A general view of Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam, as it undergoes construction, is seen during a media tour along the river Nile in Benishangul Gumuz Region, Guba Woreda, in Ethiopia March 31, 2015. According to a government official, the dam has hit th
* This article was originally published in Arabic at Al Siyassa Al Dawliya Magazine
CAIRO – 19 December 2017: The different turns that the Renaissance Dam negotiations took in the past seven years were considerably many. The beginning was former Egyptian Prime Minister Dr. Essam Sharaf’s visit to Ethiopia in May 2011. During the visit, Sharaf met with former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the formation of an international committee was proposed. The committee was assigned the task of performing re-examinations of the dam’s studies and modifying the dam’s specifications if necessary. During this period of negotiations, there was much pushing and pulling between the involved parties because of elusiveness and inflexibility on the Ethiopian side.
The statement made by Egyptian Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Abdel-Ati after November 2017’s Tripartite National Committee on the Renaissance Dam meeting in Cairo poses a number of important questions, the most important of which are these: What are the possible consequences that would result from building the dam? And what is the future of the crisis?
Phases of negotiation:
Phase 1: During this phase, an international committee of 10 experts – two from Egypt, two from Sudan and four from outside the Nile Basin states – was formed. The general objective of this committee was to build trust between the three countries involved and to examine and evaluate the positive outcomes of the dam for these countries and the negative outcomes for the two downstream ones – namely Egypt and Sudan. The most significant recommendations of the committee’s report were listed in the following proportions: the dam’s engineering and safety (66% of the recommendations), and water and hydraulic resources, the environment, and social economy (34% of the recommendations).
The report revealed that the Ethiopian studies of the dam were preliminary and disproportionate with a project as immense as the Renaissance Dam, and that those studies should immediately be updated, especially that the building of the dam was going forward non-stop.
Phase 2: This phase started a few months after negotiations between the foreign affairs ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. A number of meetings were held in November and December, 2013, and finally in January 2014, shortly after which the Egyptian minister of irrigation announced the suspension of negotiations for various reasons, the most important of which was Ethiopia’s unwillingness to give up the formation of a national committee instead of an international one (that includes experts from outside the Nile Basin countries) to execute the recommendations of the international committee of the phase 1. This silent phase went on for six months until President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi met Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on the sidelines of the 2014 African Union Summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. The two parties agreed to produce a joint press release that consisted of seven items, one of which was the immediate renewal of the Tripartite Committee’s occupations on the Renaissance Dam.
Phase 3: This phase started on August 26, 2014 in Khartoum, Sudan with the three countries’ ministers of water resources meeting and announcing that they agreed to produce a four-item joint press release representing a roadmap for the negotiations of the following phase of implementing the recommendations of the international committee. The press release, in summary, announced the commencement of two studies, the first of which was a study of water resources and a simulation of hydroelectric systems, while the second would evaluate environmental and socio-economic impacts of the dam on Sudan and Egypt through an international consultation office. Both studies were due for completion in six months, i.e. February 2015. The Egyptian side accepted these terms in order to keep the negotiations going and avoid their suspension once again.
Post Declaration of Principles:?
There was difficulty holding national committee meetings until a new group of political leaders decided to sign the Renaissance Dam Declaration of Principles on March 23, 2015 in Khartoum. The document declared good intentions and consisted of ten principles. The fifth principle was the most important for Egypt, which is, “The principle of the dam's storage reservoir first filling and dam operation policies”. The principle did not determine the course of cooperation in case of partial operation of the dam before the Consultation Office concluded its studies on the impact of the Renaissance Dam. It also did not specify the mechanisms of cooperation after the operation of the dam.
International Consultation Office: The search began for an international office to conduct the two studies. I believe that Egypt was in the wrong for going through the red tape of inviting time-consuming tenders in order to get the best offer. Egypt recommended the Dutch Deltares, while Ethiopia recommended the French BRL and insisted on this recommendation due to the strong relations they have maintained with it for more than 15 years. Both parties then agreed on a middle ground – the French office will be the primary researcher, while the Dutch will be the assistant.
The study went on for 11 months, rather than only six. After a tug-of-war between the two offices as they worked out the role each had to play, the plan was for the French office to do 70% of the work, and the Dutch 30%, with the deadline being August 12, 2015. On September 9, 2015, the Dutch office stated on its website that it has withdrawn from the Renaissance Dam studies, citing reasons pertaining to the fact that the terms stipulated by the Tripartite Committee (Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia) on the approach of the study did not guarantee the production of quality, accurate and independent studies. Egypt then refused to let the French office conduct the study on its own.
Months kept going by and meetings kept on being held until Egypt called for a six-party meeting of ministers of foreign affairs and ministers of irrigation in the three countries to discuss Egypt’s concerns. In December 2015, the six-party committee agreed on hiring the French Artelia Group instead of the Dutch Deltares.
Since the details of the required study were not determined from the very beginning, and because there were no impartial international experts to resolve any disputes, members of the committee disagreed with both French offices on the principles of the studies. Though Egypt approved the introductory report issued in November 2014, both Sudan and Ethiopia did not, claiming that Egypt insisted on citing its annual water share (55.5 billion cubic meters), a number that Ethiopia denies. Sudan claimed that Egypt added articles that were not previously agreed upon.
Though negotiations were difficult in all their stages, Egypt demonstrated flexibility more than once, whereas Ethiopia was unveiling and elusive. Egyptian flexibility demonstrated itself in the following situations:
● In Khartoum, on August 26, 2014, Egypt approved the Ethiopian demand of forming a national committee;
● Egypt approved studies of the Renaissance Dam even though they did not focus on the structure and safety of the dam and were only hydrological, environmental and social-economic studies;
● Egypt agreed to continue dam negotiations even though the dam was in the process of construction;
● Egypt agreed to respect the results of the Renaissance Dam studies, rather than results being binding for the three parties;
● Ethiopia’s demand of not mentioning the height or capacity of the dam in any stage was approved by Egypt.
Change in the Sudanese Position:
At first, Sudan did not declare support for building the dam, though it actually did support it. However, this unspoken position did not last for long, as the country did formally declare its approval and support for building the dam, as it believed it would bring many great benefits, such as:
● Protecting Sudan from annual floods in Er Roseires;
● Water flow all year long in the Blue Nile, thus allowing two growing seasons rather than one;
● Raising the water level in the Gezira groundwater aquifer;
● Doubling electricity generation from Sudanese dams;
● Protecting Sudanese dams (Er Roseires, Sennar, Merowe) from silt deposits;
● Ethiopia’s promise of providing Sudan with electricity costing only 25% of the price of electricity produced by Merowe Dam.
These superficial benefits become less tempting before the greater danger of the possibility of the collapse of the dam due to Ethiopian environmental factors, which led to the partial collapse of the Gibe II hydroelectric power station constructed on the Omo River only 10 days after its inauguration. This project was actually built by the same Italian company currently building the Renaissance Dam. These concerns were confirmed by the International Experts Committee report, which is why Ethiopia insisted on conducting safety studies by itself. In addition, Sudan would have to use fertilizers to make up for lack of silt, which would raise the cost of agricultural production.
Construction of the Renaissance Dam with the current specifications – without conducting proper negotiations with Egypt – will motivate Ethiopia to implement the rest of its 30 water projects, as outlined in the 1964 U.S. Bureau of Land Reclamation study. In addition, other Nile River source countries like Uganda could follow Ethiopia’s footsteps in implementing its water projects, without consulting Egypt as stipulated by international agreements and laws.
● Egyptian water share would fall to the dead storage capacity (14-24 billion cubic meters) in the first filling;
● Changes would occur in the geological characteristics of the dam region due to the use of its water in agriculture;
● The High Dam is the safety net of Egyptian water security. It could fulfill Egyptian water needs in case of any deficiency that befalls it throughout the coming years, especially if no agreement is reached with Ethiopia. This year, the dam has approximately 130 billion cubic meters of water, 100 billion of which are usable.
Ethiopia’s lack of flexibility and constant changes in the Sudanese standpoint require taking action on all levels, and the most important actions are as follows:
● A third group of high-ranking political leaders – either ministers of foreign affairs or presidents – needs to meet with the goal of implementing the fifth article of the Renaissance Dam, which talks about cooperation on the first filling and management of the dam, through forming a permanent engineering committee on the Renaissance Dam with representatives of the three countries in order to coordinate its management in a way that brings the greatest benefits to Ethiopia (by producing the highest volume of electricity) and minimizes damage to Sudan.
● Not fully depending on the results of the two studies, as they would not change the current specifications of the dam;
● Further cooperation with Sudan and taking one position toward the Renaissance Dam problem;
● Cooperation with Nile River source countries in order to gain their support for the Egyptian position. This would lead to modifying the Entebbe Agreement in a way that Egypt approves, as both Egypt and Sudan do not currently approve of the agreement;
● Clarifying the Egyptian position for the international community, which wrongly believes that Egypt does not want source countries to develop themselves, and that Egypt and Sudan want to use the water of the Nile to their own benefits only;
● Announcing the details of the International Experts Committee report, which openly criticizes the dam and the serious shortcomings in its engineering studies. These all pose great dangers to Egypt and Sudan;
● Egypt should abide by 15 agreements made with Nile Basin countries, four of which are with Ethiopia – the oldest one dating to 1891 and the most recent one signed in 1993 between former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Meles Zenawi in Cairo. None of these agreements were cited in any stage of the negotiations. In addition, Egypt needs to cite international laws for resolving disputes on water. These agreements are enough to manage Ethiopian water policies in its future projects;
● Declaring a formal rejection of the construction of the Renaissance Dam according to its current specifications at the U.N., as it poses dangers to neighboring countries. Ethiopia ignored all international agreements and laws, and it continues to build the dam without reaching consensus with Nile estuary countries. This step should have been taken at the beginning of the crisis in 2011.
Dr. Abbas Sharaki is the head of the Natural Resources Department at Cairo University.