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Water Wise: The Future of African Crises

A piece by Johann Harmse – Johannesburg, South Africa


For thousands of years, the people of Egypt have controlled the Nile River, an incredible source of power.

Now, after nourishing and enabling thriving civilisations in one of most inhospitable deserts in the world, Ethiopia wants the Nile River to realise its own ambitions for greatness and prosperity.

In the last 15 years, Ethiopia has made major moves to improve its economic position as a country. Since 2005 it has maintained an average economic growth rate of about 10%, sent more than 5x as many students to university and brought 15% of the population out of poverty.

Maxar Technologies via AP

However, for many citizens, change is not happening fast enough. Approximately 45% of Ethiopians still do not have access to electricity, and demand for electrical power is rising by 30% each year. For decades Ethiopians have been told that the key to Ethiopia’s prosperous future was a publicly funded super-project, known today as The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

The 6,000MW of hydroelectric power this project plans to generate could double Ethiopia’s unstable energy supply, ensuring reliable electricity for millions of Ethiopians and offering an ambitious nation the chance to become a major power exporter in the region.

If the city-sized reservoir behind it began filling up today, the dam would take five to 10 years to fill completely. The only obstacle is Egypt.

Notably, nearly all of Egypt’s freshwater falls as rain in Sudan and Ethiopia. This water flows into the country through the immense Nile River, supporting agriculture and life in the region for thousands.

For almost a decade, Egypt has been engaged in talks with Ethiopia regarding the eventual operation of the dam. These talks have boiled down to three issues:

  1. Egypt wants a guaranteed minimum flow of Nile water into the country.

  2. The filling of the dam must happen over at least 12 years. Ethiopia is aiming for seven.

  3. Egypt wants a legally binding deal with formal mechanisms for resolving any disputes.

As of this week, the latest round of talks have failed to produce an agreement. The Dam has begun to fill naturally because of the current rainy season, keeping Ethiopia on-track with their reported plan to start filling the reservoir this month, regardless of an agreement with Egypt.

Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia's water minister, told the state media on July 15th of this year that: "The GERD water filling is being done in line with the dam's natural construction process,"

In a future defined by the potential unravelling of ecologies that support and connect us as neighbours, African countries will have many opportunities for brinkmanship.

In his most prominent public appearance since winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Ethiopia's prime minister remarked in October 2019 that: “If there is a need to go to war, we could get millions readied. If some could fire a missile, others could use bombs. But that's not in the best interest of all of us.”

What we need is examples of successful, collaborative and trust-based arrangements producing meaningful solutions to modern African crises.

In this modern story of the Nile, Egypt’s concern and Ethiopia’s ambition represent two crucial dimensions of Africa’s precarious future.

If we are to survive our dependence on the natural systems which have always sustained us, we will need to be able to trust those with whom these systems connect us. And if we are to realise our ambitions and deliver the prosperous future so many of us dream of, we will need to consider what the next set of African crises will look like and what overcoming them will require from us.

Will we be able to nurture regional trust and coordinate sophisticated solutions when droughts, hurricanes, locusts and viruses threaten us in novel and complicated ways? Or will modern African armies soon be engaged in war, fighting over the natural resources that have always defined, supported and connected us?

How we answer this question, more than how we handle any single crises will determine Africa’s future.

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