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Ethiopia filling mega-dam that Egypt calls an "existential" threat

Ethiopia has dismissed reports that it's filling a massive reservoir behind a new hydroelectric dam, as the colossal infrastructure project strains ties between three African nations that all rely on the River Nile for water. Egypt has previously threatened to go to war over the dam.

Almost 10 years of negotiations between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over Ethiopia's construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) have failed to resolve the conflict. Recent satellite images from the European Space Agency show water filling the reservoir behind the dam, but Ethiopian officials insist it's just "natural pooling" from rainfall, not the start of filling operations.

Ethiopia Dam Dispute
A July 12, 2020 satellite image shows the reservoir filling behind the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile river in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia. Maxar Technologies via AP

All three nations share the water of the Blue Nile, one of the two tributaries of the River Nile. Sudan and Egypt insist an agreement on how Ethiopia will operate the new dam should be reached before the reservoir is filled.

The countries have been at odds since 2011, when Ethiopia started building the dam, at an estimated cost of $4 billion, across the Blue Nile. The tributary originates in the Ethiopian highlands, flows north through the country and then through Sudan before eventually crossing into Egypt and joining the Nile on the way to the Mediterranean.

The dam is reportedly about 70% complete, but Ethiopia has long said it intended to fill the reservoir over the summer, during the rainy season, as work on the dam continued.

"Certificate out of poverty"

"The construction of the dam and the filling of the water go hand in hand," Ethiopian Water Minister Seleshi Bekele said in televised comments this week. "The filling of the dam doesn't need to wait until the completion of the dam." He later told reporters that as the rains are falling, "it's an ideal time to fill the dam… This is very well known to everyone involved. They [Egypt] know it. They have to explain it to their people."

A general view of the the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, December 26, 2019. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP/Getty

The World Bank ranks Ethiopia's economy as one of the fastest-growing in the world, but it is also one of the most power-starved countries on the planet. More than half of its 110 million people have no access to electricity.

"It's a source of national pride, an iconic achievement of my generation," Omar Redi, an Ethiopian political analyst, told CBS News. "The dam is considered Ethiopia's certificate out of poverty, hence the huge importance the people and government attach to it."

The width of Manhattan's Brooklyn Bridge and standing 50 storeys high, it is hoped the dam's 16 turbines will generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity; enough to meet not only Ethiopia's needs, but also excess power to sell cheaply to the country's impoverished northern neighbor, Sudan.

Inside Lalibela, the mysterious holy site visited by 200,000 Ethiopian Christians on their annual pilgrimage 13:29

Sudan, while enthusiastic about the potential new power supply, also has serious concerns about Ethiopia unilaterally controlling the flow of the Blue Nile, using a dam less than 10 miles from their shared border.

Hundreds of miles further downstream, however, Egypt, with an area and population similar to Ethiopia's, is dead against the new infrastructure project.

"Existential" threat

The Nile has remained the lifeline of Egypt's civilizations since the ancient times. The country's 102 million inhabitants still rely almost entirely on the river to sustain life across the arid landscape.

Addressing the United Nations Security Council, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry called the dam "a threat of potentially existential proportions." He vowed that Egypt would "uphold and protect the vital interests of its people," adding that "survival is not a question of choice, but an imperative of nature."

Addressing troops last month, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi didn't mention Ethiopia or the dam specifically, but pointedly said Egypt's military stood ready to defend national security, as he told Air Force personnel to, "be ready for any mission inside our borders, and if necessary, outside the borders."

Moustafa El Gendi, the self-proclaimed "Son of The Nile," is a member of Egypt's Parliament who sits on its African Affairs committee.

"The River Nile for us is our only source of life," said El Gendi, who built a successful river cruise business on the Nile.

Egyptian politician Moustafa El Gendi (right) meets then-Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in a 2011 file photo.

He first saw the looming dam project as a threat during the 2011 "Arab Spring" uprising that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He led an Egyptian "public diplomacy" delegation to Ethiopia at the time, asking the government there to delay construction until the tumult in Egypt was over and his country, "got back on its feet."

El Gendi told CBS News that his delegation wanted to hear outside engineering consultants assure his country, "that this dam is not going to kill the Egyptians. I want to hear this from a specialist, not from a politician."

"I don't want politicians to give me promises," El Gendi said. "I trust science. This is a dam. This is an engineering project."

"Plenty of water"

At least one expert isn't convinced that Egypt is facing an "existential" threat, at least not any time soon.

Dr. Kevin Wheeler, a researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at Britain's University of Oxford, has been following the negotiations over the GERD project since 2012. He told CBS News that the technical issues between the parties have already been largely resolved.

"I would say, this year, there's really no concern at all of any [water] shortage. There's plenty of water stored within Egypt," Wheeler said. "The subsequent years would be of more concern if there's a drought, or an extended drought over the next several years. That could be a reason for concern."

A general view of the Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, December 26, 2019. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP/Getty

"Technically, there are very sound solutions, and ultimately if there is an agreement, the GERD can provide a safety net during drought times for Egypt," he added.

But with so much distrust between the two sides, Wheeler acknowledged that a deal still must be struck, and one, "that's verifiable and implementable."

The main sticking point has been Egypt and Sudan pushing for an agreement that would be binding on Ethiopia, effectively forcing it to guarantee a certain downstream flow through the new dam. Ethiopian officials have refused to make that concession thus far.

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