Ethiopia starts filling controversial dam on Nile River’s main tributary angering neighbours

Ethiopia started filling a controversial huge dam on the Nile River’s main tributary, raising tensions before an upcoming meeting of the United Nations Security Council on the issue.

In a statement late on Monday, the Egyptian irrigation ministry expressed its “firm rejection of this unilateral measure” and said the move was “a violation of international laws and norms that regulate projects built on the shared basins of international rivers”.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is set to be Africa’s largest hydroelectric project when completed, is the source of an almost decade-long diplomatic standoff between Ethiopia and downstream nations Egypt and Sudan.

Addis Ababa says the project is essential to development, but the governments in Cairo and Khartoum fear it could restrict their citizens’ water access.

Ethiopia said adding water in the reservoir between July and August is a natural part of the construction.

“Filling goes in tandem with the construction,” said a senior official at the water ministry. “If the rainfall is as you see it now in July, it must have begun.”

The volume of the accumulating water would depend on the amount of seasonal rain that fell in Ethiopia, Egyptian Irrigation Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ghanim told reporters.

Both Egypt and Sudan have been pushing Ethiopia to sign a binding deal over the filling and operation of the dam, and have been urging the UN Security Council to take the matter up in recent weeks.

France’s ambassador to the UN said last week that the council itself can do little apart from bringing the sides together.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said in a note to the UN that negotiations are at an impasse, and accused Ethiopia of adopting “a policy of intransigence that undermined our collective endeavours to reach an agreement”.

The Ethiopian government had previously announced it would proceed to the second stage of filling in July, with or without a deal.

The Nile runs some 6,000km and is one of the longest rivers in the world. It is an essential source of water and electricity for dozens of countries in East Africa.

Egypt, which depends on the Nile for nearly all of its irrigation and drinking water, sees the dam as an existential threat.

Sudan hopes the project will regulate annual flooding but fears its dams would be harmed without agreement on the Ethiopian operation.

The 145-metre mega-dam, on which construction began in 2011, has a capacity of 74 billion cubic metres.

Filling began last year, with Ethiopia announcing in July 2020 it had hit its target of 4.9 billion cubic metres, enough to test the dam’s first two turbines, an important milestone on the way towards actually producing energy.

The goal is to impound an additional 13.5 billion cubic metres this year.