Ambling Livestock and Fights Over the Nile’s Water : Bahir Dar, Ethiopia.

Failed trip to see Blue Nile Falls left me curious about the battle over the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

I count a failed trip to Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Falls as a win on two counts.

Our trip from the city of Bahir Dar towards the fall gave me a better understanding of Ethiopia’s Christmas feasts and the national obsession with shared meals.

And if my husband and I had not ventured out of Bahir Dar toward the falls, I might not have developed a great interest in Africa’s biggest fight over water. Egypt is contesting Ethiopia’s plans for eventually filling a roughly $5 billion hydropower dam on the Blue Nile.

My husband and I visited Ethiopia in early January 2020. Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christians were preparing for Christmas when we arrived in Bahir Dar. The holiday is celebrated with a feast to end a 40-day fasting period. Many Ethiopian Orthodox Christians abstain from meat and dairy ahead of Christmas, relying during this time on “fasting food.”

In reality, Ethiopian fasting food is incredibly delicious. It includes many well-seasoned lentil dishes and even “fasting” flavors of fruit-based treats on offer at ice creams shops.

But Ethiopia is a nation that loves its lamb and beef dishes. That was evident from the livestock traffic jam we saw on the outskirts of Bahir Dar.

There was a steady stream of men and teenage boys leading cows and sheep toward the city. Cars and autorickshaws and trucks moved slowly on the outbound lane. The drivers had to take care not to come too close to the inbound traffic of farmers and animals headed to town on foot and on hoof.

We’d had hired a driver through a travel agency to take us from Bahir Dar to the nearby Blue Nile Falls. We knew before we left that the falls would not be at their best. January tends to be one of the driest times of year in Ethiopia. We guessed there would be few other tourists visiting.

But we didn’t realize this meant we’d attract a very large crowd. More than a dozen would-be guides gathered around our rented truck. We asked our driver to keep the doors shut while we figured out what we wanted to do. He instead allowed the pushiest of the would-be guides into the truck. The most aggressive guy leaned over the front seat to insist we go with him.

I want to stress that we didn’t feel at at any risk of theft or injury during our quick stop by the Blue Nile Falls.

I’ve visited more than 50 countries. As a group, Ethiopians stand out for being among the kindest and most friendly people I’ve met. Ethiopia is a safe country for travelers, at least for those who stick with the popular tourists sites, as we did.

At Blue Nile Falls, my husband and I were just on the wrong side of the question of supply and demand. Many people wanted to work that day as guides, and we were the only potential customers around that afternoon.

So we felt hassled — and the weather was hot. We decided to head back to Bahir Dar. A hike out to the falls in dry season didn’t seem worth the agita. On the drive back, we saw more of the ambling livestock parade.

For many Ethiopians, rising prices have put beef and lamb out of reach.

Writing in Le Monde, Nathalie Tissot illustrated what a recent roughly 25 percent spike in the cost of food meant in Ethiopia by telling one family’s story.

The father of the family, Dereje Getachew, said he usually brought a portion of meat to share with neighbors to celebrate Christmas. But this year, that purchase would have cost more than 6 000 Ethiopian birrs, or $185 U.S. dollars or about 160 euros. So this year, the Ethiopian father will share eggs and chicken instead, Tissot reported.

Many other Ethiopians struggle to get enough food of any kind. About 8.5 million people in Ethiopia experience what’s termed food insecurity, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA).

Ethiopia is part of the region called the Horn of Africa. Since 2016, the region has experienced both droughts and floods. Above-normal rains led to a surge of what sounds like a Biblical plague, with desert locusts destroying crops in the region.


Still, Ethiopia has been considered an economic success story.

“A decade of rapid growth, underpinned by strong policies, has supported a reduction in poverty and improved living standards in Ethiopia,” wrote David Lipton, an official with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in a December 2019 statement.

The total size of Ethiopia’s economy — as measured by real gross domestic product (GDP) — grew by an estimated 9 percent in 2018-19 period, IMF said.

Much of that gain came from increased manufacturing. There have been many stories published about textile plants centered around Ethiopia’s Hawassa industrial park. Well-known companies including H&M and Levi’s have set up production in recent years in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s government wants to increase the nation’s supply of electricity in part to expand its industrial base. It intends to harness untapped power of its Blue Nile with the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The plan is to fill a reservoir that would be even larger than Ethiopia’s beautiful Lake Tana, and then have the water spin turbines as it passes through the dam on its way north.

North of Ethiopia, the Blue Nile later joins with the White Nile around Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. They then form the river that gives Egypt life.

That’s not flowery language. The Nile means life for Egypt.

About 90 percent of Egypt’s water comes from the Nile, and about 57 percent of that Nile water stemming from the Blue Nile, Keith Johnson wrote in a January 2020 article in Foreign Policy.

This map from an 1892 book describes what I remember seeing on a 2005 trip to Egypt, a narrow strip of a verdant green agricultural belt that ends abruptly with sands.

As you might guess, the Egyptian government is — to put it mildly — freaked out about the work underway for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Ethiopia has been thinking about a Blue Nile dam for decades.

There were even plans drawn up for projects in the 1960s by a little known U.S. federal agency that reshaped much of the American West through 20th century hydro-projects. The work of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. underpins many of the persisting — and in some cases, worsening — fights about water in America. (Read Marc Reisner’s excellent Cadillac Desert if you have any interest in the history of U.S. water fights.)

Egypt has long objected to any plans that might hamper the flow of Nile water. But the Arab Spring of the early 2010s provided a major distraction from Egypt’s efforts to guard its claims on the Nile. Ethiopian officials in 2011 thus got to work on plans for what’s now known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Instead of stopping the project cold, Egyptian officials now fight to try to dictate the terms for how quickly Ethiopia can fill the Renaissance dam.

The Ethiopian government last year said 80 percent of the construction of the main dam has been completed, as well as 96 percent of the work on its flood outlets.

Egypt has sought to stretch the filling period over 12 to 20 years, while Ethiopia wants it done over five to seven years, Johnson wrote in his 2020 Foreign Affairs article.

Ethiopia, for its part, wants to see a speedy return on the nearly $5 billion project that successive governments have sold as critical for the country’s economic future,” Johnson wrote.

Ethiopia once proposed to jointly fund, operate, and own the Renaissance dam with Sudan and Egypt, Jean Kumagai reported in 2016 in IEEE Spectrum, the magazine edited by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

But that kind of cooperation never emerged.

Instead, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt have been involved in several rounds of meetings mediated by U.S. officials about the dam. On Feb. 26, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy announced on Facebook that the nation would not attend the next round of slated talks about the Renaissance dam.

There are concerns about Washington pressuring Ethiopia to accept terms more favorable to Egypt, Addisu Lashitew, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a Feb. 18 posting.

As a major donor to Ethiopia, the United States potentially has significant leverage in the debate over the dam, according to Lashitew. President Donald Trump might want to use this to get an agreement that would strengthen U.S. ties with Egypt, in “the wake of his controversial peace plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” according to Lashitew. He urged officials not to rush into a deal favored by the Trump administration, and to instead seek a framework to serving the “common long-term interest” of the three Nile nations — Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

It may appear next to impossible to withstand the mounting pressure from Washington, but the costs of succumbing to it will be monumental,” Lashitew wrote.

Here is a bibliography of works I’ve used to try to better understand Ethiopia. On the subject of manufacturing, this 2018 Intercept article by Laura Dean was a standout.

Journalist fascinated by art, history, medicine, politics and food. Has visited museums on six continents, eaten in more than 50 nations. Knows FDA, Congress.

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