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Egypt threatens war as Ethiopia prepares to fill its new dam

The Grand Renaissance Dam, decades in the planning and costing £4 billion, is finally nearing completion ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/BLOOMBERG

If their argument were only over water, the dispute that is threatening to throw Egyptian jets against Ethiopian concrete might be easily resolved.

But in the coming weeks, when Ethiopia starts filling the reservoir behind its Grand Renaissance Dam, the biggest in Africa and half a century in the making, it will touch nerves deeper even than the River Nile, the lifeblood of both countries.

On the one hand the project promises to connect millions of Ethiopians to the electricity grid for the first time, and embodies a defining national endeavour. The dam is an expression of the country’s evolution from a symbol of famine and war to Africa’s burgeoning economic powerhouse.

On the other is Egypt’s millennia-old claim to dominance in northern Africa, founded since the times of the pharaohs on control of a river with which its historic greatness has long been regarded as synonymous. More than 90 per cent of Egypt’s population of 100 million live along the Nile or in its vast delta, many of them farmers who rely on its waters for their livelihood.

Egypt says it regards the damming of the 4,100-mile river upstream as an existential threat. It fears its water supplies will be depleted, in part through evaporation from the reservoir, but in particular is demanding a binding legal agreement on how Ethiopia operates the dam, to prevent it simply turning off the flow in any future dispute. […]

President Sisi, 65, spoke more plainly during a recent visit to an airbase when he told Egypt’s pilots to “be prepared to carry out any mission on our borders or, if necessary, outside our borders”.

At the height of the sabre-rattling, even Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s Nobel peace prize-winning prime minister, warned: “No force can stop Ethiopia from building a dam. If there is need to go to war, we could get millions readied.”

If war does come, it could be a one-sided affair: Egypt’s military spend last year was $11.2 billion; Ethiopia’s was a fraction of that, at $350 million.

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