Ethiopia's Great Renaissance Dam Risks Diplomatic Blowup

Built by Ethiopia, the massive Dam project is fueling tensions with Sudan and Egypt. The second filling, set to take place next month, risks making the area even more explosive.

The next filling up of the Great Renaissance Dam (GERD) reservoir is scheduled for July
The next filling up of the Great Renaissance Dam (GERD) reservoir is scheduled for July
Laura-Maï Gaveriaux

KHARTOUM — A sandstorm throws a thick red fog on Khartoum, making the Sudanese capital look like something out of a Martian chronicle by Ray Bradbury. Locals are used to these terrible haboubs, as they're called, tempests that can stop planes and paralyze traffic for hours. Still, Mariam feels like there are more of them now than there used to be.

The energetic 30-year-old runs a "guest house" in the al-Emtidad district. It's not the most popular part of the city, but not the most neglected either. The streets perpendicular to the main asphalt axis are only stony tracks, and mixed in with the small, newish buildings are coffee shops with plastic stools.

In his kitchen, Mariam opens the tap. A trickle of brown water escapes. "Every time the desert sends us its anger, we have blackouts, or end up with this disgusting muck," he says. "I'm going to have to have water bottles delivered once again to the residents. It costs us a fortune."

Every time the desert sends us its anger, we have blackouts, or end up with this disgusting muck

After a reform of the exchange rate system, regulated now by the Central Bank to put an end to the black market, prices have soared, complicating matters even more for a country whose economy was bled dry by Omar El Bashir's three-decade-long dictatorship (he was finally overthrown in April 2019) and the sanctions that came with it.

There are now queues in front of gas stations and bakeries as people struggle to meet their basic needs: bread, fuel and water, in sufficient quantities. It's the latter that is most lacking in Sudan. Last month, according to the Khartoum State Water Corporation, the parapublic distribution company, the capital's daily deficit amounted to nearly 900,000 cubic meters.

In landlocked regions of the country, deficiencies are recurrent — even in the south, which enjoys a humid climate. That's because precipitation is not very exploitable, due to its variability. The Nile remains the main water resource for a population of nearly 43 millions, more than 5 million of which live in the greater Khartoum area alone.

It comes as little surprise, therefore, that the Sudanese are concerned when they hear the country's foreign affairs minister talk about the next filling up of the Great Renaissance Dam (GERD) reservoir, scheduled for July, as a "national security issue."

Water worries

The dam, built by Ethiopia 45 kilometers south of the border and due to be completed next year, has fueled bitter diplomatic confrontations since construction began in 2011. The tensions come from unsettled historical disputes and recent geopolitical shifts, and from the enormous significance that Nile waters represent for people in all 10 of the countries involved: Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, and especially Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

Cairo was the first to sound off on what will be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, with a basin of 74 billion cubic meters (2.5 times the storage volume of the Aswan High Dam, in Egypt) ad generating capacity of 6,000 megawatts that will allow Ethiopia to double its current electricity production.

Sudanese cool themselves off in the Nile amid high temperature and electricity power cuts in Khartoum in April 2021 — Photo: Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua /ZUMA

Egypt, with a population of roughly 100 millions, gets a staggering 97% of its water from the Nile, and says it fears a decrease in flow and a loss of sediment necessary for soil fertilization. More specifically, it predicts a drop in annual water consumption from 570 cubic meters per person to 500 cubic meters (one of the lowest rates in the world).

But Bernard Tardieu, an engineer and chairman of the energy and climate change commission of the Academy of Technologies in Paris, says Egypt's concerns are misplaced. "A dam doesn't siphon water off. It collects it, and the only real loss is precisely at the reservoir, through evaporation," he says. "For the Great Renaissance, the evaporation rate will be around 3.6%, much less than that of the Aswan Dam."

Tardieu says that the real technical issue is the speed at which the reservoir is filled. The electrical power of the turbines depends not only on the flow of water, but also on the height of fall between the level of the lake and that of the river, downstream. To operate at full capacity, the water level will need to be raised even higher than it is after the reservoir's first filling up, last summer, and that could, in fact, affect the flow received by Sudan and Egypt, the dam expert explains.

Soured relations

Ethiopian Electric Power, the public company behind the project, originally presented a three-year schedule for filling up the reservoir but has since agreed to a five- to seven-year plan, to mitigate the impact on Sudan and Egypt. But either way, Cairo continues to oppose the mega project.

Khartoum too, which was initially open to the Great Renaissance, is now siding with Egypt in what one French diplomat calls "a marriage of convenience" formed over a "trompe-l'oeil crisis — it's all primarily political and symbolic."

Ethiopia ignored Sudanese warnings by launching a war in camera in Tigray last November

A senior Sudanese official acknowledges that the dam would benefit his county by making flooding less likely during the rainy season and providing more water during dry spells. The problem, rather, is that Ethiopia ignored Sudanese warnings by launching a war in camera in Tigray last November. As a result, the mood between the two countries is no longer for cooperation.

"Despite our reluctance, we agreed to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's request to close our borders to Tiger militias to prevent them from using our territory as a rear base, and to open them instead only to refugees," the diplomat goes on to say.

A few months later, Abiy Ahmed — a Nobel Prize winner transformed into a war chief — even went so far as to revive a border conflict that had been frozen for 25 years by proclaiming that the El-Fashaga Triangle is Ethiopian. In response, Sudanese troops moved to end the de facto Ethiopian occupation of an area of farmland that until recently, Khartoum had been willing to let Amhara farmers use.

All of this raises new questions about the terms of a project that was also supposed to provide Sudan with a new source of electricity. An advisor with the U.S. government, which has just decided on sanctions against Ethiopia, understands Khartoum's concerns. "This prime minister," he says, in reference to Abiy Ahmed, "is unpredictable and makes worrying decisions."

And yet, the project itself — one that looks to electrify a country of 120 million inhabitants, where 70% of the population is still dependent on wood for cooking — is legitimate. How long will Ethiopia be able to hold in its modernization ambitions, by isolating itself, and thwarting its allies of yesterday?

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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