By Tekleab Shibru
Associate Professor of Geomatics, Chicago State University
In economics, “Free-Lunch” depicts a condition where goods and services are attained without any cost an individual. Normally, such investment or condition is none-existent and often the situation come to being when someone else is carrying the cost. It could also be that expenses are obscured or not clearly understood. Out of the total water budget of the Nile watershed, i.e., 84 billion cubic meters of water, Egypt uses 65.5 billion cubic meters of water, which is 78% of the watershed’s water resources. The Ethiopian highlands, also known as the water tower for the amount of precipitation traps from the prevailing airmass, generates approximately 85% this water resources. And yet Egypt, while having such monopoly over the watershed’s water use, has not contributed a dime for its management. It has been Ethiopia’s duty hitherto èFREE LUNCH AT BEST!!
Watershed management is a useful operation carried out on a geographical area that is contributing water to a river. It is to sustain and enhance a watershed’s both hydrological as well as ecological functions. Hydrologically, watershed provides critical functions of collecting precipitations, soaking or storing some fractions, while releasing excess water to a river in the form of runoff. It also has important ecological function in terms of communities of human, plants, animals and other biogeochemical interactions it supports. Well managed watershed delivers improved supply of quality and quantity water, and reduced frequency and unpredictability of flood events. It also enhances a more evenly distributed flow through the year, improved base flow and warranted river with lesser load of sediments and other chemicals and healthy ecosystem.
Watershed management is therefore a costly operation too. In united states, billions of dollars are spent on watershed managements of their major rivers. For instances, the state of Colorado alone, deploys various expensive best management practices to manage the rock mountains and plateaus. These landscapes are the starting point of Colorado River, and geomorphological structures through which the river flows, respectively. Colorado river flows in 6 southwestern states for 2,330 km before emptying in Gulf of California. According to the Getches-Wilkinson center of Natural resources and environment, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado state is deploying more than 520 basin implementation projects to manage the watershed. The management projects, which aims at ensuring statewide quality water supply is at a cost of estimated $20 billion.
Similarly, in Ethiopian part of Upper Nile Basin, an integrated watershed management is practiced to sustain land’s agricultural productivity (See Figure 1). As part of this management, costly Soil and water conservation, is widely practices. For instances, Professor Hurni, a founding president of the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern, Switzerland’s, estimated that 3.5 million hectares of agricultural lands on Ethiopian highland has been treated by various types of soils and water conservation practices. However, this is only 18% of the cropland needing such treatment and some 12 million hectares of croplands still need similar treatment. A cost associated the soil and water conservation is approximated by a study conducted on Gedeb watershed in Upper Nile Basin, which covers around 100,000 hectares. The approximation, which is based on a labor cost of $0.80 USD per day revealed that conservation treatments on average cost $54 USD for a hectare of land and $5.4 million for the watershed.
Figure 1: Soil Water Conservation Treatment in Upper Nile Basin Ethiopian Highlands (Source: Photo taken by Hurni et at., 2016)
Egypt is perhaps the only country, on earth, that does not do or invest anything for management the watershed of a river, while using, approximately, 78% of its water resources. This is like drawing out the maximum dairy products from a cow, while investing nothing on the cow’s nutrition and health. It is unthinkable in dairy farming industry; since of-course there isn’t free lunch. We are witnessing a situation where Egypt is reaping the benefit while the upper Nile basin black African countries are doing the costly job. Egypt is not naive about this. She made a conscious and malicious scheme to harvest maximum possible rain water falling on the upper basin including Ethiopian highlands. Egypt knows that in an unmanaged watershed, precipitation water will rundown the highlands quickly, without soaking the soil, and go all the way to feed the Nile river discharging into Aswan Dam. The dam has enabled Egypt to mitigate flood damages, ration and ensure even distribution water resources among the months of the year.
However, the malicious and mean scheme is very shortsighted. Although the scheme has increased the peak-flow during the rainy season, it has reduced discharge for the reminder of the year (i.e., base flow). The rainy season is only for 3 – 4 months of the 12 months of the year. Besides, the Egyptian’s malicious scheme neglected the values of vegetation (land use land cover) and sub-surface (groundwater) in hydrological cycling, thereby risking sustained availability of water and recurrences of drought, for Egyptian, in the long run. No wonder, Egypt is more exposed to drought now than ever in the history of that country. Moreover, the scheme overlooked the wasteful loss of water through evaporation, as the Aswan dam force peak flow water inundate the desert land.
The Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) will give Ethiopia an enormous incentive to mobilize unprecedented watershed management. The redoubled Watershed management on Ethiopian highlands will be necessitated by the need to reduce the river’s sediment load (i.e., soil erosion). Firstly, heavily loaded Blue Nile river can have a heightened the destructive power to reduce the life span of GERD and/or increase its recurrent maintenance cost. Secondly, siltation the sediment load can reduce the water holding capacity of the reservoir by filling spaces meant for water storage. Therefore, out of a necessity, Ethiopia will have to do Egypt super-duper free lunch and implement practices that may include activities such as, but not limited to, selecting suitable land use and land covers and/ or vigorously continue adopting appropriate soil and water conservation practices important for sustained quality water supply for downstream countries’ irrigation agriculture and population.
Ethiopia’s watershed management practices will also increase the time it takes for a rainfall, on Ethiopian highlands, to run into Blue Nile and leaves the country. A longer time it takes means that the rainfall will have more time to soak soils and percolate deep to recharge the groundwater system. The increased water-table, as a consequence of groundwater recharge, through surface and subsurface water interaction, will feed the Blue Nile river with greater amount of water particularly in the dry-season. The resultant change in the moisture regime of the watershed can also create a microclimate with increased precipitation and local cloud-cooling, which suppressed evaporation. This is beneficial to all basins’ population, especially in downstream countries such as Egypt and Sudan. It will help buffer the responses of watershed’s hydrology to changing climate, while also maximizing socio-economic and environmental benefits of the river to people in the watershed.
Moreover, if Ethiopia launch the plantation of multipurpose trees, as part of watershed management strategy, further benefit can be accrued. These trees can provide functions of conserving of soil and water as well as improving of soil condition; while also supplying products like foods, fruits, nuts and vegetables and bio-fuels. These products can be used domestically or exported to downstream countries thereby securing and/or ensuring regional food security and self-sufficiency. This must ring bell to Egypt, which is spending up to $4.5 billion, 16% of the country’s total export earnings, on food import.
In conclusion, contrary to the allegation that Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will have deleterious impacts on the lives of and water supply to downstream countries, its will in fact has positive consequences. By necessitating appropriate and integrated watershed management, the dam may actually yield the benefit of improved microclimate, and increased water supply, especially during the dry seasons. The management can also boost regional food production and lessen the watershed’s hydrologic response to the impact of changing clime thereby sustaining quality water resources supply for current and future generations.
Shukla (2020) Watersheds—Functions and Management University of Florida IFAS extension retrieved from https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/AE/AE26500.pdf
Hurni, H., Berhe, W. A., Chadhokar, P., Daniel, D., Gete, Z., Grunder, M., & Kassaye, G. (2016). Soil and water conservation in Ethiopia: guidelines for development agents.
Watershed Planning and Management in Colorado Getches-Wilkinson Center Working Paper https://www.colorado.edu/law/sites/default/files/Watershed%20Planning%20and%20Management%20in%20Colorado.pdf
Tesfaye, A., Brouwer, R., van der Zaag, P., & Negatu, W. (2016). Assessing the costs and benefits of improved land management practices in three watershed areas in Ethiopia. International Soil and Water Conservation Research, 4(1), 20-29.
Maggie Fick, Shadi Bushra (July 9, 2014), More people, less water mean rising food imports for Egypt retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-egypt-water-analysis/more-people-less-water-mean-rising-food-imports-for-egypt-idUSKBN0F818120140709