Ethiopia has acknowledged that the water levels behind the giant hydroelectric dam it is building on the Blue Nile River are rising, though officials described this a natural part of the construction process.
“The GERD (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) water filling is being done in line with the dam’s natural construction process,” Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s water minister, was quoted by state media as saying on Wednesday, a day after talks with Sudan and Egypt on the project stalled.
Pointing out that the dam’s wall has now been raised to 560 metres (1,837 feet), compared with 525 metres (1,722) last year, Seleshi had tweeted earlier in the day: “The inflow into the reservoir due to heavy rainfall and runoff exceeded the outflow and created natural pooling. This continues until overflow is triggered soon.”
Sudan’s irrigation ministry said water levels on the Blue Nile, the source of most of the Nile River’s waters, had declined by 90 million cubic metres per day since Ethiopia started filling the reservoir.
“It was evident from the flow metres in the Dimim border station with Ethiopia that there is a retreat in the water levels … confirming the closure of the gates of the Renaissance Dam,” it said.
The GERD has been a source of tension in the Nile River basin ever since Ethiopia broke ground on it in 2011, with downstream countries Egypt and Sudan worried it will restrict vital water supplies.
Addis Ababa says the project is a critical opportunity to pull millions of its nearly 110 million citizens out of poverty. It has long planned to begin filling the dam’s reservoir this month, during its rainy season, though it has not said exactly when.
Cairo and Khartoum are pushing for the three countries to first reach an agreement on how it will be operated.
Relying on the Nile for more than 90 percent of its water supply and already under high water stress, Egypt fears a devastating effect on its population of 100 million.
In June, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry warned conflict could erupt if the UN fails to intervene.
Awol Allo, from Keele University in the UK, said Egypt is demanding adherence to a 1959 treaty, signed between Cairo and Khartoum – not including Ethiopia – that gave Egypt most of the Nile’s annual flow.
“I think Ethiopia has been negotiating for a considerable amount of time in good faith to reach a settlement on this issue, but the Egyptians insist on the 1959 treaty as the starting point,” Allo told Al Jazeera.
“The majority of Ethiopians are on the same page – that it is their sovereign right to fill and open the dam.”
Cairo has been anxious to secure a binding deal that guarantees minimum flows and a dispute resolution mechanism before the dam started operating.
Sudan stands to benefit from the project through cheap electricity and reduced flooding, but it has also raised concerns.
The latest round of negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the contentious dam ended with no agreement on Tuesday, according to Egyptian and Sudanese officials.