Profiteering in the Era of COVID-19

 Last month, the Egyptian and Sudanese governments, after almost a decade of negotiations with Ethiopia, have taken their dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) where Addis Ababa stated they would begin filling the dam in July despite its endangering the lives of 150 million Egyptians and Sudanese. As a result of this appeal, a UNSC session was held at the end of June, where African member states, including South Africa, the current chair of the African Union, and a non-permanent UNSC member, requested time to address the dispute. Notwithstanding, Addis Ababa wants the UN to stay out of this dispute and let the AU take the lead. At the end of June, Egypt’s foreign minister exhorted the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution to aid in resolving the dispute over the hydroelectric dam.

Here’s the situation. The Nile, a lifeline for the ten countries it passes through, supplies both water and electricity, to include Sudan and Egypt. Further upstream approximately 30km from the Sudanese border, Ethiopia is building the GERD which will affect the water that the Sudan and Egypt receive. When realized, this will be the largest hydropower project in Africa. Owned and operated by the Ethiopian Electric Power company, the 145-m-tall roller-compacted concrete gravity dam will flood 1,874 km2 at a normal pool elevation of 640 m, and will have a tributary catchment of 172,250 km2. The dam has a volume of 74 km3 (of which 14.8 km3 is dead storage) while the reservoir can hold about 1.6 years’ worth of average flow of the Blue Nile (48.5 km3/yr) located at the El Diem gage station, just below the border in Sudan.

The main protagonists are holding their ground. Cairo sees this dam as a threat to their international security and Sudan fears the damn’s negative impact on its population. Even though the countries have agreed that when the flow of Nile water to the dam falls below 35–40 bcm, that would constitute a drought, there is no obligation of Ethiopia to reduce its operations on the GERD. Egypt has recently leveled a warning that the GERD if filled with water from the Blue Nile, will result in a compromised future for 150 million people in Egypt and Sudan. The construction of the giant $4.8 billion (€4.3 billion) hydroelectric power plant in Ethiopia, which began in 2010, is expected to be completed in 2022. The dam was scheduled for filling by July according to authorities in Addis Ababa.

Given that the GERD has a reservoir the size of Greater London, it is not difficult to see how an immense retaining of water imposes an “existential threat” to Egypt’s and Sudan’s water security and welfare. Because of this situation, both Sudan and Egypt have implored the UN Security Council to intervene with the proviso that a lack of intervention will likely lead to a conflict. The appeal to the UNSC comes under Article 35 of the UN Charter which entitles member states to alert the Security Council of any situation that might lead to international friction, or that is likely to endanger international peace and security.

GERD will affect 90 percent of Egypt’s water supplies dependent on the Nile. In his letter in June, the Ethiopian foreign minister, Gedu Andargachew, failed to mention Addis Ababa’s decision to unilaterally start filling the reservoir in July, which escalated Egypt’s appeal for UNSC intervention. Instead, Andargachew argued that recent tripartite talks had made some progress and were suspended because the Sudanese delegation wanted to consult with its leadership. At the February meeting of the African Union, for instance, President Sisi told Prime Minister Abiy that he wanted to discuss the minutes from the study group meetings. These talks led to the new Egyptian proposal which called for a minimum annual release of 40 bcm of water from the GERD during the period of filling.

Dr. Mohamed S. Helal, Assistant Professor of Law at Ohio State University, has chronicled his ideas about this dispute to include a detailed analysis of every legal aspect of the case. However, even as a lawyer analyzing this situation objectively, one is limited to interpreting legal documents and the good-faith participation in talks. Helal notes that Egypt has constantly participated while also observing that Ethiopia “derailed the process of completing the IPoE studies, rejected the agreement prepared by impartial parties, and is preparing to unilaterally commence the filling.” There are passions on all sides of this issue which simply cannot take into account the legalese of historical agreements as noted by Helal’s analysis.

Viewed from the Egyptian perspective, by unilaterally filling the reservoir, Ethiopia is seeking to establish unfettered control over a transboundary river, a material breach of the 2015 Declaration of Principles signed by Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan which stipulates that the filling and operation of GERD be in line with the guidelines and rules agreed between the three countries.

It is still unclear if the GERD is illegal under international law or how the Nile’s waters should be shared between the three countries historically. First, there was the 1902 treaty between the United Kingdom and Ethiopia. According to this treaty, Ethiopia disclaims any right to the Nile and agrees not to take any measures that would reduce the availability of the Nile’s water resources flowing into Egypt. This treaty acts as a legal recognition that Ethiopia should not have built the dam. However, given that Egypt was a British Protectorate at the time of the treaty it is unclear if Egypt can claim to be a third-party beneficiary of the treaty or if Egypt’s independence rendered the country a new political entity whereby treaties negotiated on its behalf by Britain are voided. In fact, this was precisely Gamal Nasser’s legal argument when it nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956 which had been constructed and owned by the Suez Canal Company, a British-French company.

Then in 1929, Egypt and Great Britain (acting on behalf of Sudan) entered into the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty which not only guaranteed Egypt hegemony over the Nile waters but more importantly it gave Egypt veto power over any upstream water projects. In a 1959 Nile Treaty, Egypt and Sudan agreed to share the waters allowing a quota of 55.5bcm to Egypt and 18.5bcm to Sudan, with only 10bcm that evaporates from the Aswan dam. However, this agreement between the two countries was reached without any involvement or consideration to the rights of the other upstream Nile countries (Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda). So, the situation is not as clear-cut, especially given that historically Ethiopia was dismissed for well over a century from any discussions over the Nile even though Ethiopia is less at risk than all other countries given that the Nile originates in its mountains.

Until recently, Ethiopia had planned to fill the reservoir behind the GERD during the July and August rainy season. Sitting on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile River, the dam is also the largest hydro-electric project in Africa. Soon it will produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity which is more than double Ethiopia’s output today supplying electricity to a country where half the population currently has none in addition to excess electricity that Ethiopia can sell it to Sudan and Egypt. Ethiopia views that with the co-operation of these two countries the dam could bring economic riches for the whole region.

However, Egypt, which depends on the Nile for 90% of its freshwater, sees the dam as an existential threat that will choke off much of the country’s much-needed water supply. As early as 2010 when the damn was announced, Cairo considered sabotage to include bombing it and any other dams that Ethiopia might put into place. But the sabotage has also been suspected on both sides given that last month Ethiopia accused Egypt of launching cyber-attacks on numerous Ethiopian government websites disrupt the project and both Egypt and Ethiopia accuse the other of trying to sabotage the talks and of blocking independent studies that assess the impact of the GERD. Egypt requested the US to take part in mediation last year which led to talks over a four-month-period in Washington that eventually broke down in February.

It is estimated that in its first year, the GERD will retain 4.9 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water, taking it up to the height of the lowest point on the dam wall, which will allow Ethiopia to test the first set of turbines. The total annual flow of the Blue Nile is about 49bcm. During the dry season, the lake will recede which will allow the dam wall to be built up. During the second year, another 13.5bcm will be retained. By this time, the water level will have reached the second set of turbines which time the water flow and which can be managed more precisely.

The major impediment to sustaining the operation of GERD indefinitely is reservoir sedimentation. Due to its large hydrologic size, essentially all of the sediment that enters the GERD reservoir will be trapped unless turbid density currents can be released. Given the national importance of the GERD project as a sustainable source of power, together with the economic and social consequences of degraded land use in the watershed, land management to reduce erosion will result in long-term benefits at multiple levels.

For the recent sediment yield reported at El Diem and estimating a specific weight on the order of 1.0 t/m3 for sediment deposits, the reservoir’s dead storage capacity is sufficient to trap ~100 years of inflowing sediment. This is an accepted conventional design criterion, but it does not result in long-term sustainability. At reservoirs with a large capacity: inflow ratio, such as GERD, the feasible methods of sediment management are typically limited to the release of turbid density currents and the reduction of sediment inflow through watershed management. This latter approach is the topic of this case study, which focuses on the Debre Yakob demonstration watershed in the Lake Tana sub-basin.

Negotiations over the mega-dam have failed to reach an agreement after nearly a decade of talks between Egypt and Ethiopia, with Sudan caught in between. Last year, Egypt sought the intervention of the US with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi requesting that US President Donald Trump mediate the conflict. Ethiopia was initially reluctant to agree. The US and the World Bank got involved but failed to get Ethiopia to validate a document agreed with Egypt in February. When the US then said that the dam should not be completed without an agreement, Ethiopia accused the superpower of overstepping its role as a neutral observer. The African Union (AU) has now stated that it will try to find a solution.

Negotiations between Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa on sharing the waters of the Nile have yet again broken down even as the rainy season has begun in Ethiopia. This is already swelling the waters of the Blue Nile, allowing Ethiopia to begin part-filling the vast reservoir behind the GERD. Also, to make its 2023 deadline for Africa’s largest dam to begin producing hydroelectric power, Ethiopia must partially flood the reservoir this summer to test two turbines during its rainy season which lasts only about four months.

After the three countries participated in an emergency African Union summit in June, Ethiopia agreed not to fill the GERD, despite its earlier statements. The summit saw the leaders of these three countries—President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdouk, and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed—agree to restart the stalled negotiations and to form a committee of experts who would finalize a binding agreement over the controversial dam within the next few weeks.

While there were reports of Ethiopia filling the damn this past week, this was denied by Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s minister of water and irrigation, who clarified that there was “natural pooling” at the dam from the rains. However, Sudan’s Irrigation Ministry stated last Wednesday that water levels at its al-Dayem station on the Blue Nile demonstration a reduction of 90 million cubic meters per day which effectively “confirms the closure of the dam’s gates.”

Regardless, Egyptians are furious that Ethiopia intends to go ahead without their agreement. For them, the Nile is a matter of life or death since Egypt is mostly desert. With 95% of its 85 million-strong population lives along the river’s banks and delta, the Nile is a question of survival. Cairo argues that if the GERD goes ahead according to Ethiopia’s current plans it will put five million farmers out of work, cut the country’s agricultural production by half, and further destabilize a country which is currently fighting against an Islamist insurgency and seeking to mitigate damage to its sugar cane rice plantations in the northern delta region, already damaged by saltwater intrusion from the Mediterranean.

After a decade of talks with a variety of mediators, including the Trump administration, these countries have failed to find a solution upon which they agree. Last week’s talks were mediated by the African Union and observed by U.S. and European officials and they similarly ended in no clear outcome. With Ethiopia rejecting binding arbitration at the final stage, this situation may very well head quickly into military conflict.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: