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NY Times, Feb. 9, 2020
For Thousands of Years, Egypt Controlled the Nile. A New Dam Threatens That.
By Declan Walsh and Somini Sengupta
MINYA, Egypt — The Egyptian farmer stood in his dust-blown field,
lamenting his fortune. A few years ago, wheat and tomato-filled
greenhouses carpeted the land. Now the desert was creeping in.
“Look,” he said, gesturing at the sandy soil and abandoned greenhouses.
The farmer, Hamed Jarallah, attributed his woes to dwindling irrigation
from the overtaxed Nile, the fabled river at the heart of Egypt’s very
identity. Already, the Nile is under assault from pollution, climate
change and Egypt’s growing population, which officially hits 100 million
people this month.
And now, Mr. Jarallah added, a fresh calamity loomed.
A colossal hydroelectric dam being built on the Nile 2,000 miles
upriver, in the lowlands of Ethiopia, threatens to further constrict
Egypt’s water supply — and is scheduled to start filling this summer.
“We’re worried,” he said. “Egypt wouldn’t exist without the Nile. Our
livelihood is being destroyed, God help us.”
The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the $4.5 billion Grand
Ethiopian Renaissance Dam — Africa’s largest, with a reservoir about the
size of London — has become a national preoccupation in both countries,
stoking patriotism, deep-seated fears and even murmurs of war.
To Ethiopians, the dam is a cherished symbol of their ambitions — a
megaproject with the potential to light up millions of homes, earn
billions from electricity sales to neighboring countries and confirm
Ethiopia’s place as a rising African power.
After years of bumpy progress, including corruption scandals and the
mysterious death of its chief engineer, the first two turbines are being
installed. Officials say the dam will start filling in July.
That prospect induces dread in Egypt, where the dam is seen as the most
fundamental of threats.
“The Nile is a question of life, a matter of existence to Egypt,”
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said at the United Nations last September.
For eight years, officials from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan — which lies
between the two countries — squabbled fruitlessly over the dam.
Ninety-five percent of Egyptians live along the Nile or in its teeming
delta, and the river provides nearly all of their water. They worry
that, if the dam in Ethiopia is filled too quickly, it could drastically
curtail their water supply. In November, in a last-ditch effort, the
talks moved to Washington, where the White House has been mediating.
Mr. Trump, playing on his self-image as a deal maker, has suggested that
his efforts might merit a Nobel Prize. The White House is pushing for an
agreement by the end of February, but Egyptian and Ethiopian officials
warn it will not be easy.
In an interview last month, Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s water minister,
called Egypt’s claims to the Nile “the most absurd thing you ever heard.”
For millenniums, Egyptians were the unchallenged masters of the Nile,
drawing on the river to build ancient empires and modern republics.
The Pharaohs worshiped crocodiles and used the Nile to transport the
giant granite blocks for the Great Pyramid of Giza. In 1970, Egypt’s
towering post-independence leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, oversaw the
completion of the Aswan High Dam, taming the Nile’s seasonal flows and
transforming Egyptian agriculture.
Egypt justified its dominance over the river by citing a colonial-era
water treaty and a 1959 agreement with Sudan. But Ethiopia does not
recognize them, and when its former leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam,
proposed building a series of dams on the Nile in 1978, he met thinly
“We are not going to wait to die of thirst in Egypt,” said Egypt’s
president at the time, Anwar Sadat. “We’ll go to Ethiopia and die there.”
The Renaissance Dam spans the Blue Nile, the river’s main tributary,
which supplies most of Egypt’s water. Ethiopia’s young, modernizing
leader, Abiy Ahmed, insists that Egyptian fears about its impact are
overblown. After taking office as prime minister in 2018, Mr. Abiy flew
to Cairo to offer his reassurances
“I swear, I swear, we will not hurt Egypt’s water supply,” he told
But by last fall, anxieties were rising again and Mr. Abiy offered an
“No force could prevent” Ethiopia from completing the dam, he told
Ethiopian lawmakers in October, less than two weeks after winning the
Nobel Peace Prize for resolving his country’s long conflict with
Eritrea. If it came to it, Mr. Abiy added, he would get “millions
readied” for war with Egypt.
While the two nations spar over the dam, hydrologists say the most
pressing threat facing the Nile stems from population growth and climate
change. Egypt’s population increases by one million people every six
months — a soaring rate that the United Nations predicts will lead to
water shortages by 2025.
Rising sea levels threaten to nibble at Egypt’s low-lying coast and help
push saltwater inland, spoiling fertile land. Increasingly volatile
weather is another risk.
A study published last August by researchers at Dartmouth College found
that while rainfall is likely to increase in the Upper Nile basin over
the coming century, the incidence of hot and dry years could increase by
a factor of two or three — even if global warming is limited to 2
Ethiopia argues that storing the water upstream will help, because it is
less prone to evaporation than in Egypt, which is drier.
“The dry years will be more severe, in that they will be hotter and more
frequent,” said Ethan D. Coffel, the paper’s lead writer. “Life is going
to get much harder for farmers on the Nile.”
Mr. el-Sisi’s Egypt has made modest efforts to prepare. Officials have
imposed restrictions on water-intensive crops like rice and bananas. On
Fridays, clerics deliver government-dictated sermons stressing the
virtues of conservation.
On Judgment Day, warned one such sermon, “God will not look favorably”
on water wastrels.
But criticism of Egypt’s own stewardship of the Nile is risky. A famous
pop singer, Sherine, was prosecuted in 2017 for mocking the Nile’s
notoriously dirty water, telling fans to “Drink Evian instead.”
She was eventually acquitted, perhaps partly because her jab hit home:
Egyptians abuse the Nile as much as they revere it.
Sewage flows into its waters and garbage clogs irrigation canals.
Successive Egyptian leaders have indulged in grandiose schemes that
suckle from the river, including Mr. el-Sisi, who is building a
sprawling new administrative capital in the desert outside Cairo that
experts say will deplete the Nile further.
The dam has become the focus of Egypt’s water anxieties. The main
sticking point with Ethiopia is how quickly it should be filled.
Ethiopia says as few as four years, but Egypt, fearing a drought during
the filling period, has argued for 12 or longer.
Beyond the technical arguments, the dispute is driven by politics. Mr.
el-Sisi, a military strongman, is acutely sensitive to suggestions that
he is soft on Egypt’s security.
Mr. Abiy, who faces elections this year, is under pressure from ordinary
Ethiopians, who helped finance the dam by buying government-issued
bonds. More broadly, he needs to deliver on a prestigious project in a
country that considers itself an emerging power.
Ethiopia has one of the world’s fastest growing economies. The dam
offers it a chance to become Africa’s biggest power exporter. And, just
as in Egypt, the Nile is central to the country’s sense of itself.
“For how long will the river flow down taking everything with it, even
the branch of a tree?” goes one song taught to Ethiopian schoolchildren.
During an interview with The New York Times at the dam in 2018, Semegnew
Bekele, the project manager, said the undertaking would “eradicate our
common enemy — poverty.”
He cited the Hoover Dam in the United States as inspiration.
“It makes America America,” he said, adding that he hoped Ethiopia’s dam
would do the same for his country.
Soon after, he was found slumped behind the wheel of his Toyota Land
Cruiser, a gunshot wound to the head. The police ruled it a suicide. A
few weeks later, Mr. Abiy fired the dam’s main contractor over
accusations of widespread corruption.
Despite the setbacks, the Ethiopians say they are close to finishing the
dam. They started building it in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring,
when Cairo was still in turmoil, and hostilities have dogged the project
from the start.
In 2013, a television broadcast showed Egypt’s leaders — including the
president at the time, Mohamed Morsi — discussing covert tactics to
scupper the dam, including a bomb attack. The tough talk came to
nothing, but soon Egyptians were accusing their rivals of slow-rolling
the technical talks while they continued to build.
The Ethiopians, in turn, say the Egyptians treat them with a
highhandedness that stretches back to a failed Egyptian invasion of
Ethiopia in the 1870s. In October, one Ethiopian negotiator accused
Egypt of seeking to turn his country into a “hydrological colony.”
Mr. el-Sisi insists he wants a peaceful resolution, embarking on a
diplomatic offensive to win support from Ethiopia’s neighbors. The Nile
Museum, which opened in Aswan in 2016 emphasizes Egypt’s ties with its
“African brothers.” Inside, a three-story waterfall symbolizes the Nile
wending through 10 African countries before arriving in Egypt.
Yet Mr. el-Sisi has also sent a message that he is ready to resist in
other ways. Egypt has fostered ties with Ethiopia’s adversaries,
shipping weapons to the government of South Sudan, according to United
Nations investigators. Inside Ethiopia, officials have accused Egypt of
sponsoring anti-government protests and armed rebellions, accusations
In the talks, Mr. el-Sisi is at a marked disadvantage — the longer
negotiations take, the closer Ethiopia moves toward finishing the dam.
Mr. Abiy’s hand is also strengthened by Ethiopia’s growing geostrategic
muscle. In recent years, many countries — including the United Arab
Emirates, China and the United States — have vied for influence in the
Horn of Africa, where many analysts have proclaimed a new “Great Game.”
Ethiopia, the region’s most populous country with more than 100 million
people, is central to those calculations.
It scored a major diplomatic victory in the negotiations over the dam
when it persuaded Sudan, which had traditionally sided with Egypt, to
take its side in the dispute.
The White House and World Bank-brokered negotiations haven’t gone as
Egypt had hoped, Western diplomats say. Despite the close ties between
Mr. Trump and Mr. el-Sisi — who Mr. Trump once called “my favorite
dictator” — Egypt has had to concede key demands over the Nile.
On Feb. 1, a day after the latest talks ended, Mr. Abiy sounded an
upbeat note on Twitter, boasting that Ethiopia was drawing ever closer
to “our continental power generation victory day.”
But Ethiopian ministers acknowledge that Mr. Trump is pressing them to
do a deal, too.
“Of course, pressure is everywhere,” Mr. Bekele, the water minister,
An Egyptian government spokesman did not respond to questions. The two
sides are scheduled to reconvene in Washington on Feb. 13.
The Nile ends its winding 4,000-mile journey through Africa in Ras
el-Bar, a seaside town on Egypt’s north coast, where the river slips
quietly into the Mediterranean. One morning, Ahmed el-Alfi, 16, stood on
the rocks on its bank, fishing for shrimp.
The young fisherman didn’t know much about the talks with Ethiopia, but
he could see the river’s problems himself.
“The sea is clear but the Nile is dirty,” he said Mr. el-Alfi. “It’s
full of rubbish.”
And yet, he added, Egypt had no option but to fight for it.
“Without the Nile,” he said, “there is no Egypt.”
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