OPINION | GERD
By Michael Mpeirwe Katungi
The government of Ethiopia is currently constructing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Once complete the Gerd will be the largest hydro power facility in Africa (about 6,000MW) nearly triple the country’s current electricity generation capacity and represent a potential economic windfall for the government.
The benefits for Ethiopia and for many electricity-importing countries in East Africa area clear. However, the implications for downstream countries are not positive and need to be understood.
In 2016, about 30% of Ethiopia population had access to electricity and more than 90% of the households continued to rely on traditional fuel for cooking. Traditional fuels can cause respiratory infections and according to WHO, acute lower respiratory infection is the leading cause of death in Ethiopia. So the benefits of better access to electricity in Ethiopia are clear. But creating a larger supply does not mean demand will automatically follow. In Ethiopia where 70% of the population live in rural areas and relies on agriculture, the government must also invest in developing human capital to increase incomes and stimulate demand for services. The standard of living needs to improve before Ethiopians can consume additional electricity-unless it is completely subsidised by the government.
The government may also anticipate a boost to revenues through electricity exports from the dam, several power purchase agreements have also been signed with neighbouring countries including Djibouti, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan and Tanzania, but there are concerns about how the dam will affect downstream states particularly Sudan and Egypt.
Although Sudan was initially opposed to the Dam’s construction, the country has recently warmed to the idea. This could be because Sudan has agreed to purchase electricity from the dam, while the two countries have also agreed to collaborate on a “free Economic Zone” .
Signed in 2015, Khartoum agreement ostensibly mapped out away forward, but implementation of the deal has not been easy and cracks are starting to show.
In May, this year Middle East monitor concluded that Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan had just finished their 14th round of unsuccessful discussions about how to manage the Nile River.
At the 2015 meeting, officials from the three countries agreed to proceed with an impact assessment that was to be completed in 15 months. After 17 months, the report has yet be publically released. There is still no independent feasibility study, cost-benefit analysis or environmental impact assessment.
This is worrying since Ethiopia could begin filling the dam at any time. The Ethiopian government expects it will take roughly five to six years to fill the GERD reservoir. However Egypt’s ministry of water resources and irrigation believes that a period of 12 to 18 years is needed to guarantee water security for Egypt, this is quite a discrepancy.
A recent report from the Geological society of America said a period of five to 15 years seemed reasonable, apparently giving credibility to both sides. But the same report noted that the Niles fresh water flow to Egypt may be cut by as much as 25% with a loss of a third of the electricity generated by the Aswan High Dam which would be bad news for Egyptians.
Also many Egyptian officials fear that increased evaporation from the sheer size of the dam could affect water security in the country-already one of the most stressed in the world.
Ethiopia maintains that the GERD present has been conducted with adequate transparency and involvement from the relevant stakeholders. It also highlights that Egypt has not signed the cooperative framework agreement (CFA) of the Nile basin states whereas Ethiopia has.
Since Ethiopia announced it would go ahead with the construction of the dam in 2011, Cairo has voiced disapproval. At various stages, Egypt demands that Ethiopia ceases construction, threatened action at the UNSC and claimed it was protected by the 1959 treaty, even though Ethiopia didn’t sign the treaty.
The treaty essentially divides the river between Sudan and Egypt leaving nothing for other countries where most of the Nile water originates.
With its national livelihood depending on the Nile, it is difficult to anticipate Egypt’s reaction might be, should Ethiopia proceed with its plan to fill the dam.
Egyptian foreign affairs ministry recently told Reuters that Egypt has no other resources… we will not allow our national interest and security to be endangered. This brings back memories of former president Mohamed Morsi’s 2013 speech, in which declared that if the Nile loses our drop, our blood is the alternative.
Analysts believe Egypt’s reaction will in part be determined by tis political leadership under Sissi, but stressed that whatever its political inclination, a large scale reduction in water from the Nile would be intolerable by the Egyptian government.
Ethiopia and Nile basis countries including Uganda have a right to exploit their natural resources to support much needed human development projects and will they afford to compromise their leadership with downstream states particularly Egypt? Ethiopia has done well to finance and promote this project, but the question now is how to manage the possible implications with downstream states!
The writer works with the African Union Commission