Dam of contention: Ethiopians unite around Nile River megaproject

In this file photo taken on December 26, 2019 A general view of the Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia. (AFP)
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Updated 30 June 2020

Dam of contention: Ethiopians unite around Nile River megaproject

  • Addis Ababa plans to start filling next month, despite demands from Cairo and Khartoum for a deal on the dam’s operations to avoid depletion of the Nile

ADDIS ABABA: Last week, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s press secretary took a break from official statements to post something different to her Twitter feed: A 37-line poem defending her country’s massive dam on the Blue Nile River.
“My mothers seek respite/From years of abject poverty/Their sons a bright future/And the right to pursue prosperity,” Billene Seyoum wrote in her poem, entitled “Ethiopia Speaks.”
As the lines indicate, Ethiopia sees the $4.6 billion (€4billion) Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam as crucial for its electrification and development.
But the project, set to become Africa’s largest hydroelectric installation, has sparked an intensifying row with downstream neighbors Egypt and Sudan, which worry that it will restrict vital water supplies.
Addis Ababa plans to start filling next month, despite demands from Cairo and Khartoum for a deal on the dam’s operations to avoid depletion of the Nile.
The African Union is assuming a leading role in talks to resolve outstanding legal and technical issues, and the UN Security Council could take up the issue Monday.
With global attention to the dam on the rise, its defenders are finding creative ways to show support — in verse, in Billene’s case, through other art forms and, most commonly, in social media posts demanding the government finish construction.
To some observers, the dam offers a rare point of unity in an ethnically diverse country undergoing a fraught democratic transition and awaiting elections delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

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The African Union is assuming a leading role in talks to resolve outstanding legal and technical issues.

Abebe Yirga, a university lecturer and expert in water management, compared the effort to finish the dam to Ethiopia’s fight against Italian would-be colonizers in the late 19th century.
“During that time, Ethiopians irrespective of religion and different backgrounds came together to fight against the colonial power,” he said.
“Now, in the 21st century, the dam is reuniting Ethiopians who have been politically and ethnically divided.”
Ethiopia broke ground on the dam in 2011 under then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who pitched it as a catalyst for poverty eradication.
Civil servants contributed one month’s salary towards the project that year, and the government has since issued dam bonds targeting Ethiopians at home and abroad.
Nearly a decade later, the dam remains a source of hope for a country where more than half the population of 110 million lives without electricity.
With Meles dead nearly eight years, perhaps the most prominent face of the project these days is water minister Seleshi Bekele, a former academic whose publications include articles with titles like “Estimation of flow in ungauged catchments by coupling a hydrological model and neural networks: Case study”.
As a government minister, though, Seleshi has demonstrated an ear for the catchy soundbite.
At a January press conference in Addis Ababa, he fielded a question from a journalist wondering whether countries besides Ethiopia might play a role in operating the dam.
With an amused expression on his face, Seleshi looked the journalist dead in the eye and responded simply, “It’s my dam.”
In those five seconds, a hashtag was born.
Coverage of the exchange went viral, and today a Twitter search for #ItsMyDam turns up seemingly endless posts hailing the project.
At recent events officials have even distributed T-shirts bearing the slogan to Ethiopian journalists, who proudly wear them around town.
Some non-Ethiopians have also gotten in on #ItsMyDam fever.
Anna Chojnicka spent four years living in Ethiopia working for an organisation supporting social entrepreneurs, though she recently moved to London.


Dam talks ‘at crossroads’ after Egypt rejects Ethiopian plea

In this file photo taken on December 26, 2019, a general view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia. (AFP)
Updated 3 min 53 sec ago

Dam talks ‘at crossroads’ after Egypt rejects Ethiopian plea

  • Sudan raises hopes of deal on eve of ministers' meeting

CAIRO: Egypt has rejected a request by Ethiopia to postpone a settlement on points of disagreement surrounding Ethiopia’s controversial Renaissance Dam.

Ethiopia wanted the issue to be referred to a technical committee, which will be formed to oversee implementation of the terms of the agreement.

Ethiopia’s request was submitted on the eighth day of the Renaissance Dam negotiations.

Egypt rejected the request, saying the points of disagreement are major technical issues.

The Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation said that two meetings for the technical and legal teams from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia will be held to try to solve the dispute over the dam.

Negotiations are sponsored by the African Union, representatives of the three countries and observers.

Cairo is calling for alternative ideas to deal with droughts and years of low revenue, the Egyptian ministry said.

Egypt also presented its vision regarding the annual operating rules and refilling, as part of an attempt to resolve technical disagreements between the three countries.

Sudan believes a compromise is possible on the project.

“In general, there has been progress on technical issues,” the Sudanese ministry said.

“There was also an extensive discussion on future development projects on the Nile and its relationship to water use between the three countries.”

The dam, which sits on the Nile’s main tributary, is upstream of Egypt and has the potential to control the flow of water to the country.

When fully operational, it will be the largest hydro-electric plant in Africa, providing power to 65 million Ethiopians who currently lack a regular electricity supply.

Ethiopia says it will start filling the dam to coincide with the rainy season, a move Egypt rejects.

The water ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia will meet on Sunday, in accordance to the agreed negotiating schedule, to reach solutions on the issue of the Renaissance Dam.

Experts from the three countries are scheduled to meet in a bid to resolve outstanding technical and legal issues surrounding the project.

Mohamed El-Sebai, a spokesman for the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation, said that the Egyptian delegation put forward a formula for resolving points of disagreement during the recent discussions, in parallel with technical and legal committee meetings.

Ethiopia sought to postpone any discussion until it started to fill the dam. It also set a condition that a technical committee be formed to discuss points of disagreement.

El-Sebai said that the final meetings will be on Sunday, and a final report will be submitted to the African Union.

Observers will sit with the delegations of each country and the technical committees.

He said that Ethiopia believes it is free to administer the Blue Nile and refuses to recognize any other country’s rights.

“They talk about it directly and indirectly, indicating that there is a great delay in the Ethiopian side in the negotiations.”

Former Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy said that there is a consensus in the Egyptian and Sudanese positions regarding some of the main elements in the Renaissance Dam issue, though there is a difference in the priorities of the two countries.

“The Renaissance Dam negotiations are at a crossroads, and some escalation has occurred. I believe that there are opportunities to reach a solution if there is political will, but there will be inevitable clashes if there is no solution,” Fahmy said.