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Don't Torpedo The Dam, Full Speed Ahead For Ethiopia's Nile Project

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Don't Torpedo The Dam, Full Speed Ahead For Ethiopia's Nile Project

Don't Torpedo The Dam, Full Speed Ahead For Ethiopia's Nile Project

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're also tracking an African conflict over water that led to the threat of war. That threat has receded for the moment along the Nile River. Both Egypt and Ethiopia rely on Nile waters. And this week, they signed an agreement allowing Ethiopia to continue building a grand hydropower dam. NPR's Gregory Warner reports.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is grand in almost every way; in size, 8,500 laborers are said to be working on it night and day; in its ambition to provide cheap power to millions of Ethiopians and their neighbors. It's even grand in the Ethiopian mind. Funded without help from America or the West, the renaissance in the dam's title refers to a 70-year-old vision of Africa rising on the strength of its own abundant resources. Mammo Muchie is a professor of African innovation in Pretoria.

MAMMO MUCHIE: If you say that a renaissance means you want independence, you want freedom, one of the key things you need to have is to harness electricity.

WARNER: But to Egypt, all the way downstream, Ethiopia's dam is spun as a threat. The former Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, once warned that every drop of water stolen from the Nile would be defended by a drop of Egyptian blood.

MUCHIE: What Egypt has done is play a kind of Nile superpower.

WARNER: You may be wondering - a hydroelectric dam by definition doesn't steal water from downstream, it just draws power from its flow, except for this one time just after the dam is built and the reservoir needs to be filled. A reservoir this huge - 63 billion cubic meters - is roughly as much water as Egypt gets from the Nile over the course of an entire year.

AARON WOLF: The fill period is the most sensitive because that's when flow downstream really is decreased.

WARNER: Aaron Wolf runs the program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation at the University of Oregon. He says a key issue will be how fast Ethiopia fills the reservoir, fast enough to satisfy its grand ambitions, slow enough not to plunge Egyptian farmers into drought. The long-term threat, though, is less to Egypt than to Ethiopian tribes, whose traditional way of life depends on access to waterways.

WOLF: On fishing from the river, on mining from the river, and they won't have access any longer. So like all big dams, there are going to be impacts. But if all things were equal, you want your dams upstream.

WARNER: Egypt and Ethiopia have now signed a deal with Sudan as broker. It gives Egypt some dibs on the electricity that will be generated and sets up timelines for checking its impact on water levels. But the issues are far from over in part because Egypt and Ethiopia have been fighting over these Nile waters for so long. Colonial-era agreements gave Egypt a virtual monopoly on the waters, and as with all water conflicts, there's a long history of distrust.

WOLF: Now, I grew up in San Francisco, and I grew up resenting Southern California for their incessant water needs. The corollary to that is water also brings people into a room who wouldn't normally sit in a room together. So it brings Arabs and Israelis together, Egyptians and Ethiopians, Northern California and Southern California.

WARNER: He says when it comes to water, even the bitterest rivals end up eventually having to negotiate. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.

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