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Vol 60 No 22

Published 7th November 2019


Egypt

Two-track talks on the grand dam

Sisi wants Trump's help to break the impasse with Ethiopia over the Nile dam. They meet in Washington but Addis insists nothing will change

Two negotiating tracks are emerging over the potential flashpoint between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the effects of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the flow of the Nile. The first is the talks in the United States convened by US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin set for 6 November. The meeting follows Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi's request to President Donald Trump to mediate in the dispute, but Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry insists the talks cannot be called 'mediation' because Ethiopia will merely be reasserting its earlier position.

The other track is the sixth of nine planned meetings of a trilateral scientific group (the third party is Sudan), which is due to take place by the middle of this month in Addis Ababa. The group's work slowed to a standstill last September when Egypt refused to sign off on some meeting minutes and then sought meditation from the US, World Bank, European Union, and Russia.  

The 1959 Nile Waters Agreement divides annual water use between Egypt and Sudan at 55.5 and 18.5 billion cubic metres respectively, with no allocation for Ethiopia. While Ethiopia in September proposed an average annual fixed flow for Egypt of 35BCM, we hear, Egypt did not accept. Ethiopia then hardened its position, reducing its proposal to 31BCM, heightening distrust in Cairo. 

At the Russia-Africa summit in Sochi, Russia on 24 October, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed referred to 'political' talks that would not interfere with the ongoing scientific work. In Cairo last year, Abiy dismayed his officials by discarding a speech prepared for him and simply professing to President Sisi in person, 'I swear to God, we will never harm you.' 

The Washington meeting convenes, under Mnuchin's chair, Ethiopia's, Egypt's and Sudan's foreign ministers plus World Bank President David Malpass. Egypt wants the World Bank to be present to make assessments of the potential harm to Egypt of reduced Nile flow. Meanwhile, the technical track continues under Ethiopia's Water Minister Sileshi Bekele.   

The time taken to fill the dam reservoir is the key issue. Egypt says that if it is filled too fast, the Nile's flow would be reduced, affecting its hydropower, irrigation and drinking water needs. Ethiopia is anxious to fill the reservoir as quickly as possible so that it can take advantage of anticipated economic benefits both of selling electricity abroad and using it for industry at home. Both countries accuse the other of violating their sovereignty. 

Ethiopia says filling the GERD reservoir is planned to take four to seven years. In earlier talks Egypt proposed a longer time-frame. Construction, Addis says, won't be complete until 2023. Work has been held up by major defects in the dam construction, at least the parts controlled by the scandal-dogged Ethiopian military-run enterprise, Metals & Engineering Corp (MetEC – AC Vol 59 No 23, Rounding up the suspects).  

Ethiopia now says the dam is 68.5% complete, after over five years of delay. Officials say Italy's Salini Impregilo SpA's civil work is 84% complete with the works reassigned from MetEC – on which the civil works depend – substantially behind (AC Vol 59 No 18, Deep waters).  Electromechanical works – also taken from MetEC and awarded to companies including Sinohydro, CGGC, Voith and GE France – are nearing 25% completion and the Hydraulic Steel Structure works – re-contracted to Sinohydro and CGGC – are near 15% complete, we're told. The dam structure and inflow remain unchanged. The plan is ultimately to generate 15,760 gigawatts a year.



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