Photograph — Building Performance

Ethiopia’s dream of owning the largest hydro-electric dam in Africa continues to depend on the unsteady whims of member nations of the Nile Basin Initiative, who can’t seem to agree. Agreements have been reached before, with solid handshakes following well-going negotiations. Implementation, however, has been a problem.

Egypt is the principal partner, the one member of all ten NBI nations who could make or mar the dam. The North African giant feels that Ethiopia is not treating it seriously, as the significant host of the Nile itself. In no mood for new treaties and agreements, Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukri told his Ethiopian counterpart Gedu Andargachew in a meeting last week that he wanted previous accords between both their countries and Sudan to be respected. According to Egypt Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Hafez, the Egyptian minister intends to call for a fresh six-party meeting between his country, Sudan, and Ethiopia’s ministers of irrigation and foreign affairs, who are the primary discussants of issues involving the renaissance dam.

But this is not the first time such an urgent call has been made. A similar statement was made after Egyptian president El Sisi met with Sudanese counterpart Omar Al-Bashir and Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed at the AU Summit in Addis Ababa. That February meeting had seen the three leaders pledge to abide by the 2015 Declaration of Principles, a stipulation that the reservoir will not be filled without Egypt and Sudan’s approval, as well as a science-backed study, sponsored by Ethiopia, showing the impact of the dam.

But since then, Al-Bashir has been ousted from power, leaving Sudan in a succession of violent crisis. Abiy Ahmed survived a coup scare. And Egypt has faced its own internal challenges politically with the death of former president Morsi inviting unwanted global attention. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say external concerns like the Great Renaissance Dam has not been any of the three governments’ top priority. Each of these nations’ specific ongoing turmoil means that everyone is watching their flanks closely, and are less eager to agree on concessions on such potential sovereignty-impacting projects as the GERD.

Beyond the surface politics, however, one of the bigger drawbacks is the debate about the timetable for filling the reservoir. Ethiopia wants to move quickly, to fill it in three to five years. Egypt is demanding a schedule three times longer, to guarantee the flow of the Nile into Egypt, where the Nile provides up to ninety percent of Egypt’s freshwater need. Egypt is worried about current and future water shortages, and will not take a chance on its major source of water, in a bid to smooth Ethiopia’s scalp. Ethiopia has long chanted that the GERD will not harm the Nile’s supply to Egypt but hasn’t provided relevant science to prove it. That is another issue.

Egypt’s main concern is stopping the dam from commencement while the impact is still unknown. Commencement without information not only voids the 2015 agreement, but it also forces Egypt to adopt a dictatorial position. But none of the three countries wants to be water beggars a few years from now. Not Egypt, home to the Nile. Not Ethiopia, funders of the renaissance dam. And surely not Sudan, where the Blue and White Nile intersect before moving to Egypt as one river.

Ethiopia handed Egypt and Sudan a part document of safety studies on the dam in 2014, promising to hand in the rest at a meeting scheduled for later that year, a situation that made it appear like Ethiopia was not very forthcoming about the dam’s impact.

It took five years to move from forty percent completion in 2014 to sixty percent in 2019. At one time, it was scheduled for a 2017 commencement. If the project continues at the current pace, Ethiopia’s stated ambition of commencing use by 2022 might become a fantastic castle in the air, and they will have to announce a new date far removed from 2022.

By Caleb Ajinomoh

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