The third filling of the Nile dam exacerbates the Ethiopia-Egypt dispute.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed recently stated that the reservoir of the contentious Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile, the Nile River’s primary tributary, has been filled for the third time. This action is expected to exacerbate relations with Sudan and Egypt, two downstream nations.
“Today, as you see behind me, the third filling is complete,” Ahmed remarked in an address to top Ethiopian authorities at the GERD site on August 12. We have reached 600 meters [1,968 feet] this year, which is 25 meters [82 feet] higher than the last filling phase.”
Ahmed had already approved the functioning of the dam’s second turbine, one of 13 turbines erected at the GERD to generate 5,000 megawatts (MW) of energy. Currently, the two turbines have a combined capacity of 750 MW.
Kifle Horo, the GERD project manager, said in a speech during the Aug. 11 ceremony that “83.3% of the [GERD] project is complete [and] 95% of the civil engineering work is complete.”
He went on to say, “For the next 212 years, [we will work] to build the whole dam, execute all stages of the filling process, and install the remaining turbines” in order for the dam to produce energy at full capacity.
“There is nothing shocking about recent developments,” William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor. There have been building delays for the GERD, as well as filling delays, so things aren’t going exactly as anticipated, but the project is still moving ahead.”
Egypt reacted angrily to Ethiopia’s news. Mustafa Bakri, an Egyptian member of parliament, urged parliament to “grant President [Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi the ability to act based on developments in the GERD dossier in light of the third filling and the danger it presents to Egypt’s water security.”
By sending a letter to Cairo on July 26, Addis Abeba anticipated the Egyptian response, stating that “filling the GERD reservoir is proceeding throughout the present flood season.”
Egypt ignored the message and petitioned the United Nations Security Council to “intervene” when Ethiopia opted to continue filling the GERD reservoir independently. Cairo has said that any infringement of its water rights or security would not be tolerated.
Meanwhile, Sudan’s Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Daw al-Bait Abdul Rahman said in a televised address on July 31 that “Addis Abeba [must] halt its unilateral actions and negotiate a legal and enforceable agreement on the GERD.”
In an oblique reaction to Egypt and Sudan’s criticism, Ahmed tweeted on August 12: “We hope that Egypt and Sudan will profit from the river, each in their own manner… just as Ethiopia did.” We maintained our vow not to hurt anybody.”
Egypt and Sudan have frequently requested Ethiopia to halt dam reservoir filling until a formal legal agreement on dam filling and operation in times of drought and severe drought is reached.
According to Abbas Sharaki, a professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, the Ethiopian declaration provides Ahmed with “personal wins and political advantages” after the criticism his Cabinet received during the fighting in the Tigray area.
At the same time, the Ethiopian approach puts pressure on the Egyptian administration, he added, since “the Egyptian people is unhappy and unsatisfied with the state of events in the GERD dispute.”
Sharaki anticipates Egypt to step up diplomatic efforts to put pressure on Ethiopia, and maybe bring the dossier back to the UN Security Council for debate, claiming that the GERD problem threatens regional security and peace.
According to Amani al-Taweel, head of the Africa Program at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Ethiopia’s unilateral choices have intensified the three nations’ divisions and fostered distrust in the GERD discussions.
Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have been negotiating for a decade to achieve a deal on the operation and filling of the GERD reservoir, which Egypt regards as an existential danger. The talks have been on hold since April 2021, when the three nations reached an impasse.
Meanwhile, various foreign entities have attempted to negotiate a resumption of the tripartite discussions, notably the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which sponsored secret technical rounds of GERD talks in Abu Dhabi in June.
Sudan’s Foreign Minister, Ali al-Sadiq, told Saudi Arabia’s Asharq channel on July 31 that the negotiations in the UAE “came to a halt soon before Eid al-Adha [July 8].” A date for their return has yet to be determined… They will, nevertheless, make happen.”
In an Aug. 3 statement, the UAE Permanent Mission to the UN urged the three nations to continue their GERD discussions in “good faith,” and emphasized its support for the African Union (AU) and the tripartite negotiations it is sponsoring.
“If the UAE-brokered negotiations did take place,” Taweel added, “it indicates that they have already failed because the third filling of the dam was finished, in another unilateral step by Addis Abeba.”
She highlighted that, as indicated in Ahmed’s comments, Ethiopia has lately toned down its speech on GERD. “Following the harsh response [to Ethiopia’s activities] at the regional and international levels,” she continued, “it went from a highly antagonistic to a calmer discourse tending to call for dialogue and a consensus.”
“The parties are still straining to agree on drought mitigation procedures as well as legal provisions, notably in terms of dispute resolution and whether any agreement and its parameters would be subject to international arbitration, which Ethiopia has rejected,” Davison added.
“So there are still the same kind of barriers limiting movement toward an agreement,” he continued.
According to a new paper published on August 5 in IOP Science, “while there is a risk of water shortages in Egypt if a severe drought occurs at the same time as the GERD reservoir is filling, there is a minimal risk of additional water shortages in Egypt during the filling period if flows in the Blue Nile are normal or above average… “
“Ethiopia has now retained 21.5 billion cubic meters and they plan to retain an additional 27.8 billion cubic meters to reach their normal bottom target operation elevation of 625 meters, which is equivalent to 49.3 billion cubic meters of storage in total,” Kevin Wheeler, a senior research fellow at the Environmental Change Institute and one of the IOP Science paper’s authors, told Al-Monitor.
“The most probable scenario is that the GERD will reach this height by 2024 or 2025,” he added. If hydrologic conditions remain normal over the next several years, Egypt’s yearly release target of 55.5 billion cubic meters will be fulfilled.”
“There is no reason for deadlock,” Wheeler said. It is vital that the parties restart talks in good faith and with the goal of establishing a strong agreement on how to deal with future droughts.”
“There are no fresh choices provided to Sudan and Egypt by recent developments,” Davison said.
Despite the third filling, electricity generation, and the latest Egyptian petition to the UN Security Council, the situation remains largely unchanged. Instead, it will be left to the parties, the African Union, and other entities such as the UAE, the US, and the European Union to attempt to work out concessions via discussions once again.”