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Why technical discussions are needed for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

June 8, 2016

The GERD can be operated to cause relatively little harm to Egypt and Sudan during normal hydrological conditions. But this is not a reason for complacency. During filling and times of drought, the level of the Aswan High Dam reservoir will fall. It may reach levels at which Egypt will have to reduce its releases downstream. Certainly hydropower generation from the Aswan High Dam will be reduced.

During negotiations, Egypt is expected to argue that Ethiopia should release more water from the GERD as the level of Aswan High Dam reservoir falls. In contrast, Ethiopia would likely argue that Egypt should reduce its downstream releases, perhaps even before a water shortage becomes severe. Ethiopiaís objective here is not to be difficult, but simply to maximize its hydropower generation.

The sale of the GERDís hydropower is a key component of these negotiations. Ethiopia cannot use all the electricity generated from the GERD in the short to medium term because its domestic market for electricity is too small and it has other hydropower projects under construction. Total demand for electricity in Ethiopia at present is some 2,000MW while there is installed capacity exceeding 4,000MW following the recent completion of the 1,870MW Gibe 3 project. Ethiopia must sell to its neighbors, most likely Sudan and Kenya.

Kenya is a relatively small market for electricity sales, with a total national demand of only 1,512MW in 2015, much of which is supplied by domestic hydropower projects. Ethiopia has reached an agreement with Kenya to sell some 400MW to the country. The funding comes from the World Bank, the French Development Agency and the African Development Bank.

The GERD itself must be connected to the Sudan power grid by a new high capacity interconnector before it would be possible to sell power from the GERD on to Sudan.
The financial success of the GERD for Ethiopia very much depends on its ability to sell this hydropower as soon as possible and at a reasonable price. But there has been no public announcement of a power trade agreement negotiated between Ethiopia and Sudan. Nor are there sufficiently large transmission lines being built from the GERD to the Sudanese or Kenyan power grids for the power.

The existing transmission line linking Ethiopia and Sudan was completed three to four years ago. It has a capacity to transfer 100MW and is not much use for exporting hydropower from the GERD. If there are no high capacity transmission lines from the GERD to Sudan, there is a very strong financial argument for Ethiopia to hold back as much water as possible in the GERDís reservoir until it can sell the hydropower. And that is when problems between the countries may arise. It is in Egypt and Sudanís interests, as well as Ethiopiaís, that the construction of these transmission lines from the GERD to Sudan commence as soon as possible.

Perceptions of fairness and trust matter in such negotiations, and they need to be carefully cultivated before crises arrive. Policymakers in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have not yet adequately explained to civil society in their countries the inter-related factors that will affect water availability throughout the basin. They must explain the effects of large infrastructure development, irrigation developments and climate change so that people will know the risks and rewards of cooperating with their neighbors.

Egyptís biggest concern should be increased irrigation withdrawals in Sudan, which the GERD will facilitate by making more water available during the low-flow summer months. Increased irrigation withdrawals in Sudan will mean less water flows into the Aswan High Dam reservoir. Because there is little understanding in civil society of how the Nile river system behaves, the reasons for water shortages and falling reservoir levels may be misunderstood. Passions could be become inflamed and difficult to control. In such an environment, mistakes can happen.

The international community can help in three ways. The first is the mobilization of global expertise and experience on the coordinated operation of multiple reservoirs on large river systems. The second is to provide an adjudication mechanism for helping to resolve disputes among the Nile riparians. The Nile riparian and the international community urgently need serious technical discussions to commence. The third is to provide financing for high capacity transmission lines from the GERD to Sudan.


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