East Africa: Ethiopia to Fill Contested Dam As Nile Talks Falter

An aerial photo of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
analysis

Ethiopia wants to fill Africa's most powerful hydroelectric dam even without a deal with Sudan and Egypt. Talks on how much water will pass through the Nile dam are deadlocked. The spat threatens the region's security.

Egypt wants the UN Security Council to intervene in its longstanding dispute with Ethiopia about a Nile dam. Cairo fears that Ethiopia's move to fill the dam's reservoir will reduce the supply of water.

The construction of the giant $4.8 billion (€ 4.3 billion) hydroelectric power plant in Ethiopia, which began in 2010, is expected to be completed in 2022. The initial filling of the dam is planned for July, according to authorities in Addis Ababa.

Verge of war

Talks about the use of the precious Nile water have been at a dead end for years. Shortly after the end of the latest round of negotiations in the ongoing conflict over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the main counterparts -- Egypt and Ethiopia -- started blaming each other.

The deadlock is a security risk for the region, Dawid Wolde Giorgis from the International Institute for Security in Addis Ababa told DW.

"The current situation should not be left to the two countries alone. This will have an impact on the region and Africa's security situation."

If the confrontation continues, Giorgi's fears, war could break out in the region.

"The only feasible way for both countries is to convene a crisis meeting of all Nile states and, at the same time, to conduct a dialogue with the heads of state of the African countries."

Why is this issue controversial?

The years-long conflict pits Ethiopia's desire to become a significant power exporter in the region against Egypt's concern that the dam will significantly reduce its water supply if filled too quickly.

Egypt is expected to lose at least 22% of water flow, and is concerned that up tp 30% of its agricultural land might turn into desert.

Both Egypt and Ethiopia have hinted at the possibility of taking military steps to protect their interests, and experts fear a breakdown in talks could lead to conflict.

Sudan, another party to this squabble, has long been caught between the competing interests.

The arrival of the rainy season is bringing more water to the Blue Nile, the main branch of the Nile. Addis Ababa considers next month would be an ideal time to begin filling the dam's reservoir.

The basin was designed for a gigantic 74 billion cubic meters of water.

Wrestling over the water level

Ethiopia hopes to collect at least 4.9 billion cubic meters of water during July and August. The volume in this first filling phase would be sufficient to start the first two turbines in mid-2021.

Another seven years are likely to pass before the reservoir is full so that the dam can probably be commissioned with all 16 turbines in 2029 -- with a five-year delay.

By then, the continent's largest hydroelectric power plant will be supplying the East African countries with electricity.

For a decade now, the three beneficiaries of the Blue Nile have been wrestling with the question of how to distribute the water equitably.

Since then, there has been growing concern in Egypt that fields in the Nile valley could become desolate and that drinking water wells could dry up.

Sudan shares such concerns but also sees advantages: Cheaper electricity for the country's development projects and fewer floods would benefit the majority of poorer Sudanese people.

Dealing with drought

The main point of contention remains how countries along the Nile can manage future periods of drought.

"Drought management is a shared responsibility," Gedion Asfaw, Ethiopia's chief negotiator at the Tripartite Commission, told DW.

I was decided that construction -- and thus also the filling of the dam -- could be started while negotiations were still ongoing, Asfaw pointed out.

Outstanding issues

"The parties will resume talks. The filling of the basin does not depend on the state of the negotiations."

Sudan -- a fragile country that is only just finding stability after civil wars and a recent revolution -- has proposed upgrading negotiations with Egypt and Ethiopia on a mega-dam on the Nile to prime ministerial level.

However, no such meeting has been planned so far. The outstanding issues "are legal, particularly concerning a mechanism for shared water use," Sudan's minister for water resources, Yasser Abbas, said at a press conference last week.

His Egyptian counterpart, Mohamed Abdel Aty, blamed Ethiopia for the failure of recent talks: "Due to Ethiopia's stubborn stance on technical and legal issues, no significant progress has been made in the talks."

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