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Nile Valley – Ethiopia starts to fill Renaissance Dam as Egypt bristles

Ethiopia’s Water Minister Seleshi Bekele confirmed on Wednesday, July 15, that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has started to fill.

He tweeted: “The inflow into the reservoir due to heavy rainfall and runoff exceeded the outflow and created natural pooling. This continues until overflow is triggered soon.”

He repeated this line to the state broadcaster, saying that the reservoir was filling “in line with the natural process” and that “[t]he construction of the dam and the filling of the water go hand in hand”.

Satellite images show that the reservoir behind the almost completed dam wall is starting to fill, but Mr Bekele failed to address the question of whether or not the country closed the dam’s culverts.

His pronouncements followed a breakdown in African Union (AU) mediated talks – involving Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan – on Tuesday, July 14, about the filling and operation of the GERD.

According to experts, the current stage of construction on the dam wall means that water will inevitably back up until the reservoir reaches its low point. The dam – with a mammoth capacity of 74 billion cubic metres (bcm) – is estimated to retain 4.9 bcm in 2020, with another 13.5 bcm to be retained the following year.

The total annual flow of the Blue Nile – the main tributary to the Nile – is about 49 bcm.

One of the main obstacles to reaching an agreement has been the schedule for filling the dam: Ethiopia proposes five to seven years and Egypt insists on 12 to 20 years.

Egypt and Sudan want a dispute resolution mechanism built into the agreement as well as assurances about water flows during times of drought.

Cairo has accused Addis Ababa of abandoning the 2015 Declaration of Principles, one of which is that the dam should not be filled without an agreement being in place.

The GERD is set to become the continent’s largest hydroelectric project and is expected to generate 6,000 MW of electricity per year, once fully operational, in a country which currently has low levels of electrification. It is central to Ethiopia’s developmental aspirations and the project has created a great deal of national pride, both due to its scale and ambition but also due to the way in which the country opted to finance the mega-project, making using of mostly domestic financing.

The confrontation with Egypt, specifically, has boosted Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s standing domestically, with the country seen to be standing up to its northern counterpart and, following its refusal to sign a US-sponsored agreement in Washington DC in February, its powerful allies.

With Ethiopia riven by ethnic tensions and deadly communal violence sparked by the targeted killing of prominent musician and ethnic rights activist, Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, in the capital on June 29, Mr Abiy will probably not mind the diplomatic spat with Egypt at a time when his pan-Ethiopian project is being threatened by internecine conflict.

Mr Abiy is also dealing with the political uncertainty created by Parliament’s decision to postpone the country’s general elections to “nine to 12 months after the coronavirus is deemed not to be a public health concern”, along with an extension of the prime minister’s term.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi finds himself in a very different position. Cairo is being made to look quite impotent as Ethiopia presents the filling of the GERD as fait accompli.

We previously said that their decision to proceed unilaterally would increase regional tensions and give rise to significant sabre-rattling from the parties involved. However, we said we did not expect the dispute to escalate into a military confrontation, despite some inflammatory comments from both Egyptian and Ethiopian officials, and we stand by that assessment.

It should be noted that Egypt has a large and sophisticated military – receiving significant military aid from the US – and that military figures play a crucial role in the government.

Specifically, Egypt has a modern and well-equipped air force. It does not possess strategic long-range bombers or long-range ballistic missile capacity; nevertheless, Ethiopia reportedly deployed anti-aircraft missiles in the vicinity of the Renaissance Dam in May in what was seen as a symbolic rather than strategic move.

The filling of the GERD without an agreement in place was not entirely unexpected and Ethiopian officials made it known that it would happen with the arrival of the rainy season.

Previous talks sponsored by the US and World Bank proved unsuccessful, partly due to Ethiopia’s perception that Egypt’s close ties to the US made Washington a biased arbiter.

It had been hoped that AU-brokered talks would deliver an agreement, and the lack of progress in that respect is concerning.

Egypt has also approached the UN Security Council to pressure Ethiopia, resulting in angry exchanges between ambassadors.

Over the short to medium term, regional tensions will remain heightened and diplomatic efforts are sure to continue. More provocative statements by officials from the affected countries are also expected, making efforts to reach an agreement all the more difficult.

Louw Nel – Political Analyst

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