Ethiopian attempt to begin filling Renaissance Dam may scupper deal with Egypt and Sudan, say experts

A general view of the dam. (
Updated 13 November 2017

Ethiopian attempt to begin filling Renaissance Dam may scupper deal with Egypt and Sudan, say experts

CAIRO: There are fears that a unilateral attempt by Ethiopia to begin filling a huge new dam on the Nile will lead to the failure of technical discussions with Egypt and Sudan.
Disagreements between Ethiopia and Egypt on filling the reservoir and generating power within a few months on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which will be the largest in Africa, could not be resolved during the Tripartite National Technical Committee’s meeting, which brought together the Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian ministers of water and was held in Addis Ababa on Oct. 19.
The day before the meeting, Ethiopia’s Communication and Information Technology Minister Debretsion Gebremichael announced that the construction of the dam had reached 62 percent and generating power would start this Ethiopian year and before construction is complete. The new Ethiopian year started on Sept. 11 and ends in October 2018.
“The remaining 38 percent of the construction will be done while the dam is generating hydroelectric power,” Gebremichael had told the Ethiopian News Agency.
Considering the slow pace at which the French consulting firms BRL and Artelia are preparing technical studies, it is speculated that before Ethiopia begins storing the Nile’s water in the dam, studies necessary for reaching a final agreement between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the rules of filling and operating the dam will be completed.
If no agreement takes place between the three countries, Ethiopia’s next step would be considered a clear violation of the tripartite Declaration of Principles on Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam signed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in Khartoum on March 23, 2015.
“Any unilateral attempt made by Ethiopia to initiate filling the dam would lead to the failure of the current technical discussions between the three countries,” said Dr. Ayman Shabana, professor of political science at the Institute of African Studies, Cairo University.
However, Hani Raslan, an expert on the Nile basin and Sudanese affairs at Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, believes the declaration of principles does not provide a legally binding framework for Ethiopia since it obliges the three countries only to “respect” the terms and not “adhere” to them. “Respect can mean a different thing for each country,” he said.
“There are also controversial terms in the declaration of principles, especially the one that says filling the GERD reservoir is linked to completing joint technical studies,” he added, explaining that Ethiopia adopted “an elusive interpretation of this term.”
“Ethiopia has named two phases of the filling process: ‘The first filling,’ which it targets during the current stage in order to start generating power, and ‘the complete filling,’ which means filling the dam reservoir to its full capacity of 74 billion cubic meters,” he continued, “And it only associates the completion of technical studies and the filling and operation rules with the complete filling and not the first filling.”
Frozen negotiations
Egypt is increasingly concerned about Ethiopia’s intention to start storing water in the GERD reservoir before completing the technical studies and reaching a final agreement on filling and operation rules.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry discussed what he called the “frozen negotiations” of the tripartite technical committee. During a meeting with his Ethiopian counterpart, Workneh Gebeyehu, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Sept. 21, Shoukry complained of the delay in issuing technical studies on the dam’s impact on Egypt and Sudan.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi also pointed out the urgency of the speedy implementation of the declaration of principles on Ethiopia’s dam in his speech to the General Assembly on Sept. 19.
Shoukri explained that the reason behind the “slowdown” of issuing technical studies on the dam’s impact was the presence of obstacles that none of the three countries could overcome at technical or political levels. “These obstacles are a threat to the foundations of the Declaration of Principles agreement,” he said in an interview with Al-Ahram newspaper, published on Oct. 4.
He then added: “Not completing the technical studies prior to completing the dam’s construction and launching the filling process would make everyone suspect negotiations are being stalled to impede the report’s issuance.”
In spite of this, unofficial Egyptian sources acquainted with water management suggested that, to avoid the discussions failing, Egypt agree to the first filling of the GERD reservoir under three conditions:
First, the filling must be for trial purposes and not part of the actual filling process that leads to the dam’s official operation.
Second, the target water level of the first filling must be only enough for operating the two turbines installed by Ethiopia at the dam’s lower part, provided filling stops immediately after reaching this level and is resumed only after the completion of technical studies and reaching a final tripartite agreement on the rules of filling and operation. Egyptian sources estimated the amount of water needed for this purpose would be around 15 billion cubic meters.
Third, the first filling must be completed over two years, according to the same unofficial Egyptian sources, and not one year or less as planned by Ethiopia.
Dr. Shabana, of the Institute of African Studies at Cairo University, agrees with the above insight, stressing that “any step taken by Ethiopia toward initiating the filling process must be for trial purposes only and in full coordination with Egypt, as required by the declaration of principles.”
In Raslan’s opinion, Egypt currently lacks the tools for pressuring Ethiopia, which means it has to accept Ethiopia’s unilateral filling approach.
He also pointed out that the time at which the Ethiopian government announced its unilateral intention to start filling the GERD reservoir, which coincided with the tripartite technical committee’s meeting in Addis Ababa, confirms Ethiopia’s approach of refusing legal commitment as well as negotiations about its construction of GERD and development of its filling and operation rules. “Ethiopia refused to discuss the matter. Instead, it unilaterally announced it,” he said.
“In practice, Ethiopia does not respect the declaration of principles nor the technical discussions, but uses them as a façade to show goodwill and an alleged desire to cooperate with Egypt and Sudan and not harm them,” he continued. “Ethiopia’s ultimate and strategic goal is to completely and unilaterally control the Nile’s revenue, which is 48-50 billion cubic meters of water annually and accounts for most of Egypt’s annual allocation of the Nile’s water.”
Arab News sought a comment on this information from the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, but the ministry’s spokesperson declined to comment.
Technical committee
Technical matters associated with the best mechanism for filling and operating the Renaissance Dam without affecting the two downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, are still being debated after the Tripartite National Technical Committee, composed of 12 experts from Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia, held 16 rounds of negotiations, the latest of which was on Oct. 15 in Addis Ababa, to reach an agreement on the initial technical report submitted by the two French consulting firms, BRL and Artelia, in late March 2017.
On Sept. 20, 2016 in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, the three countries signed the contracts for the technical studies with the two French firms, marking the preparation for a technical file on the Renaissance Dam and its effect on downstream countries. The studies were supposed to be finalized by the two French firms last August according to the time frame of 11 months defined by the declaration of principles agreement, followed by the Khartoum Document, which was signed by the three countries’ foreign ministers in December 2015, in addition to a period of four months dedicated for the technical committee’s members to reach consensus on how to implement the studies’ outcomes.
“Ethiopia’s strategy is to either impose its views during the technical discussions or withdraw from all agreements and restart negotiations from scratch,” Raslan said. “Faced with this approach, Egypt had no decisive negotiation strategy and relied instead on successive concessions in hopes of mellowing Ethiopia, which never happened.”
Egypt’s Water Resources and Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel Ati predicted earlier that Ethiopia would start storing water in the GERD reservoir next year.
On Sept. 28, 2017, Misr News Agency quoted the minister saying: “The impact of the Renaissance Dam has not yet been experienced because the flow of water into Egypt is no different from that experienced during previous years, but it is very likely that part of the dam will be filled next year.”
He also stressed the importance of consensus on the method of filling and operating the dam.
In a press statement published on Oct. 18, 2017, the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation said that Egypt confirmed no water had been stored behind GERD this year and nothing was impeding the flow of water into the country until now.
The press statement was released a day after an Egyptian delegation, headed by Abdel Ati, on Oct. 17 visited the dam in Benishangul, which is 20 km from the Sudanese border, and “the visit was the first of its kind for an Egyptian government official.”
Complete filling
In addition to the dispute over Ethiopia’s intention to start the unilateral filling of the GERD reservoir as part of what it calls “the first filling,” what Ethiopia calls “the complete filling” poses a greater danger, said Hani Raslan, Nile basin and Sudanese affairs expert.
“Ethiopia insists on filling the reservoir within three years, which will deprive Egypt of around 25 billion cubic meters of water every year — almost half of its annual allocation of the Nile’s water,” Raslan explained. “Egypt, on the other hand, demanded filling the reservoir over a period of nine years.”
“If we take into account the annual loss of water caused by leakage and evaporation, the complete filling is expected to drain almost 90 billion cubic meters of water, not 74 billion cubic meters, which represents the final storage volume,” he added.
In the context of a strategic approach supported by several international and regional parties to reshape and strengthen Ethiopia’s influence and turn it into the greatest power in East Africa and the Nile basin, Addis Ababa has plans to export hydroelectric power.

Egypt votes on extending El-Sisi’s rule, country awaits result

Updated 20 April 2019

Egypt votes on extending El-Sisi’s rule, country awaits result

  • El-Sisi cast his ballot at a polling station in the eastern suburb of Heliopolis in the Egyptian capital
  • Supporters argue that El-Sisi has stabilized Egypt and needs more time to complete crucial economic reforms.

CAIRO: Egyptians were voting on Saturday in a referendum that aims to cement the rule of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the former coup leader who presents himself as a rock of stability in a turbulent region.

Voters were being asked to back amendments to the constitution to allow El-Sisi, 64, to run for another six-year term while boosting his control over the judiciary and giving the military even greater influence in political life.

At a polling station in Manyal, a Cairo suburb overlooking the Nile, Mohamed Abdel Salam, 45, told AFP he was voting enthusiastically in support of the changes.

"I don't care about the presidential terms," he said.

"Sisi could stay forever as long as he's doing his job... and he has already done a lot"

The three-day referendum bucks the trend of North Africa's renewed uprisings, in which mass pro-democracy protests this month swept away veteran presidents in Algeria and Sudan.

Sisi himself was among the first to vote when polls opened, casting his ballot in the upmarket Cairo suburb of Heliopolis.

In Shubra, a working-class neighbourhood of the capital, dozens of voters, mostly women carrying their children, queued outside a polling station in the local high school.

In Cairo, troops and police were deployed in numbers although the interior ministry declined to give any nationwide figures.

Egypt is still battling a hardened Islamic insurgency based in the Sinai Peninsula that has seen attacks in Cairo and other cities.

Sisi has argued that he needs longer to complete the job of restoring security and stability after the turmoil that followed the overthrow of veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring of 2011.

Out on the streets, Sisi's supporters waved flags bearing their campaign motto: "Do the Right" thing, as they pressed passers-by to turn out and vote 'Yes'.

The Egyptian leader won his first term as president in 2014, a year after he led the army in overthrowing elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi following mass protests against his single turbulent year in power.

Standing virtually unopposed after the disqualification or withdrawal of all realistic challengers, he was re-elected in March 2018 with more than 97 percent.

Both elections drew heavy criticism from human rights groups as they were accompanied by swingeing crackdowns on dissent -- both Islamist and secular.

Human Rights Watch also took issue with the referendum on extending Sisi's rule, saying the "constitutional amendments" would "entrench repression".

In a statement Saturday, the New York-based watchdog criticised the "grossly unfree, rights-abusive environment" of the vote.

For the past few weeks, Egypt's streets have been awash with banners and billboards urging citizens to vote for Sisi, while popular folk singers have exhorted voters to go to the polls.

Pro-Sisi campaign volunteers handed out boxed meals at four different polling stations in Cairo to voters after they had cast their ballots, AFP reporters said.

A parliamentarian greeted voters and volunteers gave out vouchers for the meals in the Shubra district.

In Manyal, a DJ blared loud patriotic songs extolling the virtues of Egypt under Sisi's leadership, including a new song by iconic Lebanese diva Nancy Ajram dedicated to Egypt and called "Ragel ibn Ragel" (What a fine man).

But not everyone is upbeat about the changes.

Sporting casual attire, a voter in his mid-30s told AFP in Cairo: "We are all staff in the same company and we were instructed by management to go vote.

"I want to say 'No'... on extending the presidential terms and the amendments related to the judiciary," he said declining to give his name for fear of repercussions.

He pointed to his bosses nearby who were making sure employees were voting.

"Even if I say 'No', they (the authorities) are still going to do what they want in the end," he added despondently.

Earlier in the week, parliament overwhelmingly endorsed the consitutional changes, which also include the creation of a second parliamentary chamber and a quota ensuring at least 25 percent of lawmakers are women.

Think tank the Soufan Center said the main effect of the referendum would be to "solidify Sisi's grip on the Egyptian political regime" in a country that "has become even more autocratic than it was under Mubarak".