Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Death on the Nile

In Ethiopia, the construction of the Grand Renaissance dam, seems to be advancing, and the discussions around the water rights on the Nile got more intense. Aljazeera, in its program Inside Story wants to "examine the impact on water supply for Egypt's growing population."

It is almost a comical discussion that is presented in this debate that brings together, Bereket Simon, Ethiopian minister of information, Lama el-Hatow, co-founder of water institute of the Nile and Cleo Paskal  writer of Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map.  

It is a strange combination of guests, holding their pre-programmed monolgues on the Nile, which are too long for the time given by the moderator. It is also about  three invitees who fight with very unequal weapons. Instead of emotional monologues, now facts about water and solutions to conflictual situations are needed. The only one who really talked about the technicalities, threats and opportunities about the Dam is the Ethiopian minister, but his English is not good enough (ironically the Minister of information) to truly contribute to a constructive debate (he is just reciting the official story, that seems correct from a hydrological point of view, but not answering the questions).

Let me summarize my (non-hydrologist and non-expert) understanding of the problem and please feel free to correct them by commenting this blog.
  1. there is a certain amount of water in the Ethiopian Blue Nile, if water is used for electricity, then potentially the same amount of water will be flowing to Egypt. (which is not be the case if lots of water would be used for agriculture, i.e water is consumed by plants, as it is for example done in Sudan)
  2. With the dam, the water arriving in Egypt, will be more evenly distributed through out the year (as it is stored and used for evenly used for electricity production) allowing to reduce shortages in the dry season.
  3. The dam will keep silt up-stream, reducing siltation of down-stream dams (i.e reducing costs for downstream dams in Sudan and Egypt).
  4. Storing water for electricity in highlands is a regional optimum, as it is situated in a cooler area, there is less evaporation (i.e. less water loss).
  5. Filling the dam, might be a huge problem, because during this time there will be less (up to no water) flowing to Egypt. But it is a transitional time that needs to be managed smartly and across boundaries.
  6. Ethiopia could switch the water off from Egypt (but just up to the point when the dam is full).
  7. There could be ecological impacts due to more evenly distributed water and to the diversion. But let's face it, the first people to be damaged by the diversion are the (few) Ethiopian living around the dam. Secondly, this is not the first dam on the Nile, the famous flooding of the Nile we all learnt about at school bringing fertile soils and allowing to feed the Pharaohs is not existing anymore for a long time already. 
However, i am not sure if better watershed management, i.e. rainwater management, will increase the water availability in Egypt (as the Minister said), because again the amount of water in the area remains unchanged (note that some of my ex-colleagues come to the conclusion that increased use of water for food production through improved rainwater management is marginal), but its distribution will be changed,  siltation is reduced and water quality might be improved. Climate change, (i.e the global amount of water in the region is decreased) is an issue that is important and that emerges with or without dam. The dam could even help reducing impact of climate change.

When i look at the list above, I see two points where Egypt should be worried about, the dam filling if not done smartly could be a huge problem as well as Ethiopia switching off the water fully. There should be clear agreements for these points, as for example on a minimum flow (get inspired, there is a legal minimum flow to every dam in Switzerland to preserve the ecosystem). All the other points should not be so much of a problem to Egypt. Egypt can even benefit. And if not? then why is it that none of all these pro-Egyptian experts (who speak English very well) can explain it in clear words?

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