Nine years of talks and several fragile agreements over how to share the water of the world’s longest river were almost thrown out of the window last week — all because of a bout of heavy rain.
Satellite images released last Tuesday by the US-based company Maxar Technologies showed water pooling in a reservoir behind a controversial dam on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, prompting officials in Egypt to demand urgent clarification and those in neighboring Sudan to complain that water levels were dropping along the river.
It now seems that heavy rains had caused the reservoir to swell, but as Ethiopia has repeatedly said it will fill the dam with or without a deal with the other two nations, the images had authorities in Egypt and Sudan worried.
If Ethiopia does begin filling the dam at a rapid pace, they fear it could have profound effects on their own water supplies. On the same day, the three nations had failed to reach an agreement over how the project should proceed, as the latest round of talks crashed out.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), an ambitious $4.5 billion hydropower project, is emblematic of Ethiopia’s goal to become a key regional player.
It aims to provide electricity to around 60% of Ethiopian households which are so far not covered by the power grid, and is part of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s vision to transform the country into a major regional exporter of energy.
Without electricity, many Ethiopians rely on shrinking forests for firewood, while the 40% of the country which is technically connected to the grid suffers from disruptive power cuts, Birhanu Lenjiso, co-founder of the East African Policy Research Institute, told CNN.”It is a very dire situation.
It’s a very sad situation that we have been living like that for centuries when we actually contribute about 85% of the Nile water and we are not using any of that water,” he added.
But to Egypt, the dam threatens one of its most precious resources. Most of Egypt’s 102 million people live in the narrow Nile valley, along the river, and depend on it for everything from drinking water to industrial use and irrigation.
“My father and grandfather have lived by the Nile and my children and grandchildren will live by the Nile,” Ahmed Abdel-Wahab, a farmer from southern Egypt, told CNN. He speculated that the dam could lead to a 60% drop in his annual crops and an increase in water costs.
“We are very worried. All farmers are worried,” he said.Sudan would mostly benefit from the dam’s low-priced electricity and a steady water flow that will reduce flooding and increase irrigation, according to the International Crisis Group.
But its proximity to the project — just 12.5 miles from its border with Ethiopia — could make its own Roseires Dam vulnerable to flooding, without proper coordination.
Speaking to CNN, Ethiopia’s Minister for Water, Irrigation and Energy Seleshi Bekele dismissed earlier reports that the country had started filling the reservoir, saying that rainfall had cause “pooling” there. Seleshi said the active filling of the dam would begin in two years, when construction works are completed — indicating that there is still time for more talks.
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