CAIRO — Egypt is currently demanding negotiations over controversial issues related to the filling operation at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, as dam construction appears to be stalling.
On Aug. 25, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed spoke at his first press conference since he took office in May about the obstacles hindering the completion of the dam.
“Thinking big is one thing, but accomplishing it is another,” he said. “We have handed over a complicated water dam project to people who have not seen a dam in their life, and if we continue in that direction, the project may never see the light of day,” Ahmed said.
He accused the military-run corporation Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC) — which is responsible for design, manufacturing, installation and erection of electromechanical and hydraulic steel structure works at the project — of intentionally making the project fail, saying METEC and its management did not have enough experience to work on such large projects. Noteworthy is that former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn put METEC in charge of the project.
Ahmed's comments revealed underlying issues never before tackled by the successive Ethiopian administrations, which have been keen to mobilize people inside and outside Ethiopia to support the dam's construction ever since late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi first announced the project in February 2011.
Back then, the mysterious announcement mentioned a Project X — which would be the largest water dam on the Blue Nile to generate 6,000 megawatts of energy — without prior notification to either of the downstream states, namely Egypt and Sudan.
On July 26 — only one month before Ahmed’s statement — the dam project's manager Simegnew Bekele passed away. The Ethiopian federal police said the cause of death was suicide. Head of Ethiopia’s Federal Police Commission Zeinu Jemal was quoted as saying at a press conference Sept. 7 that the “investigation [into Bekele's death] had shown that the victim had been under pressure from delays in the construction of the dam, and that conversations with his secretary an hour before his death the evening before seemed like farewell statements,” adding that the suicide was linked “to the extra costs they were incurring for the government.”
An official at the Ethiopian Water Ministry told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “According to the original construction schedule for the project, two turbines were supposed to be installed in 2018 so electricity generation can begin this year with the start of initial storage. However, METEC — which is in charge of hydroelectric works — did not stick to the schedule. Thus, the project has been temporarily suspended.”
The source added, “The Ethiopian government has no intention of disrupting the project any further. The hydrographic works were assigned to China’s China Gezhouba Group Corporation. Periodic meetings are being held to ascertain the progress of the work and deal with the workers' strike at the project site.” Workers have been protesting since August poor salaries and living conditions.
In addition, the tripartite negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over political, security and technical issues have been suspended since the May 15 meeting in Addis Ababa concluded. The document listing the outcomes of the meeting failed to resolve outstanding issues regarding the adoption of the preliminary report on dam impact studies, storage and operation mechanisms.
Cairo started taking intensive diplomatic action in an attempt to push negotiations forward so as to reach an agreed-upon formula on storage and operation of the dam in a way that reduces the expected damage to Egypt.
On Aug. 28, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri and intelligence chief Abbas Kamel visited Ethiopia, carrying a letter from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the Ethiopian prime minister on progress in the implementation of the outcome of the Addis Ababa meeting held in May. The document listed five outcomes regarding the ways to solve the dispute over the dam filling and operation.
Not only did Cairo contact Ethiopia, but it also felt the need to take advantage of the momentum and positive atmosphere of relations with Sudan. Shoukri met with his Sudanese counterpart, Al-Dirdiri Mohammed Ahmed, on the sidelines of the Egyptian-Sudanese Ministerial Committee on Aug. 29. The two officials discussed the resumption of technical consultations on the dam and stressed the importance of maintaining a fast pace when it comes to negotiations.
At a press conference on Aug. 29 following the meeting, Shoukri further noted the need to reach a tripartite agreement in light of Egypt's commitment to a practical and technical framework that is not subject to politicization.
An Egyptian diplomatic official familiar with the Nile water issue told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “This is the perfect time to expedite negotiations over outstanding issues and reach a legal and technical formula that takes into consideration the interests of the three parties involved.”
He explained, “We are relatively pleased with the language of understanding currently in place with Sudan and Ethiopia on resolving the outstanding points on the dam. The previous pressure to increase construction rates at the dam site compared to the level of progress in the negotiations has somewhat diminished. However, judging whether or not the current endeavors would succeed depends on reaching a binding legal document for the three parties. We need to agree on storage and operation of the dam after technical studies to determine the negative effects of the dam.”
Rawia Tawfik, a professor of political science at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor, “Egypt has an opportunity to come up with new ideas — especially with Ethiopia's acknowledgment of financial and administrative problems in the dam project. Yet we cannot be too optimistic about this. We are still in the process of adopting the preliminary report of the studies of the consultancy firms on the impacts of the dam. The focus should be on maintaining regular political and technical negotiations, regardless of the project's suspension, without relying on external parties such as the Gulf.”
Tawfik explained, “Ahmed’s statements uncovering problems in the dam project can be interpreted in the framework within which Ahmed came to power; he relied on popular momentum in terms of change and rested on the masses to resist other parties.”
The fate of the Renaissance Dam remains unknown in light of the possibility of Egypt reaching an agreement that guarantees its interests in the waters of the Nile. These interests have been subject to controversy and tension with Ethiopia for the past seven years. However, developments on the Ethiopian political scene since Ahmed took office somewhat reassure Cairo. Egyptian officials seem to be reflecting their reassurance in their statements about the understanding with Ethiopia through dialogue.