Egypt requested urgent clarification from Ethiopia on Wednesday night as confusion reigned over whether Addis Ababa had begun to fill its Nile dam reservoir days after latest talks ended with no resolution.
The Horn of Africa nation's water minister first appeared to announce the move on TV before backtracking, saying that it was rainwater backed up behind the dam but that construction and filling "go hand in hand". Ethiopia has long said it would start the first impounding of water at some point this month.
Then shortly after the minister's comments, Sudan said water levels in the Blue Nile had declined by about 90 million cubic metres per day and said the dam’s gates were shut. The average water flows down the river’s main tributary on which the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd) is being built reaches 500 million cubic metres per day in August as it reaches Sudan.
Egypt, which depends on the Nile for more than 90 per cent of its water, made no further comment on the reports but the Foreign Ministry said it was seeking clarification.
The conflicting statements came a day after the release of satellite images purporting to show the dam reservoir filling up. Experts said it was rainwater rather than a deliberate action by Addis Ababa to fill the nearly completed $4.6 billion, 6,000-megawatt dam on the Blue Nile.
The photos were taken on July 9 and made public on Tuesday, the day after the latest round of talks involving Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan on the operation of the dam ended without a breakthrough.
Water behind the dam photographed by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite was probably a “natural backing-up of [rain] water behind the dam caused by rainy season conditions,” said William Davison, International Crisis Group’s expert on Ethiopia.
Ethiopia has long maintained it would start filling the dam in mid-July regardless of whether an agreement was reached with Egypt and Sudan. The months of July and August witness the peak of the Blue Nile’s annual flooding caused by the seasonal rain on the Ethiopian highlands.
“The construction of the dam and the filling of the water go hand in hand,” Ethiopia’s minister for water, Seleshi Bekele, told the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation. He also confirmed the satellite images of July 9. Media outlets also quoted him as saying the filling has begun.
However, the minister later told the Associated Press that the images in fact reflected heavy rainfall. He did not explain the discrepancy in his comments.
Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on Monday wrapped up nearly two weeks of talks on the disputed dam without a breakthrough. That round, held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, was the latest in nearly a decade of protracted talks between the three nations over the dam which, on completion, would be Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam. The talks were attended by representatives of the United States, the European Union and South Africa, in its capacity as AU chairman.
“Unchanged and additional and excessive demands of Egypt and Sudan prohibited the conclusion of this round of negotiations by an agreement,” Mr Bekele said on Wednesday.
Egypt, which has long blamed Ethiopia for the lack of progress in the talks, fears the dam would significantly reduce its vital share of the river’s waters, costing the most populous Arab nation hundreds of thousands of jobs and disrupting its food security. Sudan is concerned a structural breach in the dam could flood large chunks of its territory and maintains that, without operational co-ordination, the Gerd could close its own hydroelectric dams on the Blue Nile.
Ethiopia has sought to reassure Egypt and Sudan, saying the dam on the Blue Nile is key to the alleviation of its widespread poverty and is meant to benefit, not harm, the two downstream countries as well as other Nile basin countries.
But Egypt contends that Ethiopia is refusing to reach a legally binding deal and is rejecting proposals for a deal on the flow of the river during persistent drought or a mechanism for resolving future disputes.
Egypt’s share of the river’s water is said by President Abdel Fatah El Sisi to be an existential issue.
A statement on Monday by the Egyptian irrigation ministry said the three nations would separately send their assessment of the talks to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose country is the current AU chairman. The South African leader would later call for a summit meeting of the three nations and others to decide what should be the next steps.
The amount of water Ethiopia said it intended to save behind the dam this and the next year is relatively insignificant, but Egypt and Sudan fear that filling the dam without an agreement in place would set a dangerous precedent since Addis Ababa intended to build more dams on the Blue Nile.
Egyptian officials have so far avoided any reference to military action to settle the dispute, but Mr El Sisi has recently declared without mentioning the dispute directly that his military was prepared to carry out missions outside the country.
Pro-government social media influencers have, in the meantime, been urging the government to strike the dam before it is filled, a possibility that may have grown as the talks continue to fail to produce results.
Military action by Egypt, however, poses logistical and operational challenges to Cairo and would be difficult to justify to the international community as an act of self-defence.