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Egypt reacts as Ethiopia switches on first Nile dam turbine

Cairo continues to call on Addis Ababa to end its unilateral measures when it comes to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
GERD ceremony

CAIRO — Egypt has condemned Ethiopia’s move to partially operate the first turbine in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

“The Ethiopian side has taken a further step in violating its obligations under the 2015 Declaration of Principles,” the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement published on its Facebook page on Feb. 20. Cairo believes the unilateral measure will disrupt the Blue Nile, despite not having a direct impact on Egyptian water interests.

On Feb. 20, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed inaugurated the first turbine of the controversial dam, with a capacity of 375 megawatts. 

Once completed, the dam is expected to generate a total of 5,150 megawatts from 13 turbines. Approximately 7.2 billion cubic meters of water have been held in the dam's lake over the past two years.

Negotiations under the auspices of the African Union (AU) were halted in April 2021 after the failure to reach a binding agreement on filling and operating the dam. Meanwhile, Ethiopia continued to fill the dam’s reservoir, while Sudan’s AU membership is still suspended following the Oct. 25 military coup.

An Egyptian official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “We have not received any official information from the Ethiopian side since the start of this trial operation. Ethiopia is still following the policy of imposing a fait accompli without any prior consultations [with the downstream countries].”

He added, “The Nile cannot be managed unilaterally by any of the riparian countries. We discussed in the negotiations the importance of linking the GERD with the system of dams on the Blue Nile, which Ethiopia rejects.”

The fifth item on the Declaration of Principles between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in March 2015 states that all parties should agree on rules for the first filling of dam and its annual operation, and that Ethiopia should "inform the downstream countries of any unforeseen or urgent circumstances requiring adjustments.”

The fifth item also calls for a coordination mechanism among the three countries. Yet none of the provisions were implemented by Ethiopia, which completed the first and second filling without the approval of either Egypt or Sudan.

Karim Kamal, an Egyptian engineer specializing in water facilities, told Al-Monitor, “Operating one or two turbines in the GERD does not have a direct negative impact on Egypt at the present time," because "the quantities of water expected to pass from the dam after the partial operation remain equal to the quantities that were coming out of the GERD’s middle spillway.” But, he added, "the greatest harm is in the permanent operation of the dam without coordination with Egypt and Sudan.”

The tests of the first turbine ran from late January until Feb. 14. However, the photos Ahmed shared on his official Facebook account did not show the flow of water from this partial operation, raising questions about the power capacity given the low water level behind the dam.

Peter Hany, a professor of irrigation and hydraulics at Ain Shams University, told Al-Monitor that the turbine must have a water column above its own level. Since the current operation is at the lowest water level in the dam lake, the actual capacity of the turbine will not reach 375 megawatts. "This partial operation will thus be limited to being a trial that may continue for only two months,” he said.

The current quantities of water in the dam will not affect Egypt, he said, as "the High Dam can accommodate quantities of water up to 130 billion cubic meters, and the Toshka spillway’s capacity is 56 billion cubic meters. However, it is impossible in international rivers to have single management of a water source in the upper river without consulting with the downstream countries.”

Hany noted, “Egypt is taking many measures to confront the GERD’s potential risks and water poverty in general by providing alternative and non-traditional sources of water, such as reusing wastewater, and desalinating seawater in the northern coasts and on the Red Sea using clean energy, while improving the efficiency of the water management system.”

During his speech, Ahmed defended the largest hydroelectric dam project in Africa. Power from the dam could also be exported to Europe to reduce gas emissions, he was quoted as saying. 

Ahmed also said that power generation from the dam will benefit the downstream countries as well. “The Ethiopian people do not want to starve and thirst the people of Sudan and Egypt,” he said.

Ahmed celebrated the partial operation of the GERD amid ongoing security issues due to the war against the Tigray and the rebellion of several regions, including in the Benishangul-Gumuz region, where the GERD is being built. Some argue that the Ethiopian government is promoting the partial operation as an achievement to calm the internal front. 

However, Cairo stands firm in considering the partial operation as a step that harms its interests.