Egypt backs out of verbal agreement on 4-7 year timeframe to fill Ethiopian Renaissance Dam reservoir
The irrigation ministers of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan gathered on Tuesday in Addis Ababa to hear the latest advice on a timeframe for filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s reservoir, an issue that has long proved a sticking point in negotiations as downstream countries fear the impact on their water supply.
A 15-member scientific study group, comprised of five scientists and researchers from each country, presented its findings on Tuesday to Ethiopia’s Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity Seleshi Bekele, along with his Egyptian and Sudanese counterparts, Mohamed Abdel Aty and Khadr Mohamed Qasmallah.
No specific conclusions emerged officially from the meeting, as the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation announced through the state-owned MENA news agency on Wednesday. The statement affirmed that all parties are committed to continuing talks, without providing further details.
Yet an Ethiopian diplomatic source, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says that there was an initial verbal agreement between the parties, from which Cairo has since backed away.
“The ministers reviewed what the team has been doing during the past three months and consulted on a way forward,” Teferra Beyene, advisor to Ethiopia’s Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, tells Mada Masr.
While the study group’s findings have not been officially disclosed, the Ethiopian source tells Mada Masr that the team recommended the 74 billion cubic meter dam reservoir be filled over four to seven years, depending on the amount of rainfall and intensity of the Nile’s water flow.
Following the presentation of the report, the source described Ethiopia and Sudan’s ministers as immediately accepting the recommendations, and expressing a readiness to begin work on a joint declaration to bind the parties to these terms.
While the Egyptian delegation verbally accepted the report’s findings at first, it later said it would need more time to consider, the source explains. “The Egyptian delegation changed their minds and refused to sign the agreement. Instead, they want first to consult at headquarters and come to a decision.”
The four-to-seven-year window falls outside the timeframe Cairo has pushed for to fill the dam. An Egyptian diplomat told Mada Masr at the close of August that Cairo’s concerns have centered around the pace at which the dam’s reservoirs would be filled, and that this issue was the subject of “tough and elaborate talks.”
According to an Egyptian diplomatic source at the time, Addis Ababa was pushing to fill the reservoir over a three-year period in preparation for the first operational phase, while Cairo demanded that the filling period be extended to seven years — a compromise from Egypt’s initial proposal of approximately 12 years.
The tripartite team that recommended a 4-7 year timeframe on Tuesday was created in May with the aim of “discussing and developing various scenarios related to the filling and operation rules.” Intelligence chiefs, and ministers of foreign affairs and irrigation from the three countries established the group after international consultancy firms BRL and Artelia — who had been initially tasked with producing a technical report by the three countries — were delayed in their efforts to conclude the study as outlined in their contract. Discussions in Addis Abbaba concluded that the newly contracted scientists should act “in accordance with the principle of utilizing shared water resources equitably and reasonably, while taking all appropriate measures to prevent causing significant harm.”
For Aly al-Bahrawy, an independent Egyptian researcher with consultancy experience, further delays to an agreement will only benefit Ethiopia, as it continues to unfold the dam’s construction. Speaking to Mada Masr, Bahrawy adds that the committee’s technical remit belies the fact that the renaissance dam is a highly politicized issue, and that any agreements will require the intervention of higher political figures to take into account the disproportionate effects downstream countries may face.
Ethiopia is constructing the dam along the Blue Nile, a tributary which supplies more than 59 percent of Egypt’s annual share of Nile water, and which Egyptian officials have repeatedly claimed is already insufficient to cover Egypt’s basic needs.
Launched in 2011, Ethiopia’s vast national project was originally chalked for completion within five years, but its construction has faced repeated delays. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed recently ousted the military-run Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC) from the US$4 billion project that is part of the dam’s wider construction, criticizing their competency and citing numerous delays.
“It is a project that was supposed to be completed within five years, but seven or eight years later not a single turbine is operational,” Reutersquotes Ahmed as saying during a news conference in Addis Ababa on Saturday.
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and General Intelligence Service Director Abbas Kamel visited Addis Ababa in August, in what was described as a “positive meeting.” The Egyptian diplomatic source told Mada Masr at the time that the visit aimed to learn more about Ahmed’s assessment of the delay in making the first two water turbines operational. This delay was caused, according to another Egyptian diplomatic source, by “a technical error” in calculations determining the capacity of the turbines to pump a sufficient amount of water “to attain the expected water level in the dam’s reservoir.”