Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan: What next after GERD’s 3rd filling

By Sherif Tarek

Posted on Wednesday, 17 August 2022 13:18, updated on Sunday, 4 September 2022 09:49
View of the GERD after its third filling on 11 August 2022. (photo: @TayeAtske Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Ethiopia to the UN)

Unilaterally completing the third filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Ethiopia has further imposed its national project as a fait accompli, unfazed by incessant calls from downstream countries for coordination in filling and operating the $5bn dam.

The third filling last week took the amount of water that the hydropower dam holds up to 22 billion cubic metres – close to a third of its overall 74-billion-cubic-metre capacity – cementing a years-long status-quo that Egypt and Sudan say compromises their water interests.

“The reality is that the more advanced the project is, in terms of construction and filling, the less the likelihood of Ethiopia making moves to satisfy demands from Cairo and Khartoum […],” William Davison, a senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group tells The Africa Report.

Point of contention: unilateralism

During the announcement of the completion of the third filling, with water flowing through and above the dam behind him, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed labelled the Blue Nile as Ethiopia’s “gift” that downstream countries share.

The Blue Nile, on which the GERD is located, is a tributary contributing more than 85% of the Nile’s water passing through Sudan and Egypt, all the way north to the Mediterranean.

Map of Eastern Nile region, with reservoir locations. Created by: Kevin Wheeler, University of Oxford – Environmental Change Institute PhD Water Resources Management)

Abiy’s statement, like previous ones, reflects Ethiopia’s unyielding stance on managing the dam without interference from other nations.

Egypt and Sudan, conversely, insist that a tripartite binding agreement on filling and operating the GERD must be reached in order to have a say in the borders-crossing water inflows, with the aim to better manage and preserve their resources.

‘Zero-sum approaches will not pay off’

In certain phases of the GERD filling, no harm may befall downstream countries, yet it could well be the other way around at other times, depending on droughts and the Blue Nile flows, Abbas Sharaky, professor at the Cairo University’s Faculty of African Postgraduate Studies Department of Natural Resources, tells The Africa Report.

“Therefore, there must be an agreement and coordination. We need to know now the details of the fourth filling slated for next year to determine our agricultural policies [and] the operation of the High Dam” in Upper Egypt. The same applies to Sudan, Sharaky adds, lamenting the fact that Egypt was notified of the third filling on 26 July.

This process has been going on for some time, and the status-quo will most likely persist unless Egypt and Sudan seek to prioritise good ties with Ethiopia to try and secure their water supplies via cooperation, which is the only sustainable route forward.

A tripartite agreement over the GERD is indeed what the international community is hoping for, says Davison. “It would not only reduce insecurity, but also boost cooperation. It would potentially improve economic development in the region as well,” he says.

However, tensions building up over the years probably won’t lead to such a win-win outcome, says Davison. This, he adds, can only be realised through more cordial relations with Ethiopia, whose dam currently generates 750 megawatts of electricity through two turbines out of a total 13.

“This process has been going on for some time, and the status-quo will most likely persist, unless Egypt and Sudan seek to prioritise good ties with Ethiopia to try and secure their water supplies via cooperation, which is the only sustainable route forward,” he says. “Otherwise, it looks difficult to reach an agreement.

“Zero-sum approaches will not pay off. Instead, Ethiopia needs cooperation as well to really maximise the benefit of this massive investment by exporting electricity, and eventually perhaps conducting investment projects with downstream countries.”

Egypt stands to lose much

Only after Ethiopia refused to sign the Washington tripartite agreement in February 2020 did Sudan start to take a firm stand over the GERD. The shift also followed the toppling of long-reigning Sudanese autocrat Omar al-Bashir, who hardly opposed Ethiopia’s dam amid stable bilateral ties.

Egypt, the most prone to potential harm from the GERD, given 97% (or 55.5 cubic metres of its water is sourced from the Nile), has been at odds with Ethiopia for a decade, through which numberless rounds of negotiations and escalatory actions by the North African nation hit a brick wall.

In its latest effort, Egypt sent a letter to the Security Council voicing objection to Ethiopia’s unilateral filling of the dam, saying it violates the 2015 Declaration of Principles Agreement, which both countries have inked along with Sudan, as well as international laws.

Coinciding with the previous fillings, the Egyptian government had resorted to the UN body over the past two years, albeit to no avail. The possibility that the latest attempt at the Security Council could yield different results is minuscule, says Davison. “In practice, there isn’t that much external actors can do in this situation, especially in the short-term.”

With a growing population of nearly 103 million, Egypt’s annual per capita share of water stands at around 550 cubic metres. Falling below 1,000 cubic metres per person in a country means it faces “scarcity” of water, while below 500 is “absolute scarcity”, according to the UN.

“Egypt is facing an annual water deficit of around seven billion cubic metres and the country could run out of water by 2025, when it is estimated that 1.8 billion people worldwide will live in absolute water scarcity [source: IPS],” says a 2021 UNICEF report. “Climate change is a key part of the problem.”

Farmers already complaining

Egyptian farmers and agribusiness owners have already been fuming over recurring shortages in irrigation water that constitutes over 85% of Egypt’s Nile water share.

Mohamed Mansi, an owner of a five-feddan (21,000 square metres) farm near the Suez Canal, says he has incurred financial losses due to increasing water outages over the past couple of years.

“I’ve lost a garlic harvest, cultivated in six months and worth LE28,000 ($1,462),” the 37-year-old man tells The Africa Report. “I also lost [farmed] fish… in addition to the feed, worth altogether LE29,000. I also lost 250 lemon trees, valued at around LE12,000.”

Mansi and his neighbouring small-scale farmers rely on El-Salam Canal, which extends from the Nile’s Damietta branch. It feeds swathes of agricultural land and also provides urban areas with potable water.

The farmers often receive instructions from authorities to limit the use of irrigation units. In a notice seen by The Africa Report, they were instructed – last June – to switch off all units for 48 hours, or until further notice “to fulfil the potable water needs of Suez governorate”.

GERD adding insult to injury 

Ongoing irrigation setbacks cannot be blamed on the GERD, but rather on domestic issues, even though the dam does harm Egypt’s water interests, says Sharaky.

One of the reasons for the irrigation disturbance is that Egypt has expanded its nationwide agricultural land, which was estimated at 9.7 million feddans in 2021; a 9% increase in seven years, notes Sharaky.

Meanwhile, he adds, the water reserves of the High Dam give Egypt a respite amid the GERD filling process, which Ethiopia plans to wrap up within two years, along with other measures the government has adopted.

Such water-saving steps were inevitable given Egypt’s insidious water poverty

“Citizens of Egypt might not have felt the filling impact because of the projects carried out by the state to save up water” over the past years, he says, citing modern irrigation initiatives, canal linings, building desalination plants, and restricting the cultivation of harvests that require heavy irrigation, such as rice and sugarcane.

Such water-saving steps were inevitable given Egypt’s insidious water poverty, but the GERD, exacerbating the problem, has urged the Egyptian government to expedite the execution of these billions worth of projects, says Sharaky, refuting Ethiopia’s claim that the dam does not put Egypt in a parlous state.

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