Nile dam talks resume among Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan

Monitoring Desk

The three countries are seeking to resolve a row over the huge dam on the Blue Nile. The controversial structure has been almost a decade in the making but there is optimism a deal could be reached by the end of January.

The three African nations at the center of a spat over the controversial building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam resumed talks on Sunday, officials said.

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan reopened their yearslong negotiations just six weeks after Sudan boycotted the last round of discussions. It had urged continental body the African Union to play a greater role in reaching a consensus over the disputed dam on the Blue Nile.

The three Nile Valley countries held a fresh round of talks by video conference in the virtual presence of South African officials, as well as other international observers. South Africa is the current head of the African Union’s rotating council.

Hoping for a conclusion within weeks

“The meeting concluded … that this week will be devoted to bilateral talks between the three countries, the experts, and the observers,” Sudan’s Water Ministry said in a statement. 

This week’s negotiations will pave the way “for the resumption of tripartite negotiations on Sunday January 10 in the hope of concluding by the end of January,” the ministry added.

Three-way objectives

The key sticking point surrounds the filling and operation of the vast reservoir behind the 145-meter-tall (475-foot-tall) hydropower project, which broke ground in 2011.

Ethiopia claims the hydroelectric power produced at the dam is essential for it to meet the energy needs of its population. Ethiopia also insists downstream countries’ water supplies will not be adversely affected.

However, the other two countries at the resumed talks have expressed concerns.

Egypt, which relies on the Nile for about 97% of its irrigation and drinking water, fears the dam would severely cut its water supplies. 

Sudan is hopeful the dam will help ease flooding fears, but has also warned that millions of lives would be at “great risk” if no binding agreement was reached.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: A Never-Ending Saga

A view of a wall of Ethiopia's dam (DW/M. Gerth-Niculescu)

A concrete colossus

At 145 meters high and almost two kilometers long, the Grand Renaissance Dam is expected to become Ethiopia’s biggest source of electricity. As Africa’s largest hydroelectric power dam, it will produce more than 15,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity, beginning in 2022. It will source water from Africa’s longest river, the Blue Nile.

A worker looks out over the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia (DW/M. Gerth-Niculescu)

The outlook so far

With more than 50% of Ethiopians still living without electricity, the government wants the dam to be up and running as soon as possible, so tens of millions of residents will be able to access power. The first of a total of 13 turbines are due to be operational by mid-2021.

The construction site of the Grand Renaissance Dam, with the Blue Nile flowing through (picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Asmare)

A long time in the making

Construction on the current dam began in 2011 — but the site was identified between 1956 and 1964. The coup of 1974 meant the project failed to progress, and it was not until 2009 that plans for the dam were resurrected. The $4.6 billion (€4.1 billion) project has consistently been the source of serious regional controversy, with its plan to source water from the Blue Nile.

A view of the landscape where the reservoir for the Grand Ethiopian Dam will be built (DW/M. Gerth-Niculescu)

Transforming the landscape

In a few years, this entire area will be covered in water. The reservoir which is needed to generate electricity is expected to hold 74 billion cubic meters of water. Ethiopia wants to fill the artificial lake as soon as possible, but neighboring countries are concerned about the impact this might have on their own water supplies.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali speaks with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi (2018) (Imago Images/Xinhua)

Diplomatic deadlock

Egypt, in particular, fears that filling the reservoir too quickly will threaten their water supply and allow Ethiopia to control the flow of the Blue Nile. Ethiopia is insisting on having the reservoir filled in seven years. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi on Sunday, to discuss the matter.

Ethiopia's Foriegn Minister Al Dardeery Mohamed Ahmed and his delegation in Washington (2019) (Reuters/S. Sibeko)

No solution in sight

However, two days of negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan in Washington over the weekend failed to solve the reservoir issue, despite the US stepping in to mediate. With no progress over the last four years, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed even called on South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa — and the 2020 chairperson of the African Union — to intervene in the dispute.

Workers standing on the construction site of the Grand Ethiopian Dam (DW/M. Gerth-Niculescu)

Back-breaking work

Amidst the heated negotiations, up to 6,000 employees are still working around the clock to get the dam completed by the deadline. The working conditions are not for the faint-hearted: In the hottest months, temperatures on the construction site can reach up to 50 degrees.

Workers at the Grand Renaissance Dam construction site | Baustelle (2019) (AFP/E. Solteras)

Project mired in corruption

Over the years, construction was also delayed significantly due to ongoing corruption and mismanagement issues. Last month, 50 people were charged with severe graft offenses relating to the dam, including the former CEO of Ethiopian Electric Power (EEP).

Courtesy: DW