Egypt and Sudan have been warning Ethiopia against filling the dam, but there are conflicting reports coming out of the country.
Tensions between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, a trio who could not reach an agreement over sharing the waters of the Nile River, have escalated after reports suggested that Ethiopia has closed the gates of its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
The heightened dissension appeared to begin with the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s statement.
"If Ethiopia doesn't fill the dam, it means Ethiopia has agreed to demolish the dam," Ahmed said during a speech in parliament earlier this month.
The $4.6billion GERD will be the biggest dam in Africa after its completion, promising various good prospects for Ethiopian agriculture and the hydroelectricity industry.
But the same prospects worry Egypt and Sudan, Ethiopia’s neighbours, because the dam could significantly decrease the water capacity of the Nile flowing into Egypt and Sudan from Ethiopia.
On Tuesday, another round of trilateral talks failed to reach any agreement as rumours over the filling of the dam circulated across the board.
The next day saw an excited Ethiopian media circulating apparently intentional government reports that riled various parties — it all caused angry protests from both Egypt and Sudan.
While Egypt demanded "quick official clarification" from Ethiopia regarding the filling reports, Sudan condemned "any unilateral actions taken by any party", referring to the alleged move taken by Addis Ababa.
Statements full of fury from neighbouring countries have achieved their desired impact, as Ethiopia's state broadcaster EBC felt the need to correct itself over a story based on the water minister’s statement. The EBC apologised for its "erroneous" report, which claimed that the process of filling had begun.
Despite disputed reports from Ethiopia on filling the dam, one fact — about the increase in water levels in the dam — appears to be not disputed by anybody.
According to the Ethiopian Water Minister, Seleshi Bekele, the water levels in the dam has now been raised to 560 metres (1,837 feet), while it was at 525 metres (1,722 feet) last year.
"The GERD water filling is being done in line with the dam's natural construction process," Bekele said this week about the water levels after the talks failed.
After protests from both Egypt and Sudan, Bekele now says this increase has happened “due to heavy rainfall and runoff”.
Ethiopians say the reason for rising water levels in the dam is rainfall, but should this be true, the volume of the Nile waters flowing to Sudan ought to be going up, too. But the Sudanese say the complete opposite happens, as the water levels in the Blue River appear to decline in Sudanese territory.
A Sudanese irrigation minister drew attention to this problem, saying, "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."
According to Sudan, the waters of the Blue River, the main source of the Nile, has steadily declined by at least 90 million cubic metres per day since Ethiopia allegedly began filling the reservoir.
Satellite images from June to this month also indicate increasing water levels in the GERD.
Is Ethiopia testing Egypt’s patience?
Ethiopia’s recent moves have angered Egypt even more than Sudan.
For centuries, the Nile has supplied much of Egypt’s water demand, and has always connected the country with the river.
“This is the rainy season, but I feel Ethiopia is daring the Egyptian regime,” said Abdi Samatar, professor of geography at the University of Minnesota and a research fellow at the University of Pretoria.
“The dam issue and sharing water between the three countries has a long standing problem. In my thinking, Egypt has a legitimate concern in ensuring that sufficient water flows down the Nile,” Samatar told TRT World.
“But Ethiopia has a similar right to develop the water resources in the country to develop its economy and create livelihoods for its poor people. So does Sudan,” the professor added.
Samatar thinks that the main issue lies in the Egyptian assumption that “It can dictate to Ethiopia and that is a serious mistake.”
“I have no doubt that there is a sensible way to strike a compromise that balances the mutual needs of all the three countries. This is not rocket science, it is a hydrological equation,” the professor of geography added.
But both Egyptian officials and experts, including dissidents to the country’s military-dominant regime, have serious concerns about the development of the dam.
"The very building of the GERD threatens Egypt's water needs, be they for agriculture, electricity or drinking water. Egypt is dependent on Nile water, receiving around 55.5 million cubic metres a year from the river and believes the filling of the dam will affect the water it needs. An upstream dam could strangle the flow of the Nile," Maha Azzam, head of the Egyptian Revolutionary Council, which opposes the rule of the current regime led by Abdel Fattah al Sisi, told TRT World in March.
Egypt has already threatened Ethiopia over the dire consequences.
If Ethiopia fills and begins operating the dam without any agreement between the countries, it would “heighten tensions and could provoke crises and conflicts that further destabilise an already troubled region", said the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry last month.
“Diplomatic problems already exist. Ethiopian can not wait for a long time to make the dam function and produce electricity which it desperately needs for domestic use and export,” Samatar said.
“Egyptian bluster and Ethiopian resistance will do nothing to produce a positive sum outcome for all three countries. What we have now is a dialogue of the deaf. Egypt might attempt to use the military but that will be a fools game,” the professor viewed.
“Neutral mediators can solve the problem.”