Ethiopia’s Nile dam project signals its intention to become an African power

The 4×4 roars off, kicking up a cloud of dust. With one hand on the wheel, the other stifling a yawn, Semegnew Bekele could do this trip with his eyes shut. A construction engineer, he has driven down this track at every hour of the day or night over the past three years. “Ordinary people are building an extraordinary project,” he says. He is referring to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam (Gerd), in the north-west corner of the country close to the border with Sudan. Four hours away from the town of Assosa more than 8,500 workers and engineers are labouring on a massive project to harness the waters of the Blue Nile.

The countdown has already started for Bekele: he has three years left to complete this concrete colossus. “I don’t feel like a special person,” he says, “just an engineer leading the project.” True enough, the driving force behind the dam is former prime minister Meles Zenawi, who ran the country for more than two decades. He was obsessed with the country’s rebirth. The structure will be built, whatever the cost, he asserted, upon laying the first stone in April 2011. He died the following year.

Ethiopia hopes to become an African lion. “We have finished with the syndrome of dependence,” says Zadig Abraha, deputy-head of Gerd coordination. “We want to recover our past glory,” he adds.

Some neighbouring countries are less upbeat about the project. Citing two treaties, dating from 1929 and 1959, Egypt claims a historic right over the Nile. It fears that the dam will restrict the flow of water. The treaties, signed with the UK and Sudan, allocate two-thirds of the Nile’s water resources to Egypt, with the right to veto any project affecting the world’s longest river.

“These treaties are now obsolete. We are entitled to build the dam,” says Alemayehu Tegenu, Ethiopia’s minister of water, energy and irrigation. “For a long time we derived no benefit from our river.”

Mohamed Ghoneim, the Egyptian representative to the African Union, disagrees. “It’s impossible to undertake a project on this scale without environmental impact studies to assess the consequences for downstream countries,” he counters, speculating on a range of potential disasters: salt may accumulate in the soil; land downstream could turn to desert or the flow be interrupted; the dam might even break. “The Nile is a vital resource for 80 million Egyptians,” he adds.

Full article: Ethiopia’s Nile dam project signals its intention to become an African power (The Guardian)

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