This week, Ethiopia announced that electricity production had started at the second turbine of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and that the third consecutive filling of its reservoir was also successfully completed.

The GERD is the largest Hydroelectric project in Africa currently being constructed on the Blue Nile river, which is originated in Ethiopian highland, with a capacity of producing 5150 MW.

This third filling meant that the dam can run the first two of its 13 turbines. On completion, the $5-billion dam will produce more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity, making it Africa’s biggest hydroelectric dam and more than doubling Ethiopia’s electricity output.

For starters, the money funding this project is entirely from government of Ethiopia and her nationals both within and outside the country, and so, completion of the third phase of filling the dam and the subsequent commencement of generating power by the second turbine raise hope among Ethiopians who through its energy production, consider it as a turning point to the country’s economic problems. 

“The Dam will address the quest of basic electricity demand by 65 million Ethiopians who suffer due to the lack of electricity,” says Alemtsehay Meseret, Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Uganda. 

“Ethiopia’s current total energy production does not meet the more than 110 million and growing population that requires increasing amount of food, growing economy and expanding urban centres and industries demanding more and more energy,” she adds. 

But, despite this excitement, the downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan have since 2011 when Ethiopia broke ground on the project, piled pressure on Addis Ababa to abandon the project.

Egypt and Sudan without any substantive justification, view the dam as a threat because of their dependence on Nile waters. They have further moved to frustrate talks held under the auspices of the African Union (AU) aimed at reaching a three-way agreement on the dam’s filling and operation.

Instead, they demand that Addis Ababa ceases to fill the massive reservoir until such a deal is reached.

Ethiopia, which has consistently called for open and unbiased discussions on the use of the Nile waters, insist that GERD’s filling is a natural part of the dam’s construction process and cannot be stopped.

Dr Eng Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the USA reechoed this on August 11 after the third filling.

“Today, the overtopping of the 3rd filling of GERD is fully developed and celebrated at the site. Filling is a gradual process where the inflow exceeds the outflow and has been occurring since the biggning of rainy season. Increased inflow comes from the tributaries of rivers from Ethiopian highlands and outflow has been occurring through 2 bottom outlets and 2 generating units,” said Dr Eng Seleshi Bekele 

“Water flow to downstream has never been interrupted. The peak inflow flood that could cause damage to downstream is attenuated by the dam,” he added.

Is there some truth in claims that GERD will reduce water inflow to Egypt and Sudan? 

Ashok Swain, a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University in Sweden, says the argument is baseless. 

“It is a huge dam, it can store massive amounts of water, there is no doubt about that, but it is a hydropower dam. A hydropower dam does not take the water out of a river system. It keeps the water, it stores the water in a much more safer place compared to Aswan or the dams below because there is much evaporation there,” said Prof Ashok Swain in an interview with Digafie Debalke. 

To prove that there is no harm to the waters, he says, the third phase of filling of the dam’s reservoir was successfully done and the project is moving as scheduled and yet water remains sufficient in the river system.

Egypt’s fears are not anchored on practical facts, but rather based on historical pride of wanting to dominate the Nile waters as well as who and how it is used.

It should be noted that Egypt claims a historic right to the Nile dating from a 1929 treaty that gave it veto power over construction projects along the river.

A 1959 treaty boosted Egypt’s allocation to around 66 percent of the river’s flow, with 22 percent for Sudan. Ethiopia was not party to those treaties and does not see them as valid.

It is worthy noting that a large volume of the Nile water body, amounting to about 85%, originates from the highlands of Ethiopia. The Ethiopia side comes from the tributaries of Abbay, Baro and Tekeze rivers while the other 15% of the Nile comes from other upstream Nile riparian countries.

In 2010, Nile basin countries, excluding Egypt and Sudan, signed another deal, the Cooperative Framework Agreement, that allows projects on the river without Cairo’s agreement.

But do some of these colonial agreements still hold in the changing global times?

Well, Prof Ashok Swain, responded to the contrary.

“I don’t think the argument that the colonial agreements, which are also challenged by Ethiopia by the way, still hold, and I think Egypt also understands that such argument does not make much sense in this 21st century. We have seen how countries are withdrawing from certain agreements just like you saw the Obama administration making an agreement with Iran on a nuclear deal and then the Trump administration withdrew from it,” said Prof Ashok. 

“The argument doesn’t make much sense rather than sticking to the history without looking at the new realities. The world is not the same as it was in the 19th or 20th century.” 

“These powerful hegemonies not only in the Nile basin but also in other river basins have been prioritizing their selfish interests without looking at other countries, but the situation has changed in the world, we need to embrace this new reality,” he added. 

He said it is not fair for Ethiopia not to benefit from the river whose 85% of its water originate from its highlands. 

How about the fears that downstream countries may opt for military means to stop the project? 

The Professor said the construction of GERD is now unstoppable. He reiterates that only peaceful negotiations can help the countries to reach a compromise. 

“The possibility that the downstream countries can stop this development project using any other way rather than negotiations is out of question. The amount of water contained therein now is much more than what is in the two dams in the downstream countries,” Prof Ashok said. 

“I have always said that that is not possible because an attack on the dam will give Ethiopia legitimacy to defend itself and that will worsen the situation. The other reason is that any country that tries to blow off the dam will be embarking on a self destruction mission given the fact that this is a huge new dam with too much water which will make it hard to control when disrupted,” he added. 

He said downstream countries should prioritize negotiations to see that all parties benefit from the dam including it helping to control the on-and-off massive floods in Sudan. 

“There is more to achieve from this project by all the three countries if they prioritize cooperation,” he said. 

This had earlier in January been emphasised by Dr Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, when he said that GERD will not only benefit the people of Ethiopia but also the downstream countries Egypt and Sudan.

It is time for our three countries of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan to nurture the narrative towards building peace, cooperation, mutual co-existence and development of all our people without harming one another. Nile in general and the GERD project in particular are opportune for such a higher purpose.”

He said the dam should be seen as a centre of cooperation amongst the three countries since it brings enormous benefits to all, the region and the continent as well.

He noted that Ethiopia’s intention in constructing the GERD is to enable the regulation function so that electricity generation from the infrastructure is uniform throughout the year – implying that as a hydropower dam, the GERD does not consume water but rather the water continues to flow downstream uninterrupted.

The benefits for downstream countries are often untold. In Sudan, for example, the GERD provides ample protection against devastating floods and the effects of water shortage during drought and dry periods. It will help Sudanese water infrastructure to be operated optimally as they receive regulated flow,” said Dr Abiy. 

“This means that more electricity could be generated from existing infrastructure and adequate and regular water could flow in the river downstream throughout the year to enable reliable water supply for people, agriculture, and the ecology. The GERD also brings more energy to the already interconnected systems of Sudan and Ethiopia as well as to others,” he added. 

He added that Egypt also benefits from water conservation at the GERD instead of wastage of billions of cubic meters of water to evaporation and in downstream flood plains. The GERD also helps to prevent future spillage that overtops the Aswan Dam.

Ambassador Alemtesehey in March while deliberating at a Speaker Series on Dialogue in the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and Cooperation in the Nile Basin organised by the Ethiopian Embassy in Uganda said that from a regional perspective and in a view of low power generation in the sub-Saharan Africa when only few countries are able to generate enough power to meet their domestic demand, the Dam will boost intra-regional energy trade.

She underscored that finalising the ratification process of the CFA and forming the Nile River Basin Commission is the best way to go forward to cooperate on the Nile River.

Kungu Al-Mahadi Adam is an experienced Ugandan multimedia Journalist with a background of fact checking and thorough research. He is very passionate about current African affairs particularly Horn of Africa. He...

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