Negussie Nega, Ph.D.
On January 13, 2020, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan accompanied by their respective water resource experts will meet in Washington for another round of talks on the filling timeline of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Tripartite negotiations have repeatedly stalled over the timeframe for filling the reservoir of the dam and its continuing operations. The latest discussion held in Addis Ababa failed because Egypt diverted negotiation trail and insisted on a prolonged filling process. In good faith, Ethiopia showed a compromising posture to extend the duration of the filling process to 7 years. The Ethiopian Foreign Minister H.E. Dr. Gedu Andargachew and the water resource expert team led by H.E. Dr. Seleshi Bekele reiterated Ethiopia’s firm stance, and they rejected recent proposals put forward by Egypt. Commendable job!
Egypt’s demand for a flexible reservoir-filling process that guarantees an annual flow of 40 billion cubic meters coupled with 12 to 21 years filling duration is unwarranted. The maintenance of such a colonial-era status quo disfranchises the rights of upriver countries and stretches the GERD filling process over limits. Modification of the structure of the dam or prolonging the filling process to meet Egypt’s demand would critically jam the production capacity of the generators, thereby curtailing the rate of return on the investment (RRI).
Egypt also demands that the final, binding document should include a direction on how the filling and operation of the GERD incorporate the definition of drought conditions and drought mitigation measures. In my opinion, the inclusion of such ambiguous terms will not be in the best interest of Ethiopia. Open-ended agreements intended to circumvent unpredictable natural consequences are susceptible to future disputes. To avoid ambiguities and imminent conflicts, a discussion on the root cause of drought conditions and the strategic management of such unforeseeable situations with available resources should be stated and defined clearly. To this effect, watershed management should be part and parcel of the negotiation between the tripartite countries. The negotiating countries should have a mutual understanding that the root cause of water insecurity now and in the future will be the continued deterioration of their shared ecosystem due to poor watershed management. Therefore, their good intent to cooperate and their primary investment should focus on environmental conservation and ecosystem wellbeing, which will repay benefit to all, not bickering on the trivial and temporary water diversion to GERD.
Egypt and Sudan should establish trust and the ability to work as a team with Ethiopia to tackle environmental damages rather than developing unwarranted nervousness over the filling of the GERD. The proliferation of harmful weeds such as water hyacinth, deforestation, and the gradual diminution of fertile soil, which currently threaten the existence of Lake Tana, the headwater of the Blue Nile, remains much problematic in the long run than the temporary diversion of water to fill the GERD. The impact of water hyacinth has already caused substantial damage in lakes and rivers of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. The fast-moving weed will invade the GERD eventually unless the tripartite countries take coordinated action to curve its spread.
It is unreasonable that Egypt, a county with 1,657.77 kWh per capita value of electric power consumption, to invoke colonial-era treaties and demands Ethiopia, a country with 69.72 kWh per capita value of electrical power consumption, to limit its aspirations for hydropower generating capacity. Instead, Egypt should see the GERD in positive ways since the construction of such a sizable reservoir can provide immense benefits to downstream countries.
The GERD will mitigate flooding, silt, evaporation, and nutrients that feed the growth of water weeds, thereby benefiting both Egypt and Sudan since the useful lifetime of dams in those countries will be prolonged. In the long run, the augmented aquatic storage in Ethiopia will be a boon for water conservation and it can provide a higher buffer to Egypt and Sudan during harsh environmental conditions.
The development of hydropower and other alternative energy sources means less fuel-wood consumption at the source and more greenery in upper basin countries, thereby increasing water availability in the long-run to downstream states. Over eighty-five percent of the Ethiopian people depend on fuel-wood to construction activities, cook, and warm their households. The burning of wood for generating energy led to severe deforestation and erosion, thereby contributing to critical water shortage and persisting drought. As a result, the spillover effect on downstream countries is even harsher. A reversal of wood cutting and deforestation through reforestation means more water for all. In fact, in the long run, the water scarcity due to climate change and environmental degradation caused by destructions such as hyacinth infestation and siltation that block waterways can be much problematic than the temporary diversion of the watercourse intended to fill the GERD reservoir.
The biggest threat to Egypt’s future water shortage will come not from the construction of the GERD but persisting environmental degradation caused by human activities. The root cause of water shortage now and in the future will remain poor ecosystem management at the source, not the intended GERD construction. Population growth and mismanagement of environmental resources continue to pose an ongoing water crisis in Egypt. Obsolete and wasteful irrigation systems discharge excessive watering, flood, and evaporation. About 15 to 20 billion cubic meters of water is wasted every year on the Egyptian side due to vapor, siltation, industrial pollution, flood, over-irrigation, and other human activities. A preliminary estimate indicates that it will take seven to eight years to operate GERD at full capacity. Therefore, Ethiopia needs, on average, 10 to 11 billion cubic meters of water per year to fill the 73 billion cubic meter capacity reservoir, depending on the rain pattern. Accurate observations inform that the amount of water wasted on the Egyptian side can overcompensate the water diverted to fill GERD.
If Egypt and Sudan take genuine preparatory steps by starting the Egyptian and Sudanese reservoirs at the maximum capacity when the filling of the GERD begins, the risk of water shortages will be insignificant. Lake Nasser is one of the largest artificial water reservoirs, ten-fold larger than Lake Tana, and twice the size of GERD in water storage and release capacity, which secures Egypt with abundant water reserve. While the GERD reservoir can hold 73 billion cubic meters of water Lake Nasser has 132 billion cubic meters of storage capacity. A decrease in water level at Lake Nasser due to the temporary diversion of limited water into the GERD reservoir will be trivial. With good intentions, Egypt can use water from Lake Nasser in the interim of the GERD filling process.
Ethiopia sustains high opportunity cost due to a single mega project financing, which stifles private sector investment and put temporary hold on economic growth. GERD gobbled resource which could have leveraged to other development sectors and infrastructure investments. Even without considering the operation cost overrun and additional funding required for the power grid connectivity and transmission lines, the current expenditure on the construction of the dam alone climaxes to $4.6 billion, approximately 12 percent of the annual output of Ethiopia. Such a colossal undertaking will reel Ethiopia under a legacy of debt for years to come. Ethiopia’s hope of raising revenue through power export depends on regional stability. Under the current political situation engulfing the East African region, it would take several years to recover the GERD construction costs, let alone realize net revenue gains through electricity sales. Unless Ethiopia receives financial assistance from intermediary sources to recover a portion of the GERD construction costs, the monetary stress will be austere.
Countries must establish a permanent transboundary institutional framework that helps them prepare for challenges down the road, including climate change-induced environmental shocks, notably capricious rainfall patterns, which could cause significant water stress. The only way the Nile Basin countries cope with such unpredictability is through sustainable conservation and maintenance of their ecosystems. Egypt and Ethiopia should educate and create awareness among the riparian population on the intrinsic danger of environmental degradation and encourage the community to take action to reverse the damage through ecosystem remediation.
In addition to the control of population growth and environmental remediation tasks, Egypt and Ethiopia, and all Nile basin stakeholders should demonstrate a concerted effort to secure enough water for all by the rescue of Lake Tana. To this end, hosting a consortium and inviting all stakeholders to the discussion table would enable them to chart sustainable preservation methods of the headwater. The consortium terms of reference and the deliberations should incorporate, among other things, the establishment of creative financing in the form of user fees. The creation of a scientific task force that can exchange knowledge and expertise on watershed management would also help to revive the ecosystem strategically.
Both riparian countries should establish strict pollution deterrence laws and require factory and industry owners and various entities located along the Nile embankment to modernize their waste disposal facilities. They should also work with scientific methods to reduce nutrients that encourage the growth of aquatic weeds such as water hyacinth. Also, they ought to follow systematic land management practices to minimize soil erosion and the level of siltation filling reservoirs. It is also imperative that direct and indirect beneficiaries of the headwater should establish financial pools and contribute their share in the form of user charges. The pool is necessary to the set-aside capital budget needed to remediate and protect the mutually shared ecosystem resources and headwaters such as Lake Tana on an ongoing basis. If properly managed and equitably distributed, the Nile water is abundant to satisfy all stakeholders, even with the diversion of water to GERD.
The contributor of this article, Negussie Nega, Ph.D., is an Environmental Science Expert with over 20-years of senior- level tenure with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Before that, he was the Chief of Strategic Planning with the Government of the District of Columbia.