Ethiopia starts filling Nile mega-dam before deal with Egypt and Sudan

Ethiopia is allowing the reservoir of a huge dam built on the River Nile to fill up, a development that is likely to anger Egypt, which says the hydroelectric plant, the largest in Africa, poses it an “existential threat”.

Cairo had sought to put pressure on Addis Ababa through the US and the UN Security Council to postpone filling the reservoir until Ethiopia agreed rules on the filling and operation of the dam. Egypt and Sudan say the dam threatens the flow of the Nile on which they both depend, particularly in drought years.

Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s minister of water, irrigation and energy, told the Financial Times on Wednesday that the dam was filling up naturally as water pooled behind the reservoir wall.

“This is the rainy season. It’s an ideal time to fill the dam,” he said. “This is very well known to everyone involved. They [Egypt] know it. They have to explain it to their people.”

The dam wall has been raised from 520 metres to 560 metres, he said, so the level of water would now inevitably rise to the same level. The Egyptian foreign ministry said it had asked Ethiopia for an “urgent clarification” of news reports saying that it had started filling the reservoir.

In the past, Egypt hinted that it might resort to force if the dam went ahead, prompting Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, to say: “No force can stop Ethiopia from building a dam. If there is need to go to war, we could get millions readied.” Analysts say it is highly unlikely that war would break out over the Nile.

Almost a decade of talks between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have failed to resolve the issue, and days of emergency negotiations held online last week broke up without a deal. An Egyptian spokesman said after the failure of the latest talks that Ethiopia lacked the “political will” to come to an agreement.

Ethiopia walked away from an agreement brokered by Washington in February. Last month, Ethiopia accused Egypt of mounting a cyber attack on its networks.

The $4.8bn Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, funded domestically through bonds and donations, has become a symbol of national pride and of the country’s progress from poverty to near middle-income status. The hydroelectric plant is designed to produce 6.5 gigawatts of electricity, which would double Ethiopia’s generating capacity.

“Ethiopia has 70 per cent of its population in the dark compared to Egypt’s near 100 per cent electrification,” said Gabriel Negatu, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“Egypt wants a firm commitment on how much water Ethiopia will let through when there’s a drought, but Ethiopia says we will negotiate as we go along,” Mr Negatu said, adding that Addis did not want to commit to a binding international agreement.

About 90 per cent of Egypt’s fresh water comes from the Nile and millions of farmers depend on it to irrigate their land. Cairo is alarmed by the lack of certainty about water supplies and by Ethiopia’s insistence that it will discuss drought measures year by year when there are shortages.

Ethiopian engineers argue that a hydroelectric dam should not affect the quantity of water downstream since all the water will eventually flow downhill. They say that Addis should not be bound by a 1959 Nile utilisation agreement between Egypt and Sudan in which Ethiopia played no part.

Under the regime of Omar al-Bashir, Khartoum had appeared to accept Ethiopia’s argument that the dam would actually benefit Sudan by regulating the flow of the river and preventing flooding. But under the new Sudanese government, which came to power last year after the overthrow of Mr Bashir, Khartoum has moved closer to Cairo’s position.