Why Ethiopia’s $5 billion dam annoyed its neighbors

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Ethiopia has been at odds with its downstream neighbors Egypt and Sudan for years over a $5 billion mega-dam it is building on the Nile. A third phase of filling a 74 billion cubic meter (2.6 trillion cubic feet) reservoir behind the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was completed in August, a process that has reignited tensions. Egypt has described the unilateral action as a violation of international law and its foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, wrote to the United Nations Security Council in July, reiterating his objections and accusing Ethiopia of derailing the attempts to resolve the impasse.

1. Why is the dam so important?

The Nile is the most important source of fresh water in a largely arid region, highly vulnerable to drought and climate change and experiencing rapid population growth. Egypt depends on the 4,000-mile-long river for 97% of its supply, and much of the population of eastern Sudan depends on it for survival. Ethiopia is counting on a 5,150 megawatt hydropower plant on its new dam to help provide electricity to the 60% of its population who do not have access to it and support its manufacturing industries. The plant started producing electricity in 2022, part of which will be sold to neighboring countries.

2. What is the problem with filling the tank?

Ethiopia closed the dam gates for the first time in July 2020 and collected about 5 billion cubic meters of water in a week after the start of the rainy season. A drought ensued in Sudan, followed by floods that officials say could have been avoided with a more measured approach. Ethiopia has captured more water in 2021 and 2022, and the dam held 22 billion liters – nearly a third of its capacity – as of August. Egypt suggested that the infill be stretched over an extended period to ensure enough water is still flowing downstream.

3. Can the three parties come to an agreement?

It would be in their mutual interest, but a series of mediation efforts that have drawn in the United States and the African Union have failed to yield a compromise. Ethiopia has argued that it is not obligated to negotiate with anyone, even if it participated in the talks.

4. How does Ethiopia justify the construction of the dam?

Ethiopia asserted its right to use the water flowing through its territory and accused Egypt of acting as if it had the exclusive right to the Nile. He says he is not bound by the terms of a 1959 bilateral treaty between Egypt and Sudan that shared most of its waters. The dam and hydropower project, which started in 2011 and is due to be completed in 2024, underpins a development campaign led by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who risks losing support at home if he gives in pressure to delay its commissioning.

5. What do Egypt and Sudan say?

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi has stressed that access to water is a matter of national security for his country and constitutes an impassable “red line”. During the reign of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan accepted assurances from Ethiopia that the dam would help control flooding and that Sudan would benefit from the electricity produced. Since Bashir’s overthrow in 2019, Sudan has aligned itself with Egypt, saying the Nile is common property and a deal must be reached before the dam can be filled.

6. What is the potential for conflict?

Egypt has downplayed the importance of a military solution to the stalemate, with Shoukry declaring in 2021 that Sisi’s administration had no interest in fighting with Ethiopia. Most analysts consider it unlikely that the Egyptians will stage an airstrike or that members of the Security Council will intervene with force. The Arab League sided with Egypt and Sudan and demanded that a deal be struck that protects their water flows.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com

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