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Africa’s largest dam powers dream of prosperity in Ethiopia — and fears of hunger in Egypt

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A colossal dam is near completion on Ethiopia’s stretch of the Nile, a project so large that it promises to set the country on a path to industrialization that could lift tens of millions out of poverty.

Downstream in Egypt, where the Nile meets the sea, a starkly different picture emerges: The dam is a giant, menacing barrier that could be used to hold back the source of nearly all the country’s water.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has stoked intense nationalistic fervor in both Ethiopia and Egypt. Ethiopians see building the dam as a fundamental right, one that could bring electricity to more than half of Ethiopians who don’t have access at home. Egyptians see their fate potentially falling into foreign hands.

The two countries — as well as Sudan, also heavily dependent on Nile water from Ethiopia — have tried in vain for years to forge a deal on how quickly the dam’s reservoir should be filled. Egypt, anticipating droughts, has demanded that it be filled slowly, over more than a decade. Ethiopia, which built the dam largely with its own money, wants the reservoir full and generating the maximum electricity as soon as the dam is complete — scheduled now for 2023.

With or without an agreement, the dam is an imminent reality, and people in both countries are preparing for what it may bring.

“Having seen it all,” said Moges Alemu, 84, a factory owner who in a bygone era was Emperor Haile Selassie’s flight technician, “I can say there has never been anything as highly anticipated in this country as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.”

Alemu invested $2 million in expanding his oxygen and nitrogen gas factory in anticipation of more- reliable electricity. In Egypt, where water scarcity already is a problem, farmers are moving away from water-intensive crops such as rice.

“Everyone is worried about the dam, not just me,” said Mohamed Abdelkhaleq, 69, a lifelong farmer in Egypt’s Nile Delta, where two-thirds of the country’s food is grown.

Even without the dam, many of the delta’s irrigation canals are running dry. A multitude of factors including climate change, poor maintenance, mismanagement and illegal water siphoning have dehydrated the already thirsty country. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says temperatures in some parts of Egypt are expected to rise between 1.8 and 3.6 degrees Celsius over the next century, requiring more water to grow crops as evaporation in the Nile and its canals increases.

Further water shortages and their effect on agriculture could have dire consequences for Egypt’s 100 million people — a population that now grows by 2 million per year.

“If the water becomes even less, we would not be able to plant anything. We would not be able to feed our animals,” said Abdelkhaleq. “I pray to God that this never happens.”

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