CAIRO—Tensions are rising between Egypt and Ethiopia as Addis Ababa moves closer to diverting water to a massive hydroelectric project on the Nile that has been a center of a decade-long dispute over who controls Africa’s longest river
Talks between officials from Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan hosted by the Democratic Republic of Congo ended without an agreement on Tuesday, sparking a new round of heated rhetoric between the two countries.
Egypt’s president on Wednesday hinted at the possibility of conflict with Ethiopia, but said he preferred cooperation on the issue.
“I say to our brothers in Ethiopia, don’t touch a drop of Egypt’s water, because all options are open,” President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi said at a conference in Cairo.
Addis Ababa began construction on the $4.8 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in 2011, part of what the government says is a critical development project that will bring electricity to tens of millions of people who currently rely on firewood as their main source of fuel.
Egypt regards the dam as a strategic threat that could siphon off critical water supplies from tens of millions of people. The majority of Egypt’s 100 million people live in a narrow ribbon of land along the river and in the Nile Delta region.
The dispute is heating up now as the Ethiopian government moved ahead with a plan to fill the reservoir of the dam for a second time in July, and start using it to generate power for the first time in August.
Several rounds of negotiations, including one brokered by the Trump administration last year, have failed to produce an agreement among the three countries that would govern the filling of the dam. Some of the main disagreements include measures to address droughts and whether a potential agreement will be legally binding.
Growing populations and climate change are adding to the pressures on countries along the Nile, where officials and observers have warned of the risk of conflict in the future over water.
Ethiopia has rejected a Sudanese proposal backed by Egypt for a new negotiating framework that would involve the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and the African Union.
Ethiopian officials said they feared the proposed talks would delay plans for the second filling of the dam expected with the rain season in July.
Ambassador Ibrahim Idris, one of the Ethiopian negotiators in the dam talks, said in March the proposal would strip the rights of the country to develop its water resources.
The chief executive of state-owned Ethiopian Electric Power said in March that two turbines from the dam are expected to generate power for the first time in August, according to Ethiopia’s state news agency.
The Nile flows from south to north through eastern Africa, with more than 85% of the river’s waters originating in the Blue Nile in Ethiopia’s highlands. The Blue Nile flows into Sudan where it merges with the White Nile, the other major Nile tributary, before entering Egypt. It eventually ends in a large delta and flows into the Mediterranean Sea.
The dispute over the dam has touched a nerve in countries along the Nile, with Ethiopia challenging Egypt’s historic claims to a dominant role in managing the river’s water. While Egypt has pointed to past treaties that grant it and Sudan rights to most of the river’s water, Ethiopia, which was cut out of those treaties, has rejected the agreements as a legacy of British colonialism.
Mr. Sisi ruled out military action over the dam last year but has adopted a more aggressive tone on the issue in recent weeks as the filling of the dam draws closer.
“The stability of the region may be jeopardized in unimaginable ways if Egypt’s water is affected,” he said last week following the removal of a giant container ship that blocked the Suez Canal for six days.
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