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Ethiopia to generate electricity from GERD amid negotiations deadlock

Ethiopia will produce energy from the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in a move likely to heighten existing tensions with Egypt and Sudan.
Workers perform measurements at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam near Guba in Ethiopia, on Dec. 26, 2019.

Ethiopia is for the first time preparing to generate power from the giant hydroelectric Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that Addis Ababa is building on the Blue Nile (one of two main tributaries of the Nile) in a move likely to increase existing tensions with Egypt and Sudan.

Ethiopian press reports said that Addis Ababa is now ready to start testing power generation from the dam.

Ethiopia, which has completed the construction of more than 80% of the controversial dam, is seeking to produce 700 MW by operating the first two turbines, thus covering 20% of its own needs, government officials have stated.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed convened an expanded Cabinet meeting on Jan. 5 at the construction site of the dam in the Benishangul region, located 900 kilometers northwest of the capital, Addis Ababa, to follow up on the implementation of his plan for the first 100 days after his re-election as prime minister in July 2021. Ahmed also inspected the construction work of the dam where work started 11 years ago.

Ethiopia has repeatedly failed to start generating power from the GERD. Addis Ababa officials had hoped that electricity would be generated from the dam by October 2021, but that was not achieved either. The electricity production capacity in Ethiopia currently stands at 4,967 MW.

Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have been locked in a bitter, decade-old dispute over the GERD amid repeated failed attempts on the part of the African Union since June 2020 to broker a deal to end the stalemate in the negotiations. The last attempt was in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in April 2021. It failed to lead to an agreement on relaunching the negotiations and prompted the parties to exchange accusations of obstructing the talks.

On July 19, 2021, Ethiopia announced the completion of the second filling of the dam’s reservoir, which would be enough to generate hydroelectric power, despite Egypt and Sudan’s rejection of the unilateral decision.

This Ethiopian move came months after a diplomatic escalation culminated in repeated Egyptian threats to carry out military action against the dam in the event Addis Ababa embarked on this step.

Despite the recent decline in indications whereby Egypt would take military action against the dam, diplomatic statements exchanged between the two countries still indicate that the conflict may erupt at any moment, with repercussions likely to affect an already volatile region.

Abbas Sharaki, Egyptian professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor that Ethiopia’s insistence on operating the two turbines and generating electricity without reaching an agreement with Egypt and Sudan proves Addis Ababa’s ongoing intransigence, and this complicates the negotiations.

He added that although power generation requires the passing of 3 billion cubic meters of water stored last year and that will end up in Egypt and Sudan, “This remains a step through which Ethiopia is trying to impose a fait accompli.” 

Addis Ababa argues that it has successfully completed the second phase of filling of the dam with a capacity of 13.5 billion cubic meters of water as planned, but Egyptian and Sudanese water experts say that it has only managed to store 3 billion cubic meters in addition to the 4.9 billion cubic meters of water that was stored during the first filling phase in July 2020.

Sharaki said that the convening of an Ethiopian Cabinet meeting at the dam site conveys two messages, the first of which is to the Ethiopians whereby the government is determined to complete the project as soon as possible, and the other to Egypt and Sudan whereby “the Ethiopian government is determined to move forward despite the failure to reach an agreement with the downstream countries on filling and operating the dam.”

While Ethiopia says the $5 billion dam, the largest in Africa, is of paramount importance for its economic development and energy generation, Egypt considers it a serious threat to its supplies of the Nile water, as it almost entirely depends on them to meet its needs of fresh water.

A recent Egyptian government report expected that filling and operating the dam based on Ethiopian plans without reaching an agreement will negatively affect the production of hydroelectric power generated by the High Dam. Hydroelectric power accounts for about 6% of the electricity production in Egypt, most of which comes from the High Dam.

Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Ati also warned in November that any shortage of water coming to Egypt would affect workers in the agricultural sector, thus causing security and social instability in the region while increasing illegal immigration.

For its part, Sudan, which believes that the dam regulates the waters of the Blue Nile and generates power it could benefit from, is seeking guarantees regarding its safe and appropriate operation in order to preserve its dams — including the Roseires Dam, the largest Sudanese dam.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said in November that his country was looking forward to reaching a legal, binding and just agreement on the GERD with Ethiopia “far from any unilateral approach that seeks to impose a fait accompli,” based on the rules of international law and the outcomes of the UN Security Council.

In mid-September, the Security Council issued a presidential statement calling on the three countries to resume negotiations in a constructive and cooperative manner under the auspices of the African Union “to swiftly finalize the text of a binding and mutually acceptable agreement on the filling and operation of the dam.”

Since then, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is currently chairing the African Union, has been seeking to prompt the three countries to resume negotiations, to no avail. The possibility of resuming negotiations was further complicated by the turmoil in Sudan and Ethiopia’s preoccupation with its civil war with the Tigray rebels.

But federal government forces have recently made progress in their 14-month-old war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front rebels after they took control of the strategic areas, most notably Amhara and Afar, from which the rebels suddenly withdrew in December; this may encourage a cease-fire and the start of negotiations between the two parties.

The United States is pushing for the resumption of negotiations between the three countries to reach an agreement before the third filling of the dam’s reservoir scheduled for next June. Washington believes that the Tigray war has negatively affected the negotiations, but it hopes that ending the war will contribute to reviving the tripartite negotiations.

On the contrary, former US Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn believes that Ahmed's settlement of his war with Tigrayans is not in Egypt's interest.

Shinn told Al-Monitor that it is in the interest of Egypt for the Ethiopian central government to remain in disarray. "Any restoration of control by Abiy Ahmed will strengthen the Ethiopian government’s hand and its ability to stand up to Egypt," Shinn added.

"The continuing political uncertainty in Sudan also strengthens the hand of Abiy Ahmed (in the dam dispute), as Sudan had aligned itself with Egypt on the GERD issue and now is mostly consumed with internal political problems," he said.

While Sharaki believes that resuming negotiations on the dam crisis would be difficult at the present time given the deteriorating political situation in Sudan, he expected that David Satterfield, the newly appointed US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, succeeding Jeffrey Feltman, will conduct a tour that includes the three countries and that may contribute to breaking the current deadlock in the negotiations.

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