Playing James Bond on the Nile

Eelke Kraak goes overboard on honey wine and finds himself in the middle of a true spy thriller, facing off against his nemesis’ henchmen and -women.


On the 2nd of April 2011, Prime Minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi made a remarkable announcement at a press conference that was convened not in the capital Addis Ababa, but in the unremarkable town of Guba 700 kilometres away. “Not far from this place”, he told the gathering, “Ethiopia just started construction on the largest dam of the Nile river, or of any African river for that matter.” The dam, which was later re-branded the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, would stand 145 metres tall, submerge an area twice that of the country’s largest lake, and the hydropower station below the dam would quadruple Ethiopia’s energy production.

The location of the dam on the Nile river makes the plan a divisive venture. This arm of the Nile flows from Ethiopia through Sudan to Egypt, who both rely on the water supply for their irrigated agriculture. Egypt in particular, has always feared that Ethiopia would interfere with the source of its water. Its former president, Anwar Sadat, once even stated that his country was prepared to go to war over water. Finding out more about this project in order to make sense of the geopolitics, seems more the task of a spy than of a humble PhD student.

Only three days before Zenawi’s announcement, I had arrived in Addis Ababa for a conference on hydropower in Africa, sponsored by Sinohydro, a Chinese state-owned company that prides itself as being the largest dam-builder in world. The conference and the ensuing five weeks of fieldwork were to provide me with useful data for the empirical chapters of my PhD. My work on the politics of transboundary rivers and dams brought me to Central Asia previously, and now I found myself in Ethiopia studying the Nile amid the pomp and circumstance of a new dam.

Learning about dams.

I actually found out about the new dam a day before Zenawi’s speech. As research goes, I was at a place not unlike our college bar, with the Ethiopian minister of water and the CEO of the country’s power utility (and perhaps a hundred other conference attendees) to celebrate the successful completion of the conference. We had some injera with tibs and kitfo¹, while I was placed in a far corner among the interns, assistants and other minions.

Under the influence of more than a glass of honey wine I dared to introduce myself to these two dignitaries. Although they accepted my business card seemingly disinterested, during our brief conversation they slipped the big news of the next day, probably also under the influence of more than a glass of honey wine. More importantly, they introduced me to high-profile policy-makers in the ministry from whom I learned a great deal about the logic of this dam and its implications.

The reader will be excused for thinking that the timing of my trip and the gathering of this information was based on coincidence and luck, but the methodology section of my thesis speaks of research skills instead. As it often goes, listening to the town’s gossip is more fruitful than formal interviews and long policy documents.

The new dam is part of a long and turbulent history of water management in the Nile, of which Moses managing the seven meagre years in biblical times is perhaps the earliest example. The river has a notoriously high seasonal and inter-annual variability which makes agriculture quite the challenge. Reservoirs that are created by dams provide storage that is theoretically the answer to variability. Yet it comes at a cost too. In the Nile basin alone, millions of people have been displaced and even more had their livelihoods altered or destroyed by the impact of dams. Because of the unequal distribution of costs and benefits, no project is without controversy.

Although Ethiopia has had aspirations to build a large dam on the Nile for decades, the start of construction of the new dam came at a geopolitically opportune moment. The dam was announced only a couple of weeks after President Mubarak of Egypt was ousted during the popular uprising in his country. Sudan organised its referendum on the secession of its southern part only two months earlier. With both downstream states that traditionally oppose Ethiopian water developments occupied with their own business, nothing would stand in the way of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

The paradox of Ethiopia is that, although 86 per cent of the world’s longest river originates in its territory, there are still massive shortages of water, food and electricity, leading to famines and arrested development. This cynical contradiction has been milked out well by the country’s politicians and the development industry and in the last decade Ethiopia has been re-branded as the ‘water tower of Africa’ to attract investment rather than humanitarian aid.

A propaganda banner, proudly strung across Addis Ababa’s central Meskel Square, pictures Meles Zenawi not only with children and schoolbooks, but also among fertile agricultural fields. The text lauds the upcoming Ethiopian Renaissance and is lined with photos of large hydropower dams. Discursive depictions like this suggest that the new dam is much more than just a response to the country’s energy needs. Political theorists Timothy Mitchell describes this phenomenon well in his book Rule of Experts when he observed that “large dams offered a way to build not just irrigation and power systems, but nation-states themselves”.

A hegemonic discourse that directly equates the dam with development is also utilised to raise the required funds for the dam, which are estimated at a prohibitive $5 billion. The government has issued bonds that are marketed towards its own population to finance this dam, a novel strategy for any African state. The bonds come in uniquely small nominations, starting with the equivalent of $20, but the interest rate of 4 per cent after a period of 5 to 10 years is much smaller than the risk of the project or the devaluation of the currency would justify. “This does not matter”, said Feleke, my driver in Addis Ababa, “because now the population finally has the chance to do something for the country.”

How circumstantial the comments of a taxi driver may be, they hint at a broader strategy of the government that does not just raise finance for the dam, but also enrols the population in the controversial project. What makes this dam different from previous large-scale top-down interventions is that the dam is not just an elite pet project anymore, but quite literally owned by the population. Unfortunately, this does not make the project less contentious or more transparent.

The turbulent waters of field research.

A couple of weeks earlier, while still in the UK, I had met with the Ethiopian ambassador in London for an interview. I was hoping to gauge the mood, find out about the general sentiment towards nosy researchers, and ask some general questions on government policy. Instead, fearing that I was yet another anti-dam protester, he gave me his regular tirade against what he calls neo-colonial NGOs who prefer the lives of butterflies over the developments of human beings. I applied for my visa during this embassy visit, which was perhaps not the smartest move.

Indeed, in Ethiopia there were remarkably many people that were ‘expecting’ me. After just a couple of days, for instance, I was approached in my hotel by a young lady whom I suspected to have a rather questionable profession. But instead of complimenting me on my blond hair or making shameful and even unspeakable proposals, she inquired after my research results and asked when I would visit the dam site. How amazing, I thought, no girls in Europe are interested in my research!

Talking this through with my contacts in Addis Ababa, I was warned to be careful. Ethiopia has one of the largest internal security organisations in the world that was originally set up and trained by the Stasi, back in the days that Ethiopia was a staunch East German ally. Prime Minister Zenawi is not the biggest fan of opposition movements, as his crackdown after the stolen 2005 elections suggests, and he would not take critique on his pet project lightly. Indeed, the girl’s intentions were probably beyond a general interest in the geography of dams, but without the sound effects and background music spy movies usually have it is hard to interpret the trickiness of the situation.

At the same time, I found out more and more about the murky geopolitics of the dam. As was expected, relationships between Ethiopia on the one hand, and Sudan and Egypt on the other, were deteriorating. Sudan and Egypt have distributed virtually all Nile water amongst themselves by virtue of two dubious legal agreements dating from 1929 and 1959. A dam of this size is bound to have a significant impact on the hydrology of the river. It will take years of decreased flow to fill the 63 km3 reservoir and the dam has the potential to make the water needs of Egyptian farmers second to energy demands in Ethiopia.

Reality does not need to look so grim. With a storage facility in the cool mountain valleys of Ethiopia, Egypt could decrease the volume of its inefficient reservoir behind the High Aswan Dam – a place where currently 10 per cent of the Nile waters evaporate. A decent framework of cooperation could optimise electricity provision for Ethiopia as well as water supply to Egypt and Sudan: a win-win solution (albeit a very expensive one if we include the costs of the dam).

But rather than talking about some of the opportunities the dam offers, the Egyptian and Ethiopian vox populi echo the threat uttered by former President Anwar Sadat decades ago. Rumours over an impending water war circulate internet forums and the popular press in both Egypt and Ethiopia. The Ethiopian news site published an article in April 2011 under the forbidding title “Will this be the next Middle East water war?”. In a widely copied but ungrounded argument it notices that Egypt had already instructed its military to prepare for any eventuality regarding the water dispute over the new dam.

In contrast, Egyptian diplomats have tread more cautiously and met with Meles Zenawi a couple of times since the fall of Mubarak in order to discuss the dam. There seems to be a clear distinction between popular geopolitics and formal geopolitics, which should dissuade a water war.

Discharging the tension.

I was to present my first findings in a presentation to the ambassador of the Netherlands at the end of my stay in Addis Ababa; a range of other diplomats were invited, including some from Egypt and Sudan. The event got cancelled last minute. The ambassador informed me that he was called to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to explain why the Netherlands would support opposition to the dam and development of the Ethiopia. In diplomatic terms he was urged to cancel my presentation, because it would give the wrong sign of Dutch intentions. Although I had not even formulated my conclusions yet, it was feared by the authorities that my talk would not fit in the formal Ethiopian discourse.

Back in Oxford, I reflected on my trip with mixed feelings. Interestingly, perhaps the difference between a field researcher and a spy is not that big after all. Both are generating unique knowledge with specific goals in mind (military intelligence or an obscure publication that a handful of people will read). Already, I was dreaming away of a career running through the night in black tie, attending glitzy parties with glamorous people, and reporting back on my findings by microchip.

But my academic supervisor managed to put my feet back on the ground. She is much more advanced in her academic-spy career, being banned from Russia for an indeterminable number of years for activities undermining the state. “Eelke, the main risk you run with these experiences”, she advised me, “is that they make you find your findings much more interesting than they really are. Why don’t you write up your results in a nice 100,000 word format first, and then we’ll talk again.” A year and a bit later, I doubt that my work can stir more than a tiny academic debate on the nature of some obscure geographic theory, let alone make a high priority microchip, but the experience gives some good stories for late-night reunions in our college bar.


Eelke Kraak (‘08) left for the UK to do an MPhil (‘10) and a PhD (‘12 – hopefully) at the School of Geography and the Environment of the University of Oxford, for which he spent considerable time in Central Asia, Russia and Africa. In October 2012 he will start as a senior associate at the Boston Consulting Group in Amsterdam.

¹Injera is the traditional base of any Ethiopian meal. It is a pancake or flat bread made out of flour. Tibs are sauteed meats and vegetables and kitfo is raw minced meat.