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Tensions Reignite Between Ethiopia and Egypt Over Nile Dam

A satellite image taken May 28 shows the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile river in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia. MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES/ASSOCIATED PRESS
A satellite image taken May 28 shows the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile river in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia. MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES/ASSOCIATED PRESS

New images captured in the last week by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite suggest that Ethiopia may have started filling its massive Nile River dam, as tensions over the project continue.

Ethiopia denied the assertion but maintains the country’s position that it is still on track to begin the multi-year process of filling the dam later this month.

The images set off a flurry of speculation, with Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan deadlocked in talks over the dam's future.

The $4.5 billion dam has been under construction for nine years, and once operational, will be the largest hydroelectric power plant on the African continent, capable of producing 6.4 gigawatts of power. But the project has generated opposition from fellow Nile River countries Egypt and Sudan who fear it will affect their access to fresh water.

This combination image made from satellite images taken on Friday, June 26, 2020, above, and Sunday, July 12, 2020, below, shows the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile river.

International Crisis Group analyst William Davison told The Associated Press that the water seen in the images from July 9 might be a result of rainy season overflow rather than a move by the government.

Ethiopia reported that water levels are at record highs.

“This year is an opportune time to begin impounding water in the GERD reservoir,” Taye Atske Selassie, ambassador and permanent representative of Ethiopia to the United Nations, said during a recent presentation of the three countries at the Security Council. “Currently both the Blue Nile and the White Nile have above normal flow. Lake Victoria is at a record high level. The high Aswan dam is also at its full supply level of 182 meters above sea level, which is a record high for the past 40 years or for decades.”

Reuters reported on Tuesday that the talks hosted by the African Union between the three nations failed to reach a consensus as Ethiopia moves forward with its intentions.

On Monday, the Egyptian irrigation ministry confirmed that the three countries will submit a report, with South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa as a mediator. Speaking to local television, Sameh Shoukry, minister of foreign affairs of Egypt, also said, “The desired goal is to always reach an agreement."

Ethiopia's Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy, Seleshi Bekele, gives a press conference on March 3, 2020 at the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia's water and energy minister, said the trilateral negotiations that started after Egypt’s call to take the issue to the United Nations Security Council had ended again without an agreement. He said in a tweet that the talks lasted 11 days and included 11 observers and other experts, but still, “no breakthrough deal is made.”

The discussion is expected to continue with Pan-African-led mediation and a review by the president of the African Union, the minister added.

Egypt relies on the Nile for 90% of its freshwater needs.

“Certainly this is an issue that has a very severe consequence on the livelihoods and future and interests of Egypt, and we will do everything possible to preserve our interests, as would any state,” Shoukry told AP before the country took the case to the United Nations last month.

Representatives from all three countries made their case in a virtual session before the U.N. Security Council in June. While the sides agree on many of the main issues, disagreement remains over how to fill the 70 billion cubic meter dam. Ethiopia has said it plans to begin filling the dam in the coming weeks, which will take up to seven years to complete. Egypt wants additional guarantees that the filling will stop in the event of drought or low river flow.

Egypt has called the project a threat of “existential proportions” to its welfare.

Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry speaks during a press conference on Sept. 17, 2019, in Cairo.

“While we recognize the importance of this project to the developmental objectives of the Ethiopian people, a goal that we certainly share and support,” Shoukry said, “it is essential to realize that this mega-dam, which is Africa's largest hydropower facility, potentially threatens the welfare, the well-being and the existence of millions of Egyptians and Sudanese citizens.”

The contentious negotiations date back to the beginning of the project and have included several mediators. In January 2020 all sides met in Washington, D.C., for talks mediated by the U.S. Treasury Department and the World Bank. The parties appeared close to a technical agreement at the time, but negotiations hit a standstill more recently over whether the agreement will be legally binding under international law. Egypt and Sudan believe Ethiopia should not move forward with filling the dam until an agreement is signed.

“Sudan strongly believes that reaching an agreement on the guidelines and principles before the commencement of the filling of the GERD is extremely necessary for the three countries to avoid putting millions of lives and communities at great risk,” said Omer Mohamed Ahmed Siddig, the permanent representative of Sudan to the United Nations. “Any decision on the timing and the feeling of the GERD has to be agreed upon.”

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stressed that it is not a question of if the dam will be filled, but simply how it will proceed.

Following a week where more than 100 Ethiopians died in ethnic violence and thousands were arrested, Abiy believes the future of the country is intertwined with the future of the GERD project.