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Ethiopia - What's happening about the Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD)?


The dam filling schedule for Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam (the GERD) remains contentious. Filling of the GERD commenced last year despite lack of agreement with Egypt and Sudan. Egypt and Sudan failed to reach agreement with Ethiopia again at a meeting in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo on 4-5 Apr 21. Ethiopia has declared its intent to continue filling the GERD this year during the rains, normally between Jul - Sep.

The GERD is viewed by Egypt as a major threat to its national water security. The Nile irrigates the agriculture and aquaculture sectors along its banks and provides approximately half of the food for Egypt's burgeoning population. Sudan have some concerns about water levels and the safety of their own dams but there is a growing recognition that the GERD may not be all bad for Sudan; the GERD may help control water flows and reduce flooding. This perhaps dilutes the argument and positions Sudan as more of a 'piggy in the middle' of this dispute.

Egypt is keen to cement its historical rights to water from the Nile and to draw the USA into the negotiation process. Any confidence that Ethiopia might have had in either the USA (or Europe's) impartiality and their ability to broker an acceptable deal was finally 'torpedoed' by Donald Trump's comments about 'blowing up the dam' during his Presidency. Egypt and Sudan seem to want to keep negotiations tight between the three nations. In principal this should maximise the possibility of coming to a timely agreement.

Any delay to the filling of the GERD and production of the associated hydro power, is clearly not in Ethiopia's interest. The country has made a substantial investment in the building of the GERD, installation of its turbines and the associated power distribution network. Ethiopia needs to start realising a return on this investment as soon as possible. Apart from a threat from the USA to reduce or suspend aid, there appears to be little incentive for Ethiopia to enter into any negotiation that might ultimately cause delays and additional cost. In the mean time, Ethiopia's lack of commitment to agree water flows, even in the event of drought, must be adding to Egypt and Sudan's unease.

Ethiopia's strategy therefore seems to push towards settlement under the Chairmanship of the African Union ('Africans helping Africans'). This could broaden the negotiation through inclusion of all Nile Basin stakeholders (Tanzania, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Eritrea, and South Sudan). It is anticipated that this would significantly complicate and prolong the negotiation process. It could delay completion of any agreement for several years, possibly until after the GERD has been filled. It is not surprising that this is not supported by Egypt and Sudan. It might be concluded therefore, that it suits Ethiopia to 'kick the can down the road' and fill the GERD over a period of about 5 years, 'come what may'. Ethiopia does not appear incentivised to let anything interfere with this schedule.

Ethiopia argues that once the dam is filled, the flow rate in the Nile will remain mostly unchanged and the power generated by the GERD will bring prosperity to the region. Also, that the GERD will mitigate against drought and facilitate control of salinity in the Nile. The argument does have merit, providing seasonal rainfall remains within norms. There are good historical models that can be used to predict water flows along the Nile but unpredictable rainfall due to seasonal variances, climate change and the possibility of a regional multi year drought introduce a worrying uncertainty. Without a binding dispute mechanism in place, a prolonged or multi-year drought downstream could lead to panic, civil unrest and escalate rapidly to conflict, unless Ethiopia protects water flows and lowers storage levels.

It is clear that the GERD presents a substantial regional development opportunity but this can only be realised if regional relationships and trust between the key stakeholders improves. The current differences between the countries need to be reconciled to allow the expansion of trade, improved food security and reduction of poverty across the region.

In the mean time, the downstream nations need to fashion their Nile water off-take plans for the next (say) 4 years based on the assumption that the GERD will be filled regardless of an agreement being in place. Further, it would be prudent to develop drought and dam structural failure contingency plans; these plans should include clear indicators that allow early recognition and response to emerging scenarios.

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