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When climate change meets geopolitics

Deteriorating security in Ethiopia, a country W.E.B. Dubois once described as where “the sunrise of human culture took place,” is deeply concerning. The last few months have seen a dramatic involution for a country that was once a poster child for sustainable development. The conflict between the government and rebel forces in Tigray is not just a matter of regional security, but a significant blow to the world’s efforts to fight climate change.

Just over ten years ago, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi presented Ethiopia’s Climate Resilience and Green Economy Strategy. It was the 17th Conference of Parties in Durban, under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The plan was hailed as a visionary, historic example of economic growth and climate agendas coming together, a new paradigm for development in a world of climate change.

But behind the jargon of “green growth,” the plan was the product of a complicated geopolitical history. During WWII, President Roosevelt invited Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie to visit hydraulic projects, such as Glenn Canyon Dam, that had transformed the American West. The trip took place in 1954, during the Eisenhower administration. By then, economic development was a central concern for poorer countries like Ethiopia, who looked at the American Progressive experience in hydropower as a model to replicate.

In the following years, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which at the time acted as a de-facto technical agency of the State Department, worked with the emperor’s government to produce a blueprint for the Blue Nile. The plan was an instrument of American Cold War strategy in the region. Far downstream, Gamal Nasser was playing Americans and Soviets against each other as he attempted to develop his own stretch of the river. Hydraulic development of the Nile’s upstream source was a powerful reminder to the newly elected Egyptian President that the Americans had their hand on the tap of his water supply.

Amongst the proposed projects in the plan was a hydroelectric dam close to the border with Sudan, the “Border Dam.” It was supposed to hold just over 11 billion cubic meters of water, with installed capacity of about 1.5 Gigawatts. The plan was far too ambitious for Selassie’s autocratic government and remained unused. Eventually, the emperor was replaced by Mengistu’s DERG regime in 1974, itself then chased away by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and its allies in 1991.

In May of 1992, Meles Zenawi, the leader of the TPLF and by then president of a transitional government, argued that the rebirth of Ethiopia would depend on the development of its substantial water resources. The time for the Blue Nile plan seemed to have come. But Egypt, fearing for its supply of water, vowed to fight any attempt to develop such infrastructure, a threat it could back with its military might, now confident of American support. The plan remained dormant.

Then came the Arab Spring. I was in Addis Ababa when, on the morning of February 11, 2011, the military came out in full force across the city, signaling an unusual concern for security. Two thousand miles downstream, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian autocrat, had just been defeated in Tahrir Square. That day, everything changed.

Up to that point, the government had been pursuing an Ethiopian green growth plan, but it had been singularly silent on how the vast, planned amounts of renewable energy would be delivered. Few knew of a key project, codenamed Project X, that was based on the Blue Nile blueprint. In fact, the Millennium Dam, built on the site of the Border Dam and subsequently renamed the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, was going to be the keystone of the country’s low-carbon rebirth.

Two months later, Prime Minister Zenawi laid the first stone. The dam—over-dimensioned by roughly five times compared to the original proposal—was to be the largest in Africa, an ambitious benchmark of the country’s aspirations, shrouded in a bright shade of green. In November of that same year, Zenawi presented the country’s Climate Resilient and Green Economy strategy in Durban, revealing his ambition to the world. A template for Green Growth had been set, anchored on a hydropower project that had been conceived over half a century earlier.

Meles Zenawi died unexpectedly in 2012. A few years later, the TPLF lost its grip on power to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, setting the stage for the current conflict. Development of the vast dam continued—it has just completed the second stage in filling its vast reservoir—but for the past year, the once star performer in the African low carbon transition has been descending into chaos. No matter what happens, recomposing an ethnically divided country scarred by alleged war crimes will be a fragile basis from which to deliver on the promise of the green growth.

The Ethiopian government continues to be ostensibly committed to its low carbon strategy. Egypt, incensed by what it views as uncooperative river development, has been increasing pressure to thwart it. This issue is going to dominate the regional context when nations convene in Sharm el Sheik for UNFCCC COP 27. There is little doubt that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will be looking upstream, trying to judge whether the troubles of its upstream rival might herald another reversal of fortunes along the Nile.  

Multilateral negotiations over climate can often appear to be a principled fight for a low carbon future against the reactionary forces of the incumbent fossil fuel economy. But Ethiopia’s potentially catastrophic setback shows that green growth, economic development, and regional geopolitics are inextricably bound in a complicated, path-dependent knot that can present insurmountable obstacles to progress. It is a crucial reminder that, for all the focus on technology and global targets, the political wrangling that shapes and has always shaped the pursuit of development and self-determination is the dominant engine that will define the world’s ability to win its fight against climate change.


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