Egypt’s Losing Battle on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Courtesy of STRATFOR (subscription required), analysis of Egypt’s position on the Grand Renaissance Dam:

The failure of last week’s negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam means that the initial filling of the $4 billion hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile will likely occur without an agreement between Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia. Egypt will attempt, and likely fail, to bring international pressure to bear…

The failure of last week’s negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam means that the initial filling of the $4 billion hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile will likely occur without an agreement between Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia. Egypt will attempt, and likely fail, to bring international pressure to bear on Ethiopia in order to ensure the giant new dam doesn’t affect the flow of the Nile Basin river system, which is Cairo’s main source of water. But while Egypt’s technical coordination on the project is unavoidable, Cairo’s waning influence over North Africa’s water distribution will make its overall position on the Nile less secure over time.

Locked In Talks

Disputes between Ethiopia and its downstream neighbors have continued to stall negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Egypt, in particular, is concerned that if Ethiopia doesn’t agree to scale back the operations and filling of the dam’ during droughts, it could affect the flow of the entire Nile River system, which Cairo relies on for 90 percent of its fresh water. 

  • On June 17, Sudan announced that its talks with Ethiopia and Egypt had once again failed to produce an agreement covering the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
  • Sudan’s irrigation minister, Yasser Abbas, said nearly all of the technical issues between the countries have been resolved but that legal issues remained, including the timeline for filling the reservoir under normal weather conditions, the inclusion of a legally-binding dispute resolution mechanism, and special conditions on how to fill the dam’s reservoir if there’s a drought. 

Ethiopia’s Resolve

Because it is the upstream party in the dispute, Ethiopia can take a hardline stance against Egyptian attempts to impose rules over the project’s operations, and will begin to fill the dam once the rainy season begins. 

  • Since 2011, Ethiopia has been building its Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile near its border with Sudan. Once fully constructed and operational, the dam will have the capacity to generate 6,450 megawatts (MW) of electricity for use mainly in Ethiopia. The dam is critical to Addis Ababa’s plan to increase the percentage of its population with access to electricity from 45 percent to 100 percent  within the next decade by boosting the country’s total power generation capacity by 25,000 MW. 
  • Ethiopia hopes to fill the dam’s reservoir with 4.9 billion cubic meters (BCM) this year — which is less than ten percent of the Blue Nile’s average annual discharge of about 50 BCM — in order to test the first two turbines for power generation. Ethiopia also plans to fill the reservoir to 18.4 BCM next year to test the rest of the turbines.
  • Even a small delay to the timetable right now could push back the project by years, given that rainfall in the Blue Nile basin is highly seasonal (80 percent of the region’s annual rainfall occurs between July and October). 
  • The dam has also become a nationalist issue in Ethiopia, with hashtags such as “#ItsMyDam” becoming popular on social media. Addis Ababa views Egypt’s demands as effectively as enshrining colonial-era agreements with Sudan and the United Kingdom that have historically granted Cairo an abnormally high share of water from the Nile. Ethiopia was not a party to the deals signed in 1929 and 1959, and thus does not recognize them.  
 Egypt’s Plight

Concerned about losing access to its crucial water source, Egypt will try to elicit international support to pressure Ethiopia to agree to a dispute resolution mechanism, as well as an extended timeline for the filling of the dam. Previous attempts at international mediation, however, have largely failed and only risk making Ethiopia dig into its position even deeper. 

  • Given the continued failure of cabinet-level talks to find a consensus on the outstanding political and legal issues related to the dam, Sudan — the other downstream nation — is now proposing talks at a higher level between Ethiopia and Egypt’s presidents and/or prime ministers. 
  • Earlier this year, U.S.-brokered talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia yielded a draft agreement on the dam, only to have Addis Ababa pull out of the deal at the last minute. 
  • Egyptian outreaches to regional parties, such as the African Union and Gulf Cooperation Council, to help mediate negotiations with Ethiopia have also garnered little traction. 
  • On June 19, Egypt called on the U.N. Security Council to intervene. But China, which is one of Ethiopia’s closest economic partners, would almost certainly veto any substantive U.N. resolution aimed at blocking the filling of the dam through sanctions pressure. 

Moving forward, Egypt will have little options to force Ethiopia to cooperate on technical issues, even if the overhanging political spat remains. 

  • Even if they don’t reach a temporary or permanent agreement, Egypt and Ethiopia will still need to cooperate on logistical issues on an ad hoc basis in order to manage the flow of water between releases at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and Egypt’s Aswan High Dam. 
  • Egyptian officials — particularly the military, foreign ministry and water ministries — will maintain a hawkish stance against Addis Ababa, driven by concerns over Egypt’s long-term ability to control its water supply. 
  • But while Cairo may threaten military action against Ethiopia, Egypt is extremely unlikely to resort to such means due to the challenges of invading a country that it does not border, as well as the need to prioritize more significant security matters in the region such as the civil war in neighboring Libya.
 Egypt’s continued failure to ensure Ethiopia’s giant new dam on the Nile doesn’t jeopardize its primary source of water highlights Cairo’s waning influence over upstream countries.
 Egypt’s loss of regional political power will threaten its long-term access to the Nile River, exacerbating the desert country’s existing water scarcity woes. 
  • Egypt fears that giving into Ethiopia’s demands on how to fill and operate the dam could set a precedent that prompts Addis Ababa, as well as other countries in the Nile River Basin, to more aggressively build additional dams.
  • Cairo is also worried that over time, Ethiopia and other upstream countries in Eastern Africa may substantially jeopardize its water supply, should they start using water stored in reservoirs for irrigation instead of building hydroelectric dams to meet the needs of their booming populations. 
  • These concerns have been augmented by Egypt’s own rapidly growing population, as well as the looming threat of longer and more frequent drought seasons due to climate change and increased evaporation levels along the river (although Addis Ababa argues that storing water in Ethiopia reduces evaporation). 
  • But Egypt’s continued failure to keep Addis Ababa from constructing its Grand Renaissance Dam has shown how upstream countries in the Nile Basin are increasingly becoming successful in pushing back against Cairo’s concerns about water supply.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 24th, 2020 at 6:10 am and is filed under Egypt, Ethiopia, Nile, Sudan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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