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Ethiopia: Dam dispute stokes anti-Egypt feelings

A general view of the Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, on 26 December 2019. - The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 145-metre-high, 1.8-kilometre-long concrete colossus is set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa. Across Ethiopia, poor farmers and rich businessmen alike eagerly await the more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity officials say it will ultimately provide. Yet as thousands of workers toil day and night to finish the project, Ethiopian negotiators remain locked in talks over how the dam will affect downstream neighbours, principally Egypt. [EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images]
A general view of the Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, on 26 December 2019 [EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP/Getty Images]

For the last 12 years, around four days a week, when the light appears over the skies of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, Tsehay Wulo, 55, ascends to Entoto, a forested mountain north of the capital.

Throughout the week, hundreds of impoverished young and old women roam the eucalyptus forest which stands 3,200 meters (nearly 10,500 feet) above the sea level to collect firewood.

Some 68 million people of the 110 million population of the Horn of Africa nation has no access to electricity, while 24% of the population lives on less than $1.90 a day.

Consequently, they use the oldest cooking fuel — firewood, charcoal, and animal dung — which makes up 90% of household energy consumption. In Addis Ababa, some 35% of household fuelwood is gathered from Entoto.

Ethiopia: ‘We will start filling the Renaissance Dam by autumn’ 

Electrified life

On a windy afternoon, Wulo arrived at her client’s home carrying on her back a weighty bundle of firewood she had gathered from Entoto.

Wulo told Anadolu Agency that collecting and selling firewood was her hand-to-mouth life’s work.

“It takes me five to six hours to collect and sell the firewood to feed my two children,” she said in a subdued tone.

“I am very poor and don’t have electricity, so I also collect firewood for my family,” she added.

Wulo sold the firewood to her client Behabtu, 52, for $2.

Behabtu, who lives in Ketchene — a ghetto-type poor neighborhood located in the northern part of the capital — had been waiting for the firewood before noon, but Wulo arrived late in the afternoon, and no one from the family of seven had lunch.

READ: Sudan calls for resumption of Renaissance Dam talks 

‘Electricity coming’

As Behabtu and her sister Werkaferawu Shenkute began baking Injera, a spongy flatbread made from a tinny teff seed, a cloud of suffocating smoke and heat filled their kitchen made up of plastics.

Behabtu told Anadolu Agency that her family and all her poor neighbors hope that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) would transform their lives.

“Whenever we meet, we discuss when the dam’s electric power will reach us,” she said, adding: “God willing, it will come, and I will get rid of this stove which has been hurting my health for decades.”

Shenkute said that cooking the day’s meal with firewood was laborious, and it is increasingly becoming expensive. “This is our life, what can we do?”

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (L), Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) and Sudan’s President Omar Al Bashir (not seen) take part in a tripartite summit regarding a dam on the Nile River, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on February 10, 2019 [Presidency of Egypt / Handout / Anadolu Agency]

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (L), Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) and Sudan’s President Omar Al Bashir (not seen) take part in a tripartite summit regarding a dam on the Nile River, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 10 February 2019 [Presidency of Egypt / Handout / Anadolu Agency]

‘Colonial treaties dying’

Hailu Abraham, an official of the GERD’s Popular Participation and Mobilization Coordination Council, told Anadolu Agency that the $5 billion- dam which has been constructed since 2001 “is 72%+ completed”.

Abraham noted that the purpose of the GERD was to provide energy to those 68 million Ethiopians and fledging industry without causing significant harm to Egypt and Sudan.

But Egypt, which depends on the Nile for 90% of its water, fears that the dam will reduce its “historic water rights on the Nile’’ which was enshrined in the 1929 and 1959 colonial-era agreements that provided Egypt with 55.5 billion cubic meters of annual Nile water flow.

According to Abraham, the conception and construction of the GERD had “significantly altered” the efficacy of Egypt’s “historic water rights on the Nile River.”

“We have managed to build the GERD, and shattered the very foundations of Egypt’s reliance on colonial-era agreements,” Abraham said.

READ: Sisi sends messages across Africa about Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam 

People’s dam

According to Abraham, Ethiopia had devised a-self funding scheme that succeeded in generating billions of dollars from the government, and highly motivated citizens at home and abroad.

“Students, low-income pensioners, shoe shiners and even death-row inmates have bought bonds, and or made a donation of a total of 13.8 billion birr [$419.4 million] to date,” he added.

Wulo, Bahabtu and many people of the poor neighborhood had also donated a “small amount of money”.

Unity, animosity

Abdulahi Mohammed, 29, contributed his two-year salary to the GERD, he told Anadolu Agency, adding that the dam was his generation’s identity.

When asked about the dam and Egypt’s position, Mohammed angrily responded, saying: “It is our dam, and Egypt cannot stop it.”

Earlier last week, Seleshi Bekele, Water and Energy Minister and a lead negotiator in the stalled trilateral negotiations among Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, told The Reporter, a weekly newspaper, that throughout the talks, Egypt had been “trying to deny Ethiopia’s right to utilize the waters of Nile.”

“The Egyptians determinedly wanted to impose on us the colonial-era agreements,” Bekele noted, adding: “Egypt’s ongoing media and the diplomatic campaign against Ethiopia does not stop us from completing the GERD.”

Yeshewas Assefa, the chairman of Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, an opposition party, told Anadolu Agency that GERD was a realization of Ethiopia’s national sovereignty and the right to development.

“We and all in opposition camp support the Ethiopian government’s position in the negotiations as long as it is based on maintaining our national interest, without harming Egypt,” Assefa said.

READ: Egypt’s options in the Renaissance Dam crisis 

‘God is with us’

Ethiopians always share the first baked Injera with hot chili with people around. They also serve coffee and thank God for nourishing the daily bread.

After serving the meal, Behabtu said: “My husband, children, and neighbors feel angry at that country [Egypt] that opposes the dam. Why do they hate us?’’

She added: “God has always been with us and our lives will change.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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