Ethiopia Claims High Ground In Right-To-Nile Debate

Tigrai Online
Sept 26 2010

An Ethiopian DamThe Nile River is almost always associated with Egypt. Think back to Herodotus, who called Egypt the "gift of the Nile.” Or to baby Moses, whose river-borne bassinet made it all the way to Pharaoh's inner circle.

Egypt still draws more water from the Nile than any other country. But it doesn’t contribute any water to the Nile.

Egypt is mostly desert, so rivers and rain from eight or nine other countries make the Nile flow. And those other countries want some of their water back.

Ethiopians say they could use some of the Nile’s headwaters to become a hydropower superpower in Africa. And they’re claiming the geographical and moral high ground.

Ethiopia is home to the Blue Nile, a major tributary of the river. But Ethiopians have had little access to the Nile.

From its humble beginnings in the western highlands, the Blue Nile, known locally as the Abay, (pronounced ah-BYE) quickly cuts through deep gorges — too deep for most people to reach. Then, it’s off to Sudan, where it merges with the White Nile and proceeds northward to the Mediterranean Sea.

Holy, Healing Source

High up in the soggy, green hills of western Ethiopia, is a place called Gish Abay, where locals say the true source of the Blue Nile is located. Despite its claim to greatness, Gish Abay, isn’t exactly a major tourist attraction.

That may be because the source — a spring that feeds the headwater — is under lock and key. The Ethiopian Orthodox church has built a shack over the source, and the priests don't cotton easily to visitors. They'll let you enter only if you meet all of the criteria: You must be Christian, male, barefoot and fasting.

There’s not much of a division between the religious and the secular in Gish Abay. In years past, this region was hard hit by famine, and many say they stick closely to the rules of the church on pain of bringing another catastrophe upon the community. Government leaders tend to defer to local inclinations.

The source of the Blue Nile is believed to be holy. People drink from the headwaters daily for good health.

Bosana Hailu came all the way from St. Louis, Mo., to taste the Abay. Hailu won’t say what her ailment is, but in addition to treatment from doctors in the United States, she says she needs the extra insurance that only holy water can provide.

“It’s my culture,” Hailu says.

Harnessing Hydropower

Ethiopians are hoping for health and wealth from the headwaters of the Blue Nile. The government has recently unveiled a multimillion-dollar hydropower plant nearby called the Tana-Beles project. The underground facility is not technically a dam because it uses Lake Tana as its reservoir. But it performs many of the same functions as a dam.