Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam: What options are left for Egypt?
In an extended speech last month, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi commented on Ethiopia’s controversial Grand Renaissance Dam, vowing that water treatment stations were being built to compensate for any lack of potable water during the first filling of the dam.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, known as GERD and dubbed a main challenge for Egyptian diplomacy, is under construction on the Blue Nile. Cairo is concerned about its effects on Egypt’s 55 billion cubic metre-share of Nile water, as the dam is expected to be Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant with a storage capacity of 74 billion cubic metres.
While Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are awaiting two studies being conducted by French firms BRL and Artelia on the dam’s impacts, many experts predict that the dam will operate and start its first filling process in 2017 regardless of the reports’ recommendations, amid Egyptian concerns about the Ethiopian side and whether it will be dliigent in trying not to harm Egypt’s interests and water resources.
Hani Sewilam, managing director of the UNESCO Chair on Hydrological Changes and Water Resources Management at Germany’s RWTH Aachen University, told Ahram Online that “it does not make sense that we assess the impacts of the Ethiopian dam after its construction,” referring to the three countries, especially Egypt, that are waiting for the French firms’ reports.
The reports, which are expected to take 11 months to complete, were just started last month.
“We have never heard of this in the history of engineering. Normally, the country intending to build a dam [Ethiopia] in consultation with downstream countries [Egypt and Sudan] carry out all the studies, design scenarios, assess the impacts (economic, social, and environmental) and then select the design scenario with the minimum negative impacts and maximum positive impacts,” Sewilam said via email.
“In our current case, bythe time the two firms complete the impact studies, the construction process of the dam will be done. What will we [Egypt] do if the studies show significant impacts on the downstream countries? Will we demolish the dam? Will we be able to modify the body of an existing dam? Or are they [Ethiopia] just consuming time because they know that the answer for all these questions is a big NO?”
From a legal perspective, Ayman Salama, professor of international law and member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs (ECFA), articulates that Egypt doesn’t have the right to ask Ethiopia to stop the building process under any conditions.
“The March declaration, signed last year by President El-Sisi and his counterparts, Ethiopian Prime Minster Hailemariam Desalegn, and Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, did not stipulate that any of the countries can ask Addis Ababa to stop the construction process under any conditions,” Salama told Ahram Online.
Therefore, what options does Egypt have regarding the dam’s construction?
A to-do list
Sherine El-Baradei, assistant professor in the Department of Construction and Architectural Engineering at the American University in Cairo, said that both Egypt and Ethiopia can try to settle on two main things: the operational process of the dam and the number of years dedicated to filling it.
“We can make an agreement that when it’s the agricultural season for Egypt’s peasants, Ethiopia can’t close the dam’s gate to generate electricity since we will be in need of the water flow for the inauguration process, especially that 85 percent of Nile water that goes towards agriculture and the remaining 15 percent for drinking,” El-Baradei told Ahram Online.
She went on to say that Egypt needs to persuade Ethiopia to increase the years of filling the dam, which is set to be from five to seven years. She said that set period will reduce Egypt’s share of water from 12 to 25 percent while adding more years will minimise the detrimental effects of the dam.
Sewilam listed some facts that Egypt must consider while negotiating with Ethiopia, such as connecting the construction time-plan with the impact assessment time-plan, as the “construction should go hand-in-hand with the negotiations and assessment, not ten times faster as is the case right now.”
This is in addition to reducing the storage capacity of the dam, “because Ethiopia does not need to store 74 billion cubic meters, which is equivalent to the annual share of the Nile water of Egypt and Sudan combined.”
In an interview with state TV last week, Prime Minster Sherif Ismail said that the main dilemma is the number of years set for filling the dam. Ismail vowed that Egypt is currently negotiating with Ethiopia in order to ensure a range of nine to 12 years.
But for Nader Nour El-Din, professor of water resources at Cairo University, Egypt’s stance on the Renaissance dam issue is “backwards and critical.”
“We are still in the status of negotiating with Ethiopia and the latter started the building process in April 2011, and in March 2015 we signed a deceleration of principles which was a carte blanche for Addis Ababa to go build the dam with its current measurements and storage capacity,” Nour El-Din told Ahram Online.
“In July, Ethiopia will start the first process of generating electricity and by October 2017 the dam is expected to operate in its full capacity and options and this means that a very large amount of water will be retained behind the dam,” said Nour El-Din.
Nour El-Din argues that Egypt should negotiate with the Ethiopians on reducing the height of the project’s smaller side dam, which is currently set at 45 metres high, and try to reduce it to between 20 to 22 metres, as the current height would allow the dam to hold 60 billion cubic metres of water. The main dam, although 145 metres high, will only retain 14 billion cubic metres of water, as it is surrounded by 16 electricity generating turbines.
“The main dam is allocated for generating electricity while the side dam is just for water reserves and it won’t affect the power generation process of Ethiopia if reduced the amount of the reserved water is reduced,” Nour El-Din added.
Other water alternatives
Meanwhile, Prime Minster Ismail explained in the TV interview the other regulations and policies Egypt is willing to implement as alternatives to Nile water, such as treating sewage water, which can provide 4 billion cubic metres, as well as using new irrigation methods to save water.
The prime minister added that the government will resort to linking some canals, providing between 1 and 1.5 billion cubic metres of water.
Egypt is coordinating with other African countries on a regional project aiming to link Victoria Lake with the Mediterranean Sea, helping to divert more water to the Nile.
Echoing Ismail’s listed regulations, Sewilam asserted that some Egyptian researchers are currently working in different concentrations, such as water treatment, water recycling, increased irrigation efficiency, and desalination.
“My team and I are working now at the American University in Cairo on an experiment using a new technique and solar energy to desalinate water for agricultural purposes,” Sewilam said.
El-Baradei also said that the government needs to consider using wells as a water resource, but only after treating the saltwater.
Technical issues aside, ECFA’s Salama believes that the ongoing direct negotiations between the three countries are the only solution to reach a deal to end this dilemma.
“The March declaration didn’t stipulate that any of the three countries can resort to international arbitration, so I think Egypt will continue on negotiating to minimise the threats it could suffer from the Ethiopian dam,” Salama said.
“But I think that other international mediators can play a role in the negotiations. Sudan’s Al-Bashir told media outlets that Saudi Arabia is instrumental in the negotiation process and this factor could be a good card for Egypt to play, as the Saudis own investments related to the Ethiopian dam,” he explained.
Salama said that even if Egypt and Ethiopia agreed on solving the technical disputes, they would still need to meet to sign protocols in terms of the operation, security, and management of the dam.
Cairo University’s Nour El-Din argues that Egyptian officials need to seal a new deal with Ethiopians which stipulates that the latter have to guarantee the release of an identified amount of water to Egypt on daily and annual basis.
Sewilam, however, believes that the solution ultimately lies in greater cooperation between the Nile Basin countries to secure water and other natural resources.
“There should be integrated Water-Energy-Food plan for all the Nile Basin countries. We should be thinking of self-sufficiency of resources by complementing each other as for example we need to identify the countries in the basin which can generate energy and other countries which can supply water and also the countries that can make use of water and energy to produce enough food for the whole basin,” he explained.
“I think the lack of trust, cooperation, and participatory long-term planning between all the Nile basin countries are the main reasons for the current situation,” Sewilam added.