Statement of the Ethiopian Water Advisory Council

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Landsat 9 satellite image of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam reservoir Jan.8, 2023. Source: USGS

Regarding the Recent Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) Development and Tripartite Negotiations

The Ethiopian Water Advisory Council (EWAC) is a charitable non-political membership-based organization that brings together Ethiopian and friends of Ethiopia water and development scientists, academics, researchers, educators, and practitioners across the globe to help Ethiopia achieve water and food security and be free from abject poverty and deprivation. EWAC espouses the equitable, reasonable, and sustainable use and conservation of the Ethiopian Nile and other river systems through generating multidisciplinary, scientific, and evidence-based knowledge on water resources to inform policy and plan.  

EWAC congratulates the people of Ethiopia for the successful fourth stage filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) without causing any harm to the downstream riparian countries.

As widely publicized, on July 13, 2023, the Head of States and Governments of Ethiopia and Egypt issued a joint statement to reach a final agreement on GERD within four months. This was followed by the resumption of the tripartite talks between Ethiopia, Egypt, and the Sudan on August 27, 2023, in Cairo. The second round of talks is set to take place in Addis Ababa on September 23, 2023. Egypt insists that Ethiopia sign a legally binding agreement to ensure the preservation of water flow according to the 1959 bilateral treaty that was signed between Egypt and Sudan for total control (100%) and utilization of the Nile water. 

Egypt demands that Ethiopia, which is neither a signatory of the 1959 Egypt Sudan agreement or any kind of water utilization arrangement with Egypt, to refrain from unilateral filling and dam operation. This demand by Egypt lacks sensibility and is disrespectful of the sovereign rights of Ethiopia and its people. Further, it contravenes the 2015 mutually agreed Declaration of Principle (DoP), which states that ‘the three countries shall cooperate based on sovereign equality, territorial integrity, mutual benefit and good faith in order to attain optimal utilization and adequate protection of the river.

As it is the right of Egypt to develop the water resources available in its sovereign land, it is Ethiopia’s right to develop its water resources within its border and reconsider its position of continuing the ongoing negotiation. Since the inception of GERD construction, Ethiopia, agreed, in a good faith, to initiate an International Panel of Experts (IPOE) to review the GERD documents and provide a transparent report. It provided over 150 documents to the IPOE, Egypt and Sudan during the review phase. Ethiopia agreed and conducted several subsequent trilateral and facilitated negotiations with downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan. But there is no history of Cairo reversing its stand to accommodate Ethiopia’s concerns by providing its development plans to the Nile basin countries or Ethiopia.

The 2nd round of tripartite negotiation is currently taking place in Ethiopia. EWAC wishes to draw attention to what it believes are issues of concern regarding the filling and operations of the dam as well as the form, process, and substance of the tripartite negotiation:

  1. Scarcity in abundance: Eighty six percent of the Nile waters originate in Ethiopia. Yet, Ethiopia’s economic and social development remains among the least developed countries of the world impacted by conflict, recurrent drought, and technological deprivation. Ethiopia needs water to develop and lift its people from the scourges of famine and poverty.  Of today’s 127.2 million Ethiopia-population, 30 million people are impacted by drought (IRC). Seventy percent of Ethiopia’s water is locked in the Nile basin and Ethiopia is one of the countries with water stress and food scarcity more than any country involved in GERD negotiations. Any kind of agreement on the Nile waters should not compromise the current and future Ethiopian generations to develop their share of the resource.
  1. Completing the construction of the GERD and commencing power generation at full capacity. The construction of the dam is expected to be completed in 2024 to reach its design height of 640 m. Implementing the GERD project as per the schedule prepared by the Ethiopian Government for the commissioning and power generation is an absolute necessity. Further delays have severe economic, political, and social consequences.  We believe GERD is a game-changer project for regional cooperation and development. Egypt and Sudan are beneficiaries of GERD, and the surplus power can be exported to neighboring countries.  Thus, all provisions need to be made to ensure the completion of the GERD and the availability of investment resources for power generation, distribution, and transmission. Presently, many critical infrastructures in Ethiopia, including urban water supply and industrial developments suffer from chronic shortage of power.
  2. GERD Filling: Ethiopia performed the fourth stage filling of the dam on September 9, 2023.  The construction of the dam’s central block height has now reached 620 masl. The total amount of water retained in the reservoir is approximately 42 billion cubic meters (BCM), which is slightly over 50% of the capacity of the dam. According to Ambassador Sileshi Bekele, the GERD construction of the dam is 92.5% completed and is expected to be fully completed next year or 2024 to the height of 645 m (a storage capacity of 74 BCM).  The statement made by authorities that presented the fourth filling as the final filling needs retraction accordingly.
  3. GERD operations: GERD is a critical socioeconomic project for Ethiopia funded by its people from all walks of life. Its operation and water releases are primarily driven by power generation, which is not water consumptive in nature. Article 5 (a & b) of the 2015 DoP clearly states that the filling shall take place in parallel with the construction of the dam with its annual operation to be adjusted by the owner of the dam from time to time. Accordingly, the GERD’s operation and water releases shall be managed by Ethiopia in line with international principles and good practices (including basin management and respecting the interests of area residents). Thus, at no time should the core values of the GERD to generate power and improve livelihoods of Ethiopians be compromised. It is important for Ethiopia to keep its turbines operational from year to year by maintaining a reservoir level above 625 m.
  4. GERD Reservoir: The GERD’s middle block height has now reached 620 meters and is expected to reach its design capacity of 640 m when completed. The GERD preliminary operation plan is to operate the reservoir between 625 m to 640 m for optimum power generation to prevent long-term damage to the turbines. It should be noted that the GERD is susceptible to drawdown during years of below average rainfall; and recovery will be challenging when the operation must accommodate downstream demand as presented now. Indeed, catering for downstream demand as voiced by Egypt and Sudan makes GERD serve mainly as water supply (water bank) and flood control dam for Sudan and Egypt.
  5. GERD water release. Downstream release is defined as the combined amount: required for environmental purposes, power generation, and overflows. Ethiopia would like the amount released to be based on inflow into the reservoir minus evaporation and local use, without specifying figures in advance. This requires that there be a water sharing agreement between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan. When the reservoir level is below the required minimum, power generation will be far below design and not reliable. If a commitment is entered to release a certain volume of water to downstream countries without sufficient allowance for drought and without Ethiopia’s share determined a priori, it would mean denying Ethiopia any development activity upstream and letting the GERD serve as a reservoir for Egypt and Sudan without contributing to Ethiopia’s developmental efforts.
  6. GERD negotiations: GERD negotiations have been in the news for over a decade marked by the Washington DC, the Africa Union (AU) and the recent muted United Arab Emirates facilitated tripartite negotiations. The Washington DC proposal demanded water release from GERD when the flow coming into the GERD is less than 37 BCM (definition of drought condition). It calls for “when you get less, pass more water downstream regardless of the conditions of reservoirs in downstream riparian countries.”  Such a call is unacceptable as it hinders Ethiopia’s ability to generate power and utilize its legitimate share of water resources.
  7. Drought Issues and drought mitigation: Mitigation during drought is one of the critical demands raised by Egypt and included in the proposed agreement during the 2020 Washington DC negotiation which Ethiopia rejected. First, Ethiopia should not be asked to mitigate drought when it is facing recurrent drought in several parts of the country, most notably in the Ethiopian Nile River basin.  Second, accepting inadequate drought mitigation mechanisms harms Ethiopia’s development, food production and availability of water for drinking, irrigation, agro-industrial, and other uses. Further, the Egyptian demand puts the burden of drought mitigation on Ethiopia during the time of low flows in the Abbay River basin. International practice dictates drought be shared by all basin countries not just one. Such an insistence by downstream countries put the GERD in perpetual drought condition when Ethiopia extract water for upstream irrigation development.  
  8. No to a binding GERD agreement, yes to a framework agreement leading to a comprehensive Nile treaty.  There has been a call for Ethiopia to accept a binding agreement on GERD, which should be rejected. However, there is room to work out a framework operational agreement that serves as a scaffolding for a comprehensive Nile Treaty. This framework agreement may incorporate decisions on the time horizon and phases of negotiations. In the face of mistrust among riparian countries, a phased negotiation approach segmented into immediate, short-term, medium-term, long-term, and long-range phases can foster trust and public confidence. The framework agreement should, in addition to the eight points mentioned above, include the following:
  • New spirit and mind set to tackle Nile water issues: from Win-Lose to Win-Win arrangement. Egypt and Sudan must respect for Ethiopia’s inalienable right to use its natural resources including water and open a new chapter to promote shared water use and responsibility for conserving water sources. With proper basin management, the Nile can offer enough water to significantly enhance the economic welfare of the 602 million-plus people of the region directly or indirectly dependent on it.  This potential can be realized only if the riparian countries choose peaceful methods over war, collective interest-seeking strategies over rent-seeking strategies while pursuing measures that maximize common interests based on accepted international principles and rules that govern water allocation and utilization. International law prohibits negotiation under duress, and a bad-faith negotiation strategy undermines mutual trust and mutual respect, without which regional peace and sensible water management cannot be achieved.
  • Cessation of all kinds of hostilities (armed and non-armed) toward Ethiopia, opaque projects, secret dealings, and blockage of Ethiopia’s development projects on the Blue Nile and its tributaries by both Egypt and the Sudan.
    • Cairo has continuously transferred Nile water out of the basin through several desert irrigation projects. Toshka Project and Sinai Agricultural Development are a few of operational projects taking water for irrigation out of the basin. While Cairo is attempting to clinch a binding agreement from Addis Ababa, it is currently building the world’s largest artificial river, which is planned to draw significant amount of irrigation water from the Nile to develop over 900,000 hectare of desert land into a new Nile Delta. The project was announced by Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in March 2021 without notification and consent of the Nile countries specifically Ethiopia. Ethiopia has repeatedly voiced its opposition to Egypt’s unilateral projects in the past, including construction of Aswan dam. There is fear that this continued unilateral Nile expansion development will further worsen the already tense relationship and trigger more unilateral development by the riparian countries. The news of Egypt building the world’s largest river unilaterally is not seen lightly in Ethiopia. Indeed, Egypt’s action is in stark contrast to its current stance of pressuring Ethiopia for expedited conclusion of a binding agreement, heightens suspicion, and makes the morality of sitting for negotiation. Indeed, Cairo’s continued out-of-basin Nile development and water transfer projects are jeopardizing the tripartite negotiation process and Ethiopia’s ability to negotiate with a full mandate from the public. Egypt’s action will also undermine the extraordinary support and confidence provided by the public to the Ethiopian negotiators.
    • Sudan needs to remove its invading armed forces, which currently occupy Ethiopian territory, and resume the longstanding negotiation on border demarcation.
    • Egypt must cease blocking Ethiopia’s development projects upstream that could have provided alternative livelihoods to millions of Ethiopia and contributed to the conservation of the Nile ecosystem. Contrary to widely accepted international development practices, the entire cost of the GERD project estimated at 4.6 billion USD fell on the Ethiopian poor because of Egypt’s influence of the World Bank’s lending policies.
  • Strong commitment to building public trust and confidence in the Nile negotiations.  The three negotiating countries of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia must work towards rebuilding public trust and confidence in their respective countries before embarking into a binding agreement. We propose a transitional agreement that is time bound (e.g., five years or until a comprehensive agreement is concluded).  This transitional agreement can be a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between the three countries. The agreement facilitates joint activities such as developing tools (e.g., seasonal forecasting models), monitoring stations (e.g., hydrologic stations), data exchange protocols
  • Fair and efficient use of water at all levels. Whether in Africa or elsewhere in the world, water is fast becoming an extremely scarce resourceIt is incumbent on all countries to apply water-saving technology, planting less water-consuming crops, or shifting their economies from agriculture to the industrial and service sectors.Some studies show that eliminating this wastage may save as much as 40 BCM of water, which Egypt needs to work on.  Further, Egypt has richer potential water resources than the Nile basin countries combined. The insistence of Egypt to hold onto the 100% control of the Nile (with Sudan) has neither physical nor economic justification. Apart from the 160 BCM of stored Nile water at Aswan Dam, Egypt enjoys more than 150,000 BCM of ground water stored in the Nubian aquifer part of Egypt. Further, Egypt possesses enormous potential capacity for desalinization to enhance water availability in the future while Ethiopia is a landlocked country with no access to sea. Recent study carried out by Egyptian scientists indicate s as much as 40 BCM of wasted water can be saved by improving agricultural practices in Egypt. Combining all this, the water scarcity narrative of Egypt has neither physical nor economic water scarcity basis. Currently, both Egypt and Sudan continue to invest heavily in water-intensive and wasteful irrigation projects with complete disregard of the interest of the upper riparian countries.
  • Ensuring the Survival of the Nile River:  Ethiopia, the entire Blue Nile Basin, is highly vulnerable to climate variability and change, which manifests itself in the form of, among others, increased temperature and evaporation, erratic rainfall, frequent flooding, increased sediment load arising from torrential rains. Often underreported, impacts of climate change are severe, pervasive, and debilitating. Recently, Ethiopia received unusually heavy rains, although irregular and unaligned with the crop production and usual rainfall pattern, which have been auspicious for the filling of the GERD while curtailing floods downstream.  As may be recalled, in the summer of 2020, the first filling occurred much earlier than expected.  And yet, floods did substantial damage upstream in the Lake Tana region.  Indeed, ecosystem degradation, habitat loss, and the drying up of tributary streams and rivers in the Blue Nile source area are visible. Any agreement on GERD should include joint responsibility in coping with drought, restoring degraded ecosystems, and putting in place payment for ecosystem services (PES) while leaving ample room for negotiations on the equitable and sustainable use of the Nile waters among all riparian states.
  • Advancing joint investment, research, data sharing, and transparent working relations. This involves promoting and nurturing joint investment and development, economic cooperation. Partner organizations can facilitate joint development by investing in the development and management of the Nile basin. These investments can uplift impoverished communities in upstream riparian countries and mitigate water scarcity anxieties in downstream nations, notably Egypt. Further, assembling water-related analytical studies for timely use of the Government and use for future generations; expanding research on water use and expand extension services; exchange annual GERD operation plan; developing institutions for training water experts; generating  accurate and reliable and objective evidence to the international community for effective public diplomacy will go a long way in enhancing the wellbeing and friendship of the three countries.
  • A Comprehensive Nile Treaty as a cherished goal. There is clearly a need for a comprehensive Nile Treaty that enshrines fairness, equitable, reasonable, and sustainable use of the Nile waters along with restoration of the degraded upper Nile ecosystem and its conservation. Further, The Nile Basin is the only major transboundary river system that is not governed by a comprehensive treaty based on international principles and rules.  Existing international water agreements and protocols governing the world’s major rivers should be used to tease out the most relevant lessons and practical guidelines to help the Nile Basin countries arrive at mutually acceptable agreements and craft a comprehensive Nile Treaty. It is to be recalled that Egypt was the primary obstacle to the realization of the Comprehensive Framework Agreement (CFA) prepared under the auspices of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI).

Lastly, EWAC applauds the commendable effort made and being made by the Ethiopian negotiating team to safeguard Ethiopia’s rights and sovereignty in the GERD negotiations. We would like to extend our support in the team’s endeavors to evolve an agreement that enshrines the equitable, reasonable, and sustainable use of the Nile waters based on a fair share of water to enable Ethiopia to uplift its people from the scourges of famine and deprivation and resume its rightful place in the community of nations.


Kone Feseha, EWAC, V/P Global Engagement and Communication

Ethiopian Waters Advisory Council, EWAC

Em: [email protected]

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