Seleshi Bekele Awulachew (PhD) is Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy. He is tasked with one of the most contentious projects Ethiopia has been developing for the past eight years on the Nile River. His biography shows very rich and 30 years of expertise in leadership, research, teaching, and advisory jobs in the ranges of water, energy,land, climate change, capacity development, and policy making.
He studied civil engineering at Addis Ababa University and received his master’s degree in hydraulic engineering and hydrology at the University of Newcastle, UK. He holds a PhD in water resources and hydraulic engineering from Dresden University of Technology, Germany.
He is in charge of deals and negotiations for the Great Ethiopian Reissuance Dam (GERD)that will generate 6,000 megawatts.Early in his career, Seleshi was Dean and CEO of the Arba Minch University where he established graduate programs in dams and hydropower, irrigation and drainage, and water resources and hydrology. He taught courses in hydropower, water resources,watershed management, and environmental impact assessment in Ethiopia and Germany.Then, for seven years, the minister led the regional office of the International Water Management for the Nile Basin and East Africa, where he also served as a Senior Researcher,based in Addis Ababa. He developed the office from a small group into a major regional research hub. He also acted as a lead editor of the first comprehensive book on the Nile Basin, Nile River Basin: Water, Agriculture, Livelihood and Governance, coordinating the efforts of over 45 scientists from Africa and other regions. Hethen joined the United Nations System, where he first worked for the Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) as a Senior Water and Climate Change Specialist and then at the UN headquarters in New York as Inter regional Advisor in the Division of Sustainable Development in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). At the United Nations, he contributed to mainstreaming sustainable development in national development plans of the member states in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
Following recent developments with regards to the ongoing negotiations among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in Washington, where Egypt backed by the US, has been trying to force Ethiopia to sign a deal that compromises the national interests of the country over the Nile River. Birhanu Fikade sat down with Seleshi at his office to learn how Ethiopia is handling the recent incident and future plans. Excerpt.
The Reporter Magazine: As far the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is concerned where is Ethiopia standing with the construction of the project?
Minister Sileshi Bekele (PhD): the construction of the GERD is very important to Ethiopia and its current progress is well maintained after we have resolved all outstanding issues. We are accelerating the construction phase and in such a way we will hopefully begin to store water. With the initial 4.9 billion cubic meters of water, we will start storing during the coming rainy season that is July and August, and with that stored amount of water, we will start generating and commissioning of two turbines by February and March of next year. In a nutshell, that’s where we stand and we are going very well in terms of construction.
When you say commissioning of the two turbines will commence, you are referring to the generation of some 700 megawatts of electricity, right?
We call it the early generation process and each of the two turbines will generate some 375 megawatts of electric power with the total capacity of 750 megawatts. However, to achieve this goal the volume of water has to attain the maximum level. Early generation means with available head and discharge amount, the energy generation will take place but may not necessarily serve to generate the 750 megawatts the amount we are looking for since the water may not be at that level of head volume.
Where exactly will be the volume of water by the coming July and August? What is your expectations?
The level of the water volume stored at the dam will be around 565 meters above sea level. But we need to have a little bit of a buffering zone at the head room to prevent air not to enter into the turbines. The optimal head of the water volume is around 625 meters and more as the height of the dam is 640 meters. The storage of the full 700 meters volume will be realized at a level when the volume exceeds 625 meters. However, during the early generation process with the operations of two turbine, we will come to a point to a storing stage of 575 meters of volume.
At some point, the construction of the GERD was slow in its progress obviously due to many challenging factors. The previous administration has contributed its part in the delaying of the project. But have you faced any technical issues with that regards?
During the construction stage, we have faced some challenges and that was expected. We have faced a very strong challenge when we started to build the foundation as we dug down at least 50 percent of the height above the ground. The excavation of rocks, the controlling process of slippages or grouting and the like have taken us a great deal of time. When the foundation was open, excavation was very difficult as we faced a very hard rock. The position was also very significant and it took us some time to stretch the construction phase to the diversion culvert stage. This challenge was part of the civil structure process. When we come to the hydraulic steel structures and turbine installation issues, there as well were challenging factors we had to be faced with. The steel structure stage requires a very good workmanship and material procurement. More or less we have proceeded well with this part. We had acquired turbines and generators but the progress and speed of welding and issues of constructing the conveyance system for the bottom outlets, closing of diversion culvert took way too much time than expected. These delays are basically related to the contractors who were working with the steel structures and the turbines’ process.
Unfortunately, the dam project has become a global issue. Ethiopia has provided information and a closer look to every concerning bodies to observe what it is trying to build. Major international consultants have been invited to assess and as far the construction and project management is concerned, nobody has found any critical issues. However, Egypt chose to make it political and currently is busy in making statements when dam reaches to the storing and filling stages. How do you see that playing out?
The storage of the water and starting of power generation is not something new in the dam project. Everybody knows that all the way from the beginning. We are not building a white elephant just to seat around. We are building a dam to generate electricity and that is pretty obvious. That being the reality, Ethiopia was very transparent from the early days of the process. It is not like propagated by the media. When Egypt and Sudan had expressed concerns around 2011 or 2012, Ethiopia had openly invited both countries to come and see the dam for themselves. Ethiopia reassured Egypt and Sudan that the project was all about hydroelectric dam. It was also made sure that it doesn’t cause any significant harm by the essence that it was designed and meant to generate electricity. Then the two countries joined to visit the sites of the project and we showed and explained the process. We had opened up every documents for them to review and look at what we do was no harm to anybody. That was a very unique approach from our side across the whole Nile Basin region. In the past, even if Ethiopia requested and opposed certain projects built in the downstream, the Egyptians were not open. They were not interested in responding to our concerns. Unlike the behaviors of the downstream countries in an unprecedented manner, Ethiopia invited the two countries and established a panel of international experts by inviting four from Germany, UK, France and South Africa to do the assessment and the evaluation work of the dam. We didn’t have anything to hide from anybody. The purpose is clear. We will store some water for the purpose of electric generation. Ethiopia has a natural and sovereign rights to utilize its resources. The experts have been given 150 various huge documents to review. They have spent 11 months to review the dam project and its documentations. Finally, they have reached to conclusions. The composition of the international panel of experts included additional six representatives each of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan assigning two experts in the panel. All jointly concluded that the dam project was built in accordance with international standards. They have concluded there was no any safety issue to be concerned about. They have evaluated the technical design and the testing of materials. They were assured by the experiences of the civil contractor and also have underscored the sound measures and procedures employed. Probably, the only recommendation the panel has made with regards to the downstream side was that Ethiopia was filling the dam applying primary data. The evaluation was made based on using secondary data and the results have shown valid outcomes without any variation. Hence, there was no issue to be worried about in that regard and our primary data was valid. The effect of change in the hydrological region that might occur due to flooding effects needs to be evaluated through using primary data. Based on such recommendations,we agreed to cooperate and share data. Funny enough, we have been providing data but we didn’t receive any from the either side. Particularly from Egypt side, they declined to provide us the necessary data making so many excuses but kept on insisting they want to get ours. For instance, they want to receive data about the GERD but they didn’t want to reciprocate any from their side. The international principle is that if you provide data on a monthly basis, you have to receive from the either party in the same manner. When that doesn’t happen, you might be accused with wrong information. This was one of the components. The other one was on the social impact. We have to review again whatever was done on secondary data based on primary data. By that time, there was no question raised on how the dam is going to be filled or how it was going to be operated. There was no such a serious question. The panel of international experts have given recommendations and if the purpose was to really understand the truth, the three countries can go back and check what they have agreed upon based on the primary data. The panel of experts didn’t criminalize or curse the GERD because of any gaps. The panel of experts have recommended certain points which Egypt didn’t accept for whichever reason we didn’t know. But later on joined us accepting the recommendations. Together we were scrambling to recruit consultants and that took a lot of time. The heads of state decided and gave orders together and a consultant was recruited. Then a Term of Reference (ToR) was co-designed by 9 to 12 individuals from each country to review the progress and to give recommendations and evaluations. Although the ToR was co-designed, whenever Ethiopia raises questions or want to have clarifications, Egypt stood against that and barred Ethiopia not to ask anything. However, they also used to have their own questions too. Any consultant might draft inception reports on any standard project and will be commented on. But Egypt didn’t allow such things. The consultant was not allowed to clarify anything for us. When that didn’t work out, each country’s ministers of foreign affairs, water and intelligence affairs, nine in total, needed to meet. We brought an idea of looking at the GERD from the Aswan High Dam perspective. Whatever amount of water going to the downstream, it becomes an issue of water management andthe way Egypt utilizes the volume of water from the Nile is very questionable. Focusing on the GERD we assured the parties how we can manage the water management challenge. The ministers have further agreed to establish a national scientific research group that will have 15 members from the three countries. That was finalized in May 2018 and within a short period of time, the 15 scientists, five each representing Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have produced a report for the considerations of ministers of water affairs. Based on the report recommendations, Ethiopia has proposed how it is going to fill and operate the GERD. Perhaps, a few more points have been argued and clarified among the scientists and brought to the attentions of the water ministers, those points they couldn’t agree on. The ministers have taken up those issues. By September, we have discussed and resolved many of the issues. But when it was time for the ministers to sign the minutes that established the agreements, Egypt once again has raised two issues to decline from the agreement. We suspect some people in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Egypt wanted to make technical issues political. Since then we are clambering back and forth. We have to endure many improper processes. Following that, since the issue couldn’t get resolved with the interference of nontechnical individuals in the technical process, we were forced to seek the guidance of heads of state. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and President Abdelfetahel Sisi met in Russia and agreed to resolve outstanding issues by the technical team within four rounds of meetings and bring the outcomes to the heads of state. While this step was progressing, Egypt was consulting and lobbying the US.
You mean what they have done during the sessions of the UN general assembly?
Well, the UN assembly was a special episode. During the assembly, Egypt made a statement about the GERD and we suspect that they have met with President Donald Trump as we have read in the press. Egypt made its own individualized statement during the session. The US government as well made its own statement on the GERD. Since we were provoked, our President SahleworkZewdehas countered those statements during the assembly. Earlier President el Sisi and Prime Minister Abiy were met in Russia, a letter was sent to Foreign Minister Gedu to go and join the Egyptians in Washington to discuss the GERD issue. Apparently, President Trump gave order to his Secretary of Treasury and President of the World Bank Group to seat with the three countries. From our side, during discussions with president Trump, we have explicitly expressed our concerns and also expressed our assignments by the heads of state that assigned four rounds of meetings as deadline to conclude discussions. Seeking for solutions in case of stalemates occurs again as per article 10 of the Declaration of Principle (DoP) stipulates, we reminded and explained to the US that only with that article of the DoP can they be involved. With that note, as the discussions continued, we insisted on both the Secretary of Treasury and president of the World Bank to remain just observers. But Egypt as it went to the US, insisted the US and the World Bank should mediate the discussions. Insisting on a principled process which was signed by the heads of state and also by the direction of the heads of state after meeting in Sochi, Russia, we made it clear that the three countries have agreed and at that particular meeting where the US got involved, we said we were not to deal with any serious matters but the Treasury said review the progress and provide political support for the technical process. In that regard, since we didn’t see any harm in their proposal to support the technical process, we took it at face value and continued discussing the matter around the four countries. Both experts of the state department of treasury and the WB have attended the four meetings as observers. Since November 6, 2019, the four meetings went through. The meeting in which the US expressed its interest to provide political support and to review the process came up during the December 9, 2019, January 12 and 13, 2020 rounds.Those were the processes we ended up dry following the interference of the Secretary of Treasury. At first, they agreed to remain observers but later assumed a mediator role and more ominously they acted as a decision maker for us. Unfortunately, their decisions were not backed by science and we informed all the US institutions including the WB that the numbers of the Secretary of Treasury brought to us were way too far from the initially agreed figures with the Egyptians. They actually put aside previously agreed upon numbers to craft a new very detrimental and an ill-learnt document which was independently prepared by the Treasury and was put in front of us to sign it. That brought the whole process out of context. In the first instance of the January meeting, what was called “Appendix A” came out. This piece of document was focused on the GERD and talks about mitigations of drought and what to be done during the drier years. We were not seating to discuss that. We were there seating to discuss how we can fill the dam. With that context, we were seeking ways how we can cooperate during dry seasons as the volume of water might record changes. However, the crafted document by the Treasury was not serving the purpose we all have agreed upon. Instantly we have refuted. They told us that it was the final document and need to be signed. But we didn’t see the whole document except the annex part. They wanted me, as a water minister to sign the paper and when the content and context was not what we have agreed on, refused signing it. We were tasked to discuss the filling process and the annual operations not to address what to be done in the drought season. That was not in our mandate and scope. In fact, the draft document doesn’t serve the interests of the three countries either. We were there with strong instrument for discussions. For instance, we were open to discuss how much water to be preserved in the GERD reservoir at any given year. It was going to be very limited amount, basically not exceeding 13.5 billion cubic meters in the second year. This is a very small amount compared to the 77 billion cubic meters of water to the Nile. Blue Nile contributes 49 billion and the lakes of Tekeze, Baro and others contribute over 27 billion cubic meters of the Nile waters. That all marks Ethiopia’s total contribution to the Nile waters to reach to 86 percent. We contribute all that and we wanted to utilize 10 billion cubic meters in the first year and during the second year it will reach to 13.5 billion. In our plan, the dam will be filled at its optimal level between four to seven years and the average amount of water to be stored will be somewhere 10 billion cubic meters. That by any measures harms no one. In addition, when severe drought occurs, we have promised to release the water to the downstream when certain conditions are met. After reaching 595 meters of height of the reserved water, we will release the stored water. We assume Sudan will be most vulnerable when the severe drought occurs. This far Ethiopia was emphatic enough to the interests of the downstream countries. Unfortunately, we are not receiving the same sympathy from Egypt.
Is Ethiopia giving in too much to the downstream countries in the name of transparency?
It is not about giving in too much to anybody. It is a normal process of consideration. We have to be considerate to the environmental and extreme flow conditions whenever we build such a huge dam. It is not like Egypt is trying to tell the whole world and to buy some voices. Falsehood information is pumped a lot. They are lobbying as if Ethiopia is about to block the entire flow of the Nile because of the GERD project. It is entirely false. When we construct we are releasing water. When we fill the dam we are also releasing water. Perhaps, we might be storing 10 or 12 percent of the water and that is not an issue and it is not about giving in too much. We are filling the dam very carefully in a slow process as rapid filling and rapid draw down might cause unintended problems.
There have been major concerns when Egypt was proceeding withhuge projects that basically outflow the Nile waters to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Ethiopia has expressed its concerns and oppositions to such projects. Egypt actually started to transfer water out of the natural course of the Nile. For instance, in the events of the Toshka Project, Ethiopia has disapproved it and in March 1997, sent a letter the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Egypt, copied to the UN Secretary General and to then Organization of African Union (OAU) and to the World Bank. We made it clear the same way as we did now. We don’t recognize the 1959 agreement which has no bearing to Ethiopia’s reserved and natural rights of using the Nile waters. In a categorical manner, we also disapproved the Toshka Project. It forces the Nile to flow outside its natural boundary. We also refuse to recognize the Peace Canal Project Egypt is working on. That is illegal and very wrong. Egypt has been involved in illegal activities but tries to prevent Ethiopia when it tries to utilize our legitimate and natural rights to develop the natural resources we have. We never intend to use the Nile waters for extravagant undertakings as Egypt is doing to the extent of developing huge gold courses at the expense of the Nile waters. This is not how you should use scarce resources. Egypt has never been willing to address Ethiopia’s request, position and concerns. Transferring the Nile waters into the Nubian Desert and into the Asian territories is unacceptable and hampers the use of water within the boundaries of downstream countries. It is senseless to argue with us when we try to utilize the Nile in the most responsible manner for hydroelectric power.
What about Ethiopia’s right to develop using the Nile for its agriculture?
The GERD is a standalone project and has nothing to do with Ethiopia’s share of the Nile. That doesn’t necessarily affect the water share, allocation or taking water to the upstream. The GERD is entirely a different scenario. Ethiopia has an absolute right to share the Nile waters and the GERD is different in this regard. We have huge population with fast growing rates. By the way, as a landlocked country we don’t have alternatives. We have very limited water availabilities and the per capital water we will have soon will be below 1,000 cubic meters per year. We can no more depend on rain fed agriculture to feed our fast growing population. We have to expand into cultivating industrial crops and we need to exploit irrigation systems. Unlike Ethiopia, Egypt has a lot of alternative water resources. They have huge reserves of underground water. A recent technology that unlocked to consume sea and ocean waters by desalination has helped Egypt. Currently, they are probably producing one billion cubic meters of desalinated water. The truth is Ethiopia is more vulnerable for future water scarcities than Egypt is calming it is. We need to take into account this and need to be very serious about that. We can’t sign a precarious deal that jeopardizes the future of Ethiopia.
What would have been the outcomes if the recent disputed negotiation was brokered by the State Department rather than the Treasury Department or the Word Bank?
I am not sure about the likely outcomes. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs could answer that better than I do. But I can imagine it would have been much better since they do have more competent experts whom I have met in the past. There are people who know more about hydrology, reservoir management, energy generations and what not. The Treasury Department lack that sort of expertise. What they have done was like putting numbers in the form of transactions. They were literally allocating water volume.
What is the next step Ethiopia is considering to take?
Through our consultations with the national stakeholders we have obtained a lot of inputs. Based on that, we are redrafting a document that deals with filling and operations of the dam considering multiple scenarios. For instance, if we take the early generation,that has considered all possible scenarios in the first two years. We believe we have prepared an agreeable document for the initial stage. We will pursue our filling stages of 595 meters way up to 625 meters of height and we will consider scenarios such as drought and dry conditions during the process. Ethiopia has already proposed if it reaches 625 meters height above sea level then will cooperate to release water when severe drought occurs at this stage. We have considered all possible scenarios when we intend to fill the dam between four to seven years.
How come this much cooperation and openness didn’t satisfy the Egyptians?
Their inner motive is different. They kept changing their goalpost. If they were considerate of the upstream countries at least morally, they could have allocated some volumes for the upstream countries. We contribute 77 billion cubic meters of the Nile water and they have allocated zero share for us.
I am sure you are following what the Egyptians are trying to do through their Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was busy circling Africa, Middle East and Europe and the intelligence chief was recently in South Sudan.
They are trying to sell the statements of the US Secretary of Treasury. Their media fabricates false news and tries to create fear mongering campaign. Ethiopia is a solidly principled and truthful country and we don’t get distracted that easy by false diplomacy and lies Egypt is circulating across the world. We are showing the plain truth to the world. Our president was joined by former President and Prime Minister to explain how we are working on our project. We are trying to create an opportunity where everybody has the chance to listen to the two sides of the story. We went to the US with a humble manner and respect. We were expecting at least a fair solution. That didn’t work out and we will continue to pursue our efforts until all parties accept the reality.