Why Filling Ethiopia’s Mega-Dam Riles Nile Region

Ethiopia has been at loggerheads with downstream neighbors Egypt and Sudan for years over a $4.8 billion mega-dam it’s building on the Nile River. Now the standoff is coming to a head as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam moves toward completion and the three nations wrangle over how quickly the 74 billion cubic-meter (2.6 trillion cubic-foot) reservoir behind the dam wall gets filled.

1. Why is the dam so significant?

The Nile is the most important source of fresh water in a largely arid region that is very vulnerable to drought and climate change and is experiencing rapid population growth. Egypt relies on the 4,000-mile-long river for as much as 97% of its supply, much of eastern Sudan’s population depends on it for survival, and Ethiopia is counting on a 6,000-megawatt hydropower plant on its new dam to boost the nation’s electricity supply by 150%.

2. What’s the issue with filling the reservoir?

Ethiopia had talked about closing the dam’s gates and filling the reservoir in two to three years, but now says it’s willing to extend the process to as long as seven years, starting in the current rainy season. Egypt has asked for the process to be drawn out over about 15 years so that the effect on water flow is more gradual and to allow for the impact of droughts. Tensions spiked in mid-July after satellite images showed water building up behind the dam wall and initial reports suggested the gates had been closed. Ethiopian officials subsequently said heavy rains had resulted in “natural pooling.”

3. Can the three sides reach an accord?

Mediation efforts that have drawn in the U.S., United Nations Security Council and African Union failed to yield a compromise. Ethiopia argued that it wasn’t obliged to negotiate with anyone, even as it participated in the talks. And Egypt has warned all options are on the table should the dam be filled unilaterally, but has held back on threatening military action.

4. How does Ethiopia justify building the dam?

Ethiopia has asserted its right to tap water that traverses its territory, accused Egypt of acting as if it has the sole right to the Nile and says it isn’t bound by the terms of a 1959 bilateral treaty between Egypt and Sudan that divided most of its water between themselves. The dam and hydropower project, which began in 2011, underpins Ethiopia’s ambitious development drive spearheaded by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who stands to lose support at home if he buckles to pressure to delay its commission.

5. What do Egypt and Sudan say?

Egypt has accused Ethiopia of refusing to agree to release a permanent, minimum volume of water from the dam in the event of severe drought, and it warned that closing the gates would be illegal and unacceptable. During Omar al-Bashir’s rule, Sudan accepted Ethiopia’s assurances that the dam would help control flooding and it would benefit from the power it generated. It changed tack after al-Bashir was toppled last year, and has aligned itself with Egypt’s position, saying the Nile is joint property and an agreement must be reached before the dam can be filled.

Why Filling Ethiopia’s Mega-Dam Riles Nile Region

6. What is likely to happen next?

Eleven days of negotiations mediated by the African Union failed to resolve the standoff, but all three government said they were open to further talks. Those are set to resume once the continental group reviews their submissions on the dispute. Regional tensions are likely to remain elevated, with efforts to broker a compromise likely to be undermined by provocative statements from officials, according to Louw Nel, an analyst at NKC African Economics, which is based Paarl, near Cape Town.

7. What is the potential for armed conflict?

Egypt warned in a June 29 letter to the Security Council that it would “uphold and protect the vital interests of its people,” and that “survival is not a question of choice, but an imperative of nature.” It has since stressed that it is seeking a diplomatic solution. Analysts including Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, and Crispin Hawes, founder of London-based consultancy Idrisi Advisors Ltd., see an Egyptian strike as unlikely.

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