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Weight of a nation
Engineer Gedion Asfaw (L) and Sileshi Bekele (PhD) on Thrusday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel

Weight of a nation

Technical team staunchly defends accord

The marathon of negotiations that is being held between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has moved closer to the finish line after the three parties –  Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan – agreed a stage-based filling timetable for the dam’s reservoir and two mechanisms for handling periods of drought.

The Foreign and Irrigation Ministers of the three countries were taking part in a US-sponsored negotiation in Washington DC to put the final touches to an agreement for the framework of filling and operating the GERD. The meeting, which was attended by the heads of the World Bank and US Secretary of Treasury, was initially scheduled for  January 28 and 29, 2020 but was extended for two extra days, and concluded on January 31.

The technical and legal committees are expected to continue their negotiations and meet by next week on February 12 and 13 to finalize their differences and prepare a final agreement to be approved by the parties’ foreign ministers and ministers of irrigation

Following reports circulated both on mainstream and social media, most Ethiopians were echoing their concerns that the agreement could endanger the national interests of Ethiopia; however, at a monthly seminar organized by the Institute for Strategic Affairs (ISA) Sileshi Bekele (PhD) Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy downplayed such comments and reaffirmed that the national interest of Ethiopia is not negotiable.

The stages of filling the dam is expected be conducted in accordance with the agreement that determines the release of the water based upon the hydrological conditions and the level of GERD during prolonged periods of dry years, drought and prolonged drought; however, the Ethiopian negotiators wanted the wordings of periods of dry years, drought and prolonged drought to be clear.

During the seminar, which was held on Thrusday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, apart form the Minister, members of the Ethiopian National Panel of Experts Gedion Asfaw (Eng.), Kifle Horo (Eng.) and Tefera Beyene were also in attendance and outlined the overall benefits of the GERD, the ongoing negotiation process inline with the technical aspects and current status of the dam to the participants, which includes members of the academia, the opposition, former high government officials, members of business community and the media.

During the event, the Minister emphasized that there should be a “win-win” approach, and reassured that the country “will never sign an agreement that harms the country’s national interest.”

Prior to the event by the ISA, on Wednesday Sileshi told journalists that “if there is a single word in the document to be signed that could compromise Ethiopia’s right to use the water, Ethiopia will not sign it.”

On 15 January, the US Treasury Department announced that ministers of foreign affairs and water resources of the three countries had reached a consensus on principles. After three days of intensive negotiations in Washington the ministers reaffirmed “their joint commitment to reach a comprehensive, cooperative, adaptive, sustainable, and mutually beneficial agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”.

According to the joint statement posted on the Treasury Department’s website the “they also discussed and agreed to finalize a mechanism for the annual and long-term operation of the GERD in normal hydrological conditions, a coordination mechanism, and provisions for the resolution of disputes and the sharing of information.  Moreover, they also agreed to address dam safety and pending studies on the environmental and social impacts of the GERD”.

According to the statement issued by the Ethiopian team after the January meeting, matters related to dam filling, various dam filling stages, the size of the dam and various stages of water releases from the dam, mechanisms of administration in time of drought, information sharing and others.

Hence, the dam will be filled in two stages: round 1 and round 2. Accordingly, water minister said that the first stage of dam filling will be completed in two years and in that time dam is expected to hold 18.5 billion cubic meters of water; this in other words means that achieving water filling of the dam up to the height of 595 meters. In fact, the floor of the dam (GERD) in general rests on 500 meters above sea level and during the first round of filling the water level will rise from 500 to 595 meters in space of two years.  

The technical detail also shows that within the coming months, which is by the end of next wet season—September, the dam will be able to hold 4.5 billion cubic meters of water. This level will be adequate to test and commence electricity generation on the first two turbines of the GERD; according to Sileshi, the generation of first electricity shall commence by January alluding to fact that the remaining work to kick start the generation process might require few months after September, where the water volume could comfortably be achieved. Sileshi establishes that Ethiopia did not even engage in negotiation with regard to the first 4.5 billion cubic meters water filling process.

Furthermore, the rest 14 billion cubic meters is also expected to be achieved in the two years’ time allotted to attain the target 18.5 billion cubic meters of water. Now, according to explanation, the 18.5 billion cubic meters will be adequate to test remaining 9 turbines on GERD but not generate any electricity. In fact, the remaining turbines would have to wait for second round of filling start generating the energy.

The second round of the filling process is said to see water levels rise on the dam up to the height of 640 meters, expected to be achieved in matter of five years, in which time the dam will slowly hold the water it needs.

According to the negotiation team, the biggest discussion and negotiation point with downstream countries like Egypt was agreeing on a common definition regarding consequential terms like “worst drought” conditions. That specifically refers to the various conditions in which the dam is filled, and various climatic eventualities that might arise during the filling process. In accordance with climatic conditions, the filling of the dam should be regulated in such way that under conditions of drought and severe drought the level of water the can be retained and goes to filling of dam has to take into consideration the water need of downstream nations like Egypt.

In this regard the January discussion was able to attain consensus on the definition of drought and severe drought conditions under the filling of the dam. In general the water volume below 37 billion cubic meters is considered to drought threshold level for second round of the filling process. Threshold means that level at which the GERD operation has to start consider strict management of the water it holds vis-a-vis the release to downstream countries.

According to water ministers explanation it is not until 31 billion cubic meters that Ethiopia has to actually stop hold water and just let water pass to downstream areas; this of course is not without generating electricity. The water release process don’t necessarily infringe up on electricity generation, Sileshi noted, during the multiples of discussions held with the media and stakeholders this weeks, after widespread social media speculation grossly characterizing this clause as provision to compel Ethiopia to stop generating electricity.

The conditions of drought agreed up in January meeting gives better consideration to Ethiopia dam filling timetable during the first round of the filling stage. That is in the first round, the overall drought threshold moves down to 31 and the point where water retention stops down to 29 billion cubic meters. According to Sileshi, based on the climatic history of Ethiopia, the drought condition defined as severe drought (29 billion cubic meters) is so rare that it has happened twice in the past 129 years. Sileshi also noted that time that, under the normal conditions, some 49 billion cubic meters of water enters to the GERD dam, significantly larger than the defined drought threshold.

All in all, the agreement between three nations is yet be signed by Ethiopia, after the all four legal documents including the technical one discussed above have all been completed and reviewed by the negotiation team. Meanwhile, PM Abiy Ahmed is expected to reiterate these positions to President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt on the sideline of 33rd African Union Heads of State and Government meeting that commences on Monday in Addis Ababa. 

Contributed by Neamin Ashenafi and Asrat Seyoum