Beyond the Dam: Sustaining the Nile Watershed

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Ethiopian electrification rates are low, even by African standards. At least 55% of Ethiopians don’t have electricity, lagging behind Sudan (40%) and Egypt, which is fully electrified. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the upper Nile River has been presented as the solution for Ethiopia’s energy deficit, with an expected production of more than 6000 megawatts of power for export and domestic use. It is the largest hydropower project in Africa. However, political tensions surround this project and there are contentions about whether the dam will be beneficial in providing a sustainable source of power.

The GERD is a sensitive political issue. It is seen as a threat to water security in Egypt, with moves to silence any discussion in the media. As the GERD became a reality, Egypt was compelled to agree to the 2015 Declaration of Principles (DoP) which specified cooperation. However, each signatory has contrasting interpretations of this DoP, and thus there is a continuing impasse. Egyptian, Sudanese, and Ethiopian leaders view the Nile as a piggy bank, a political rallying point, and an opportunity to leave their mark with high-profile projects. In Egypt, Nasser’s dam-building years typified the ambitions of a proud post-colonial state. Under El Sisi, Egypt’s control of Nile waters has continued to be framed as a life-and-death issue. Not to be outdone, Ethiopia also recently framed the issue as an “existential necessity.” The governments have politicized the issue, playing to domestic audiences at the expense of sustainability.

Strong Men, Nationalisms and Rivers

The GERD is the brainchild of the late Ethiopian strongman, Meles Zenawi, who viewed the country’s rivers in the same way as other nations view their oil or mineral wealth: a valuable source of foreign currency. Ironically, supporters of current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who were opposed to the dam when Meles was in power are now militantly in favor of the project. Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam is on record for opposing the GERD when Meles was alive and in power  In return, Meles’ supporters, now congregated in Mekelle, are accusing Abiy of selling out to the Egyptians and Americans in the ongoing negotiations. There are complications, because the dam is financed by borrowing money from Ethiopians inside the country and abroad who bought bonds and contributed from taxes. It was initially estimated to cost $4.6 billion, but no doubt the cost is running higher now. The river has become a victim of diverging political and economic priorities.

Dam projects have been used to mobilize support for Ethiopia’s ruling parties and to drum up Ethiopian nationalism in an effort to provide Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party (PP) a unifying discourse in a very deeply fragmented and divided Ethiopia. Especially after the assassination of Hachalu Hundessa, an iconic Oromo musician, when Abiy’s grip on power and the survival of the country as a coherent entity is threatened.

Whilst Sudan has historically sided with Egypt on Nile disputes, El Bashir mostly supported the GERD project. Sudan is located only 40km from the GERD and could expect to benefit from the energy produced, flood control, sediment control, and regulated water for irrigation. However, the new Sudanese Prime Minster, Abdallah Hamdok, is opposed to the Ethiopian plan to begin filling the dam unilaterally. There are suggestions that Sudan is under significant pressure from the Arab League and the United States to side with Egypt.

Third party mediation by the United States and the World Bank has annoyed many Ethiopians. From a geopolitical standpoint, Egypt is more important to the United States than Ethiopia is mainly because of the Camp David agreement that Egypt signed with Israel which aligns with U.S. strategy in the Middle East.  Egypt is also one of the three biggest recipients of US funding and weapons along with Israel and Afghanistan.  Unusually, the “mediation” by the United States was conducted by the Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin.  Later, the U.S. National Security Council even went so far as tweeting and urging Ethiopia “to show leadership” for the “257 million people in East Africa.” Egypt has also lobbied the Arab League, which issued a statement supporting Egypt’s position. Sudan was the only member country not to go along with the Arab League.

Since then however, both Egypt and Sudan have written their own letters to the UN Security Council opposing Ethiopia’s unilateral move to start filling the dam. Egypt is much more comfortable with internationalizing the issue, while Ethiopia seeks to keep mediation within Africa through the African Union. Egypt has been successful in making the GERD internationally controversial, but this has had the unintended consequence of entrenching Abiy Ahmed’s position of using the dam as a symbol of self-determination and success, one that bonds Ethiopians around a national idea against “hegemonic” Egypt.

The current debate is the rate at which the filling of the dam will occur, especially during droughts, and whether Ethiopia can start filling the dam without a unanimous agreement, and dispute resolution mechanisms. Egypt wants a set amount of water to be released, but Ethiopia is worried that a set amount will make the GERD dysfunctional during prolonged droughts. Ethiopia has already begun filling the dam, infuriating El Sisi.  The Trump administration is considering cutting back on foreign aid to Ethiopia, clearly demonstrating it is on Egypt’s side. Tensions are high, and Sudan might actually be the key country to broker a cooling effect, but it remains adamant that Ethiopia should not start filling the dam without prior agreement of the three countries. In its letter to the UNSC, it also claimed that filling the dam might endanger millions of its citizens and the safety of Roseires dam in Sudan.

This kind of politicking has meant not enough has been done to address the environmental challenges faced by the Nile basin.

Water-Stress Vulnerabilities and Possible Solutions

The GERD is expected to provide power to 65 million Ethiopians. However, it is doubtful that the GERD can meet the government’s high expectations. Asfaw Beyene, an Ethiopian professor of Mechanical Engineering at San Diego State University, compares the GERD to buying a ten-story building for personal residence. No one can use that many rooms. Analogously, the capacity in Nile water flow needed to power the turbines is only possible for two to three months during the rainy season. The claimed production of 6000 megawatts of electricity is therefore not realistic: according to the professor, not even half that amount is possible.

Although it’s the longest river in the world, the Nile’s 84 billion cubic meters’ annual flow is the lowest discharge of comparable large rivers. Robert Collins, a professor from the University of California compared the Nile’s flow to “a mere cup (2%) of the Amazon, perhaps a glass (15%) of the Mississippi, or at best a pitcher (20%) of the Mekong.” Thus, in order to save the Nile and support sustainability, it is necessary to look beyond the Nile to meet fresh water demands.

There are alternatives. The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS), the largest known fossil water aquifer in the world, is a potential source of fresh water for Egypt. Libya has already been tapping into this aquifer for its water supply.

Whilst Egypt grows water-intensive rice, it could increase more water-efficient irrigation technologies like drip irrigation which is expensive. Investing in water treatment technologies, desalinization, and recycling is essential. Additionally, Ethiopia has the second largest untapped potential in geothermal energy in Africa; it should harness this source – rather than relying on hydro-power to meet electricity demands. In addition to the controversy over the GERD, rainfall variability and draught is another reason for Ethiopia to diversify.

Beyond the Dam: The Way Forward

The need for the current generation to be better custodians of the river for the benefit of future generations has never been greater. Nile countries should come together to ban land grabs by international agribusinesses who snatch up large swaths of arable land along the Upper Nile, especially in Ethiopia and Sudan. These deals are typically described as land acquisitions, but are in effect also water acquisitions.

The watershed itself is being treated like an endless drainage pipe with little consideration for sustainability and healthy land use practices. In light of scientific uncertainties and climate change, GDP-focused management of freshwater resources must give way to adaptive approaches which can evolve with science. The trend among the environmentally conscious is towards demolishing big dams.

Mega dam projects are proven environmental hazards as in Egypt and Sudan, and there is no reason to believe otherwise in Ethiopia.

The Nile is a complex integrated watershed and ideally protecting it requires environmentally responsible cooperation by the riparian states in the area of energy security, climate and biodiversity protection.


Yohannes Woldemariam has an undergraduate in hydrology and a Ph.D. in international relations with a teaching experience in Global Environmental Politics for over twenty years. Contact him here.

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