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Sisi lauds Egyptian water conservation programs as Nile dam progresses

Ethiopia plans to proceed with the third-stage filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in the coming weeks.

At the first Africa Health ExCon, which kicked off in Cairo on June 5, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi recently stated that his country is not in conflict with other African countries over its share of the Nile water. Sisi noted that his country's historical share, an estimated 55 billion cubic meters, has been unchanged over the years.

Sisi said, “Despite our population increase, we have not engaged in any conflict with our African brothers to increase this share. Instead, we worked to expand our water resources and save every drop.” 

He praised Egypt's water treatment and desalination projects and explained that Egypt's water treatment projects have been developed in accordance with international health standards.

Sisi's comments highlighting Egypt's peaceful approach in its dispute with Ethiopia over the giant hydroelectric dam it is building on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile River, come weeks before Ethiopia begins the third phase of filling the dam’s reservoir. Sisi also reiterated Cairo's position on the need for a legally binding agreement on the rules for filling and operating the dam in accordance with international law.

Egypt and Sudan view the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) as a threat to their water supplies from the Nile, on which they depend almost entirely for their drinking and agricultural needs. The process of filling the dam's reservoir completely is expected to take five to seven years.

For more than a decade, Egypt and Sudan have failed to reach a legal agreement with Ethiopia regulating the process of filling and operating the dam during seasonal and prolonged drought, during which the amount of water that Addis Ababa will release toward the two downstream countries will be reduced.

Tripartite negotiations have been suspended since early April 2021 after the parties failed to achieve any progress during their last meeting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, accusing each other of obstructing the talks.

In late May, GERD project manager Kifle Horo acknowledged for the first time that Egypt and Sudan might be affected by the filling of the dam. Until that point, Ethiopia had repeatedly argued that the dam would not affect the downstream countries.

Horo said in a televised statement May 27 that the third-stage filling will take place in August and September. He said that halting the process is impossible, as it is run automatically.

The GERD’s storage capacity is 74 billion cubic meters, equivalent to the annual shares of Egypt and Sudan together. The GERD is expected to produce 6,000 megawatts of electric power.

Horo added that Egypt and Sudan's continued complaints about the danger and effects of the dam on them do not concern Ethiopia and that its completion will not stop for any reason.

The Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned Horo's statements as "irresponsible" for ignoring Sudan's position on the dam.

During his June 1 meeting with European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi, Sisi said that the water issue is existential for Egypt and its people.

Over the past decade, Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia have been locked in a bitter dispute over the GERD project. The crisis has sparked fear of a military confrontation in the already volatile region. Last July, Ethiopia completed the second-stage filling of the dam's reservoir over Egypt and Sudan's objections.

The Ethiopian move came after months of diplomatic escalation that culminated in repeated Egyptian threats of military action against the dam if Addis Ababa does not reconsider.

However, Egypt later denied any intention to go to war with Ethiopia over the GERD, asserting that it is following peaceful political and diplomatic paths to end the crisis.

Further complicating the scene, Ethiopia began partial operation of the dam and its first limited electricity generation if February, to criticism by Egypt and Sudan. They said that the start of power generation is a violation of the Declaration of Principles signed by the three countries in 2015.

The GERD, which is more than 80% complete at a cost $5 billion, is the largest in Africa. Ethiopia says the dam is essential for its economic development and for providing energy.

Another issue that remains unresolved is Egypt and Sudan's insistence of a legally binding agreement that would create an effective mechanism for settling future disputes. Ethiopia, meanwhile, insists that any agreement should contain only non-binding guidelines.

Last summer, Cairo and Khartoum succeeded in placing the GERD issue on the agenda of the UN Security Council. The Security Council issued a presidential statement calling on the three countries to continue their talks under the auspices of the African Union, which has since sought unsuccessfully to reconvene negotiations.

Mona Omar, Egypt's former assistant foreign minister for African affairs, told Al-Monitor that Ethiopia is trying to impose a fait accompli on the downstream countries and ignoring international law. She said the two downstream countries will not return to the Security Council for help.

She said, “The council failed to impose sanctions against Ethiopia in the past that would curb its unilateral actions. This is due to the interests of some permanent members. Therefore, I doubt that resorting to the Security Council again will change anything, especially since the international focus is now on the Russian-Ukrainian war."

She added, “If there was once slight hope for a reliable international move to resolve the crisis, this hope has now vanished completely."

Ethiopia means to store 10 billion cubic meters of water this year and claims that it has so far successfully stored 13.5 billion cubic meters of water. However, Egyptian and Sudanese water experts say that Addis Ababa has only stored 3 billion cubic meters in addition to the 4.9 billion already in the reservoir since July 2020.

Egypt needs about 114 billion cubic meters of water annually to meet its needs, but the available resources amount to only 74 billion cubic meters. Cairo has allocated $50 billion to enact its plan to address the scarcity. Its water strategy relies on establishing water treatment plants, in addition to localizing seawater desalination technology, rationalizing the use of available water resources and increasing the efficiency of irrigation systems.

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