The second filling of the Renaissance Dam: A new problem for Egypt

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Egypt’s Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel Aati declared, on Monday, that he had received an official notification from Ethiopia about the beginning of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s second filling.

Cairo worried about this unilateral step that began before having a binding deal between Cairo and Addis Ababa over Egypt’s share of the Nile water. The Egyptian response came as expected, with Cairo’s refusal of such a measure. “It is a blunt, dangerous violation of the Declaration of Principles,” said Egypt’s ministry of irrigation in referral to the agreement signed between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in 2015. “It is also a violation of international law and norms that rule projects related to the common basins of international rivers.”

Apart from the current discussions over the next Egyptian-Sudanese step in response to Ethiopia’s measures, and the possibility of a UN Security Council intervention, a question has been raised about the short-term effect of this second filling on Sudan and Egypt. In July 2020, Ethiopia started the first filling of the dam retaining 4.9 billion cubic metres of the Blue Nile water flow. This water represents 6.6 per cent of the total capacity of the dam which is worth 74 billion cubic metres. The first filling, which was carried out without coordination with the two downstream countries, Sudan and Egypt, led to a crisis in Sudan as water stations in Khartoum went out of use with the sudden ebb of water.

On the other hand, Egypt was not affected by this filling as it has a massive water reserve behind the High Dam, estimated at 169 billion cubic metres, it can use to compensate poor flow as what happened during the drought years between 1979 and 1987.

According to Ethiopia’s plans, the second filling was supposed to retain 13.5 billion cubic metres of water. In such a case, 16 per cent of Egypt and Sudan’s annual share, which is worth 84 billion cubic metres, was to be cut with unexpected effects striking Sudan and Egypt. Nevertheless, fortunately, evidence shows that Addis Ababa will not manage to retain this massive amount of water during the second filling as a result of the delay in construction of the dam’s body. According to Egyptian expert Abbas Iraqi, Ethiopia will not be able to retain more than 4 billion cubic metres of water this year.

Accordingly, Egypt and Sudan could pass the second filling without major damage. Notwithstanding, Cairo and Khartoum are worried about the step as it instills Addis Ababa’s unilateral will over the management of the dam and its consequences over water flow to Sudan and Egypt making the Nile “an Ethiopian lake” according to a previous statement made by Ethiopia’s ex-FM Gedu Andargachew. Every billion cubic metres of water retained behind the Renaissance Dam limits Egypt and Sudan’s choices in treating the crisis, as the military option seems more and more impossible every day, which helps Ethiopia.

Ethiopian high-profile officials used to make arrogant, rough statements about the crisis. One example is what General Puta Pachata Debely, director of Ethiopian military engineering administration, said one week ago, “after the second filling, they will all come to the negotiation table, it will be massive, 13 billion cubic metres, Egypt and Sudan will protect the dam themselves, as if it was destroyed they will vanish from the map and floods will drive them into the sea.”

Such statements are mostly made for domestic purposes as Ethiopia has several domestic crises which are intensifying including that governmental troops were defeated by the insurgents Tigray Liberation Front. Hence, Egyptian experts look forward to the expected win of the PM Abiy Ahmed in the parliamentarian elections, which were held two weeks ago, which could ease the situation.

Indeed, the Ethiopian statements calmed down after the elections as Abiy Ahmed said on Monday before the Ethiopian parliament that the objective of his country from the Renaissance Dam is only to generate electricity without damages for the downstream countries. Ahmed pointed out that his Green Initiative that involves farming billions of seedlings in Ethiopia could help Egypt and Sudan get more water than they already receive, asserting that his country has no intention to harm others, but rather aims at achieving common development for all. Despite such quiet statements, Egypt and Sudan cannot rest assured towards the Ethiopian intentions after years of failed negotiations and Ethiopian reluctance.