Ethiopia says it had reached a “major common understanding” with Egypt and Sudan related to the first filling and annual operation of the 6.4-GW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), paving the way to a “breakthrough agreement” in the contentious dispute that is primarily about use of the River Nile’s waters.  

As POWER reported in depth earlier this month, tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt related to filling of the GERD reservoir on the Blue Nile—a significant Nile tributary—escalated after U.S.-mediated talks collapsed in February. Egypt recently sought intervention by the United Nation’s Security Council, warning the dispute could “provoke crises and conflict that [could] further destabilize an already troubled region.” Ethiopia has continued pushing for a resolution brokered by the African Union (AU). 

According to a July 21 statement from Ethiopia’s Office of the Prime Minister, the three countries agreed to continue talks during a recent virtual meeting hosted by the AU and observed by the European Union (EU) and the U.S. “Accordingly, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan agreed for further technical discussions on the filling to continue in the AU-led process and proceed to a comprehensive agreement,” the office said. 

The 6.4-GW project is located approximately 500 km northwest of the capital Addis Ababa, in the region of Benishangul-Gumaz along the Blue Nile. Courtesy: WeBuild

However, the office also said that current rainfall and runoff in the region have made it “conducive” to achieve first filling of the massive dam. The ministry noted that the “dam under construction is already overtopping.” 

Ethiopia’s push to unilaterally fill the dam has been a major point of contention in the decade-long dispute. Tensions escalated again last week after satellite images released on July 14 by U.S. firm Maxar Technologies showed water beginning to fill in a reservoir behind the dam. 

Images Maxar Technologies shared with POWER on July 23 reveal that the Bameza region in Ethiopia where the 6.4-GW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)  has had more rainfall than normal, and the most since 2013. Courtesy: Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies

Recent radar images from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite show how the recent rainfall in the region compares to a month ago. Courtesy: European Space Agency, Sentinel-1 satellite image, June 2020 and July 2020

Ethiopia’s Water Minister Seleshi Bekele on July 16 reportedly stressed that the water levels in the reservoir were owing to heavy rainfall, and not due to a conscious efforts to fill the dam. But, as reported by Ethiopian state-owned media, Bekele also said first filling of the dam will allow first tests of two turbines. While the statement on July 21 did not specify how much water is now in the reservoir, Ethiopia has previously said the first-year target was 4.9 billion cubic meters of water. Bekele reportedly said 560 meters above sea level is the height required to hold that amount of water. The dam is capable of holding 74 billion cubic meters of water to enable 6.4 GW of power. 

Egypt responded to the images last week by demanding an urgent clarification. Sudan, meanwhile, raised alarms that water levels were dropping along the river. “It was evident from the flow meters in the al-Deim border station with Ethiopia that there is a retreat in the water levels, equivalent to 90 million cubic meters [three billion cubic feet] per day, confirming the closure of the gates of the Renaissance Dam,” Sudan’s Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources said in a statement.

Foreign Policy on Wednesday reported that the Trump administration is mulling withholding some aid to Ethiopia if negotiations hit another impasse. Citing unnamed sources, the news magazine also suggested the project has fueled divisions and confusion over handling of the emerging crisis by the U.S. Treasury and State departments. 

Still, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, who chaired the AU virtual meeting on Tuesday, said on Twitter that “The trilateral negotiations remain on track.” He described the meeting as “constructive,” and thanked all parties involved for their commitment to “finding African solutions to African problems.”

On Tuesday, meanwhile, the Egyptian presidency noted in a statement that “It was agreed, at the conclusion of the summit, to continue negotiations and focus for the time being on giving priority to developing a binding legal agreement on the rules for filling and operating the Renaissance Dam.”

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).

Updated (July 24): Adds recent images from Maxar Technologies.