Doaa El-Bey reviews the latest developments in the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
While there has been an improvement in the overall atmosphere of the relationship between Egypt and Ethiopia, “progress on the ground with regards to the Renaissance Dam is still at a standstill,” says Rakha Hassan, a member of the Council for Foreign Affairs.
Earlier this week Kifle Horo, project manager of the dam, was quoted in the Ethiopian media saying the filling of the dam’s reservoir would be by consensual agreement with Egypt and Sudan.
Commenting on media reports that the construction process had run into trouble and that the dam is in an earthquake zone, Horo said, “construction was started after many studies were undertaken, and the region has never experienced an earthquake before.”
Abbas Sharaki, a professor at Cairo University’s Institute for African Research and Studies, said Horo’s statement was a diplomatic attempt to demonstrate there is some form of agreement between the parties.
The Declaration of Principles stipulates the parties should cooperate over the filling of the reservoir and the dam’s operation though it does not identify any mechanism for that cooperation. “It is something the tripartite negotiations need to work out,” says Sharaki.
Professor of political science Tarek Fahmi argues Horo’s words serve only to highlight the contradictions between official statements and the situation on the ground. “A political message,” he says, “was being delivered by someone whose responsibility is really technical.”
Last month Horo said the dam is now scheduled to be completed in 2022, confirming statements made by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in August last year.
Many commentators welcomed the delayed schedule, believing it allows more time to conduct studies on the impact of the dam on Egypt and Sudan. But so much time has already been wasted, says Sharaki, that it is essential all parties move as quickly as possible to make up for lost ground.
“We need to finish the studies on the dam, examine previous agreements and amend them if needed, or reach a new agreement on operating the dam and on the construction of any future dams,” he says.
Building work on the Renaissance Dam began in April 2011 and was expected to be over by 2017. Changes in the design to increase the dam’s generating capacity have already led to an estimated four-year delay.
But the dam also faces administrative problems, and the military-affiliated engineering company originally responsible for the construction is mired in accusations of corruption and embezzlement. In August last year its contract was cancelled.
Horo was appointed in October, replacing Simegnew Bekele as project manager after Bekele killed himself. Many observers linked Bekele’s suicide to the ongoing allegations of corruption.
In another development, the Ethiopian Ministry of Irrigation says work has started on building a much smaller dam that will be used to cultivate 13,000 hectares, benefiting 10,000 small farmers.
The dam will cost $29 million and have a storage capacity of 62.5 million cubic metres.
Such a small-scale dam, constructed outside the Nile Basin, will have no effect on Egypt, says Sharaki. Indeed, Ethiopia has tens of these dams, which suit the mountainous terrain.
“Upstream countries are in need of small dams in certain areas in order to store water during the flood season.”
Fahmi is less convinced. The problem, he says, is not the construction of a single small dam but the fact the dam “is part of a strategy to build a number of dams up to 2025 regardless of their impact on downstream countries”.
Tripartite negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have so far failed to bridge the differences between the three countries with regards to the Renaissance Dam.
Among the most difficult issues yet to be resolved, the timetable for filling the dam’s reservoir, and protocols for operating the dam, have proved the thorniest.
The timetable for filling the reservoir is a critical issue for Egypt and has been the focus of recent negotiations. The quicker the fill, the less water will flow on to Sudan and Egypt.
Ethiopia could theoretically fill the reservoir to full capacity within three years. Cairo wants a more extended timetable of up to 10 to 12 years.
Following a meeting with Ahmed in Ethiopia in November, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli announced tripartite negotiations would begin in two weeks time. But the announcement, says Hassan, was simply an exercise in the kind of political pleasantries that are customarily released during official visits.
“It is clear that Ethiopia will not abandon its dream of building a mega project. Although Ahmed seemingly favours a diplomatic resolution of outstanding differences his government has yet to take any steps towards this end,” says Hassan.
The arrival of Ahmed as Ethiopian prime minister in April last year seemed to offer some grounds for optimism. In June, Ahmed visited Egypt and reassured President Al-Sisi that Ethiopia was seeking only to promote its own development without harming the Egyptian people.
“Egypt’s share of Nile water will be maintained… and even increased,” Ahmed told a news conference in Cairo after talks with President Al-Sisi. In return, Al-Sisi underlined Egypt’s willingness to promote investment in Ethiopia.
Other meetings were held throughout last year but there has been no change in the facts on the ground.
Perhaps the most important was the second nine-party meeting held in May last year in Addis Ababa. While some commentators hailed the gathering as positive, Sharaki believes it resulted in procedural changes unlikely to resolve the most contentious issues surrounding the dam.
The meeting agreed to establish a National Independent Scientific Research Study Group to discuss ways to enhance the level of cooperation between the three countries through — in the words of the document released following the meeting — addressing “equitable and reasonable utilisation of shared water resources while taking all appropriate measures to prevent any significant harm from being caused”.
The group comprises 15 members, five from each county, and has already held several meetings but without any tangible results.
Rakha says negotiations are not heading in the right direction, and he has little hope President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s meeting with Ahmed on the sidelines of the AU summit due next month, or Egypt presidency of the AU, will lead to a breakthrough.
“A breakthrough requires a political decision by Addis Ababa. Can Ahmed take it, or is he fenced in by obstacles,” he asks.
Egypt insists it has a historic legal right to 55.5 billion cubic metres of Nile water per annum, fixed under the 1929 and 1959 agreements that also guaranteed Sudan a total of 18.5 billion cubic metres. The agreements also give Egypt a veto on any projects built upstream.
In 2011 Ethiopia decided to build a dam on the Blue Nile, the tributary which supplies Egypt with the lion’s share of its annual quota of Nile water, without consulting Cairo.
Cairo fears the dam will reduce Egypt’s share of Nile water. Addis Ababa says it will not.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: At a standstill