is not any significant risk of water shortages in Egypt in 2021. Last year was a very wet year, and this year is also shaping up to be above average,” Wheeler told POWER on May 27. 

Wheeler, who has studied the high inter-variability of the Nile’s hydrology in relation to GERD, lays out potential scenarios in an October 2020 paper in the journal Nature Communications, which he authored with researchers from Duke University, the University of Colorado, and the University of North Carolina. “A risk of shortages to water supplies in Egypt exists if there are consecutive years of drought while the GERD is filling, or droughts occur shortly after the filling is complete and while the HAD is still recovering from an expected decline,” he explained. 

But even then, “Ethiopia could potentially release additional water in such a circumstance, which is what is currently being considered in the negotiations,” Wheeler said. “There will certainly be some losses of power generation from the HAD due to lower pool elevations, but it is unlikely to reach critical levels where power or water supplies are at risk. Furthermore, only a small percentage of Egypt’s electricity is generated from hydropower,” he noted.

Egypt: Ethiopia Second-Filling Is in ‘Bad Faith’

In response to Ethiopia’s move to begin GERD’s second-round filling this July and August, Egypt has notably mounted a fierce diplomatic pushback. In a May 20 statement sent to POWER, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Ambassador Ahmed Hafez underscored that Egypt “rejects any unilateral measures” that Ethiopia would take to fill the dam. Unilateral action, he said, is an “irresponsible act and a clear violation of the provisions of the Declaration of Principles Agreement,” which the three countries signed in March 2015.

Under that legally binding treaty, the three countries established an “independent committee of hydrologists” to provide impartial scientific analysis of the scenarios of the filling and operation of the GERD. The treaty ultimately established the NISRG’s technical consultation—the measure which Ethiopia cited last week as justification to progress with the second filling. Egypt, however, has argued the NISRG efforts “came to naught,” as Shoukry told the UN Security Council last year, suggesting studies were impeded and never completed.

Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs last week also indicated a breakdown in negotiation. “[S]tatements by the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson once again reveal Ethiopia’s bad faith and its attempt to abort the ongoing efforts carried out by international and African mediators towards resolving the Renaissance Dam crisis and its desire to impose a fait accompli on the two downstream countries—a matter that Egypt has not and will never accept,” it told POWER.

A Potential Shake-Up of Egypt and Sudan’s Influence 

Adding yet another noteworthy element of complexity to the dispute is that the 2011-established Republic of South Sudan—through which an estimated 28% of the Nile’s flow traverses—this April decided to ratify the Comprehensive Framework Agreement (CFA), a treaty drafted by member states of the 1999-established Nile Basin Initiative. 

So far, existing frameworks governing the use of the Nile waters include a 1929 agreement signed by Egypt and Great Britain on behalf of Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), and Sudan (which were all British riparian colonies at the time) that gave Cairo the right to veto projects that would affect its water share. In 1959, Egypt and Sudan supplemented the 1929 treaty, giving Egypt the right to 55.5 bcm of Nile water a year and Sudan 18.5 bcm per year. 

The CFA, which will enter into force if six of 10 Nile Basin Initiative countries ratify it, essentially requires all stakeholders to decide on the future development in the basin via a consensus-based modality. So far, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda have ratified the CFA. Egypt and Sudan have opposed the agreement. But with South Sudan’s imminent ratification of the treaty, “If another country, probably Burundi or Kenya, ratify it, the Nile Basin Initiative will be enforced and the cooperative framework agreement will alienate Sudan and Egypt from that big party and push them actually to renegotiate,” as Addis University Center for African Oriental Studies Assistant Professor Samuel Tefera explained to All Africa in April.

U.S. Ramps up Diplomatic Action on GERD

At the same time, acknowledging critical tension around GERD, the U.S., too, has rallied its diplomatic coordination related to the project—though it appears tilted chiefly toward Egypt. In a call with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi on Monday, President Joe Biden “acknowledged Egypt’s concerns about access to Nile River waters and underscored the U.S. interest in achieving a diplomatic resolution that meets the legitimate needs of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia,” according to a White House–issued readout.

On Tuesday, unrelated to the GERD dispute, though still a diplomatic priority that the U.S. could leverage in its mediation of the dispute, the U.S. imposed new restrictions on Ethiopian (and Eritrean) government officials, citing a six-month-long conflict in the northern Ethiopian Tigray region. And on Wednesday, Sisi and U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met in Cairo, with Blinken reiterating a U.S. commitment “to Egypt’s water security and to the urgent resumption of substantive and results-oriented negotiations under the leadership of the African Union to resolve the dispute” over GERD. 

Finally, on Thursday, Biden issued a statement expressing deep concern by the escalating violence in Tigray and developing tensions around GERD. The U.S. on April 26 appointed Jeffrey Feltman as Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, tasking him with a “renewed” diplomatic effort to both address the grave humanitarian and human rights crises, and reach a “resolution of the dispute over GERD that meets the needs of all parties,” the president noted.

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel@POWERmagazine).

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