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.


Palestinian refugees benefit from revival of embroidery technique of tatreez

Updated 28 November 2020

Palestinian refugees benefit from revival of embroidery technique of tatreez

  • Nadine Maalouf and Nesrine El-Tibi set out to re-establish art form while making a humanitarian impact
  • Their social enterprise employs refugee artists and sells their artwork at fairs across the MENA region

DUBAI: When you think of the ancient embroidery technique of tatreez, what usually springs to mind is decorative clothing and elegant patterns on items like cushions. But for 81 Designs — a family-run social enterprise — it is an opportunity for a more comfortable and prosperous future for the female Palestinian refugee community in southern Lebanon.

Nadine Maalouf, alongside her mother Nesrine El-Tibi, is providing a group of refugee artists with a monthly salary by employing them and selling their artwork at fairs across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

“The work is quite detailed and it’s unconventional so it takes a lot of time,” Maalouf said. “Some pieces take four months for one item. We work towards the fair every year because it takes about six months to launch the project from its beginning to its end.”

Maalouf believes more social enterprises like hers could be created to help others. (Supplied)

Starting the company in 2015, then launching two years later at the annual UAE-based fair Art Dubai, Maalouf and El-Tibi set out to re-establish tatreez as an art form while making a positive humanitarian impact.

Three years later and the company employs 20 Palestinian refugee artists creating unique pieces that have preserved and modernized the ancient art of tatreez.

The inspiration for launching 81 Designs came to Maalouf following the birth of her first son. Having studied art direction and art history in her younger years, she worked at various jobs after graduation, but none incorporated the artistic elements she loved.

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Palestinian artists employed by 81 Designs to create pieces that preserve and modernize tatreez.

“I developed this idea because I was doing a lot of research about traditional textiles and artistry,” she said. “I kept on asking myself, ‘Why are we only seeing a one-dimensional form of tatreez?’

“It is an art form, so I wanted to figure out a way to recreate or give a stronger platform to these ladies to be able to sustain what they do as individuals.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a blow to businesses throughout the Middle East and has caused social and economic problems for many. For 81 Designs, however, it provided an opportunity to work on a non-profit collaboration with Abu Dhabi Health Services on the project “I Am Committed” to help tackle the coronavirus.

“We created wristbands for people to receive at every testing site at the UAE and they were sponsored by different companies throughout the community,” said Maalouf. “The wristbands were encouraging people to get tested.”

Maalouf and El-Tibi set out to re-establish tatreez as an art form while making a positive humanitarian impact. (Supplied)

Maalouf believes more social enterprises like hers could be created to help others. “When you create a social enterprise where you use someone’s skill set to provide a job for them, I think that alone in itself inspires others to do the same,” she said.

“You see a lot of different social enterprises sprouting up from the region and that impact in itself is important to create a hub of opportunities for those who are less fortunate, but not treating them as a charity case because these people are amazing.”

However, 81 Designs was not always destined to be a success. Having contacted several NGOs around Lebanon for initial funding, some of them found the idea to be too abstract and something that would not work, while others were not able to visualize the end product. But none of these hurdles held back Maalouf’s eventual success.

“When you set up as a business, you do face challenges and you just need to keep on going. Believe in yourself. Believe that what you’re actually creating can impact others in a positive way.”

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This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.