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As negotiations falter, Ethiopia begins third-stage filling of Nile dam

Egyptian reports revealed that Ethiopia has begun the third round of water collection behind Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
This general view shows the site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Guba, Ethiopia, Feb. 19, 2022.

CAIRO — Egyptian media outlets and experts reported that Ethiopia has begun the third-stage filling operation of its controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), as the dispute over the dam remains unresolved between Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa.

This comes after Ethiopia announced in mid-June that it had completed 88% of the construction work on the GERD, and is looking forward to the actual completion of its construction by the end of 2023.

Recent satellite images showed that the water level in the GERD lake had crossed last year’s level, with the disappearance of some small islands. The water level is nearing the concrete saddle dam, which was built by Ethiopia as a backup dam for the GERD.

In a July 11 Facebook post, Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, said the storage operation of the GERD will continue until the end of July, if “the outlet bottom gates (60-70 million m3 / day) continue to be opened at a level of 590 meters above sea level for the central spillway (with a storage of about 4 billion m3), or the fifth of August at a level of 595 meters (with a storage of 5.5 billion m3).”

According to an article published by Asharq al-Awsat newspaper July 12, the third stage will likely “raise more tensions with the downstream countries (Egypt and Sudan), despite expectations of limited harm at the current stage in light of high rainfall rates in the upstream countries.”

Gamal Bayoumi, Egypt's former assistant minister of foreign affairs, told Al-Monitor, “Egypt is exerting diplomatic pressure by all available means to resume tripartite negotiations on the GERD, preserve its historical rights to the Nile waters and expose Ethiopia's intransigence in refusing a binding agreement on a mechanism for filling and managing the dam.”

Negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia are still stumbling. The last session between the three countries was held in mid-2021 under the auspices of the African Union (AU) in Kinshasa, without reaching an agreement.

Consequently, Cairo and Khartoum took the matter to the UN Security Council, which issued a statement in mid-September 2021, urging Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to resume negotiations under the AU sponsorship, with the aim of finalizing an agreement that is acceptable and binding to all the parties, as soon as possible, on filling and operating the GERD. However, this has yet to happen.

Bayoumi explained, “The third filling of the GERD means several billions of cubic meters of water will be retained, but this will not affect Egypt's share of water.”

He opined that the problem is political rather than technical, with Addis Ababa refusing to budge on its position against the downstream countries, and rejecting any agreement that was formulated.

Ethiopia had rejected an agreement drafted by the United States and the World Bank regarding the rules for filling and operating the GERD in 2020.

Riccardo Fabiani, project director for North Africa at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor, “Naturally, Egypt and Sudan will object to this step. But so far this filling was largely expected and comes as no surprise.”

He said, “The third filling is likely to have a limited impact on the volume of water for the downstream countries. I do not think that this filling will necessarily affect future negotiations.”

Egypt has yet to officially comment on the move.

“The damage ensuing from the third filling is likely to be contained, perhaps for two reasons. The first is that construction in the Ethiopian dam is behind schedule, making Ethiopia’s ability to retain water less than what was officially announced. Second, it seems that the quantity of water rainfall is close to its historical average, which means that there should be no shortage in the water supply for downstream countries,” Fabiani said. 

Nader Nour El-Din, Egyptian expert in water affairs and professor of land and water at the Faculty of Agriculture at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor, “So far, Ethiopia has not publicly disclosed the volume of storage targeted in the third filling this year. At the end of 2021, water storage at the dam lake reservoir was estimated at 8 billion cubic meters.”

He said, “Although there are no signs of resuming negotiations, the third filling began this month with the start of heavy rains and the flood season. Before that, Ethiopia raised the height of the middle corridor of the GERD that obstructs the watercourse of the Blue Nile. The higher this corridor is, the more water quantity is stored.” 

He argued that Egypt is betting on heavy rainfall and a large flood this year. “This means that our water share will not be prejudiced by the third filling of the dam, since we will receive a sufficient amount of water,” Nour El-Din added.

Meanwhile, Egyptian experts talk about a number of damages that Egypt is likely to sustain as a result of the third filling of the dam’s reservoir. In a July 13 Facebook post, Sharaki pointed to “water, economic, political and social damages,” as a result of the third filling, most notably the fact that “Ethiopia continues to impose a fait accompli by taking unilateral decisions …, which is embarrassing officials in Egypt and Sudan in front of their people.” 

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi raised the tone as he spoke recently of Ethiopia’s move to fill the dam without prior agreement with Egypt.

Speaking to reporters in Menoufia governorate June 13, Sisi said, “I won’t say much except that [no] one will touch Egypt’s water,” adding that the Egyptian government has been carrying out unprecedented projects to make the most of the available water.

Mohammad Soliman, researcher at the Middle East Institute, told Al-Monitor, “Any unilateral step without mutual consent will stir more escalation and tensions between the three countries and undermine the GERD negotiations. Water resources in the region are a source of concern for the national security of Cairo and Khartoum.”

On the future of the GERD dispute, he said, “Maintaining the status quo between the three countries may not be sustainable in the long term. An unfortunate escalation could destabilize regional peace and security in North Africa and the Nile Basin.” 

Soliman and Fabiani both agree that the United States can play a role in resolving this crisis between the three countries. “The AU certainly failed to find a solution but the United States has influence and is a key player in the region, especially in terms of security cooperation and aid,” Soliman said. “It is possible that Washington becomes more involved in the GERD issue in light of China's growing role in the region.”

Fabiani concluded, “A compromise is needed now more than ever, and the three parties must be willing to make concessions to reach an agreement.”