Ethiopia: The GERD – Transforming the Nile from fixation to cooperation

By IndepthAfrica
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Dec 22nd, 2012
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Ababiya Nemera

Nile dam project a hydropower hope, but regional sore point

Nile dam project a hydropower hope, but regional sore point

Ever since the April 2011 official launch of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) Project, there have been various reports, whether tangible or not, insinuating military attacks against Ethiopia by lower riparian countries. Rumors of Egypt trying to support opposition military groups and even working towards acquiring an airbase in western Sudan have all been extensively covered by a number of media outlets.

The construction of the GERD has been depicted by some as a move by Ethiopia to cut the one and only life line of Egypt – the Nile. Such depictions coupled with historical flashbacks have fueled rumors of a violent engagement between the two countries.

The fact, however, remains that the river is a life line for all upper and lower riparian countries. It gets even harder to understand such rumors when one considers that the dam would not cut the river’s discharge. Ethiopia has time and again reiterated its hydro-electric power generation schemes over the river but they always seem to be viewed with suspicion by its biggest users. It is perfectly rational for a state to make the most of its resources to push its people into the lime light of prosperity. It is very friendly and futuristic, however, when such a move is considerate of the interests of other nations.

For a country like Ethiopia that has until recently been the face of poverty in the world, it is only suicidal to keep not using its biggest of resources. With the 8th fastest population growth rate in the world and over 90 million people, a qualitative and quantitative increase in the use of resources does not demand rethinking. The country is at a critical point at which the use of its resources could help take recent development achievements to an even higher level. The realization of such a boost has tremendous sector crossing benefits for the state to overlook.

As the GERD project would help the country generate an additional 6000 watts of electricity, it is expected to fulfill the power demands of the whole nation. That translates in to even more accelerated growth in agriculture, the dominating sector in the economy, consequently pushing the bar of industrialization upwards.

As Seifulaziz Milas, author of “Sharing the Nile: Egypt, Ethiopia and the Geo-Politics of Water” wrote, the availability of ample and affordable electricity paves the way for “pump irrigation in some areas, from ground water sources, small streams, and micro-dams. This can enable subsistence farmers to become smallholder commercial farmers, growing higher value crops for accessible markets, rather than staple grains. The availability of cheap hydropower can also open up new opportunities for irrigated agriculture, producing high-value crops, and double-cropping based on dry season pump irrigation.” The scenario involves high agricultural production centered not only on the domestic but the international market. Although agriculture is the major sector in Ethiopia, it still fails to feed the population. Such a significant rise in production could turn things around for the better. According to the Ethiopia’s Investment Guide, the sector contributes about 43% of the GDP, 86% of exports and employs more than 80% of the country’s population. The impact of a significant development in the sector on the lives of Ethiopians is, therefore, unassailable.

With increased agricultural production comes more access to raw materials for the industrial sector which in its own would also benefit from the availability of ample and affordable electricity. The situation would help develop light and heavy industries immensely and not only in urban areas but also in rural ones as well. As a result, the industrial activities that are currently restricted to suburban areas and towns neighboring big cities would spread across the country for factors other than just access to markets. That creates an opportunity for the textile and leather products, food and agro-processing, paper products, chemical products and other sectors to roam into new found territories to increase productivity and market access. The construction, mining, electronics, and metal production sectors along with the service sector would also benefit considerably from the availability of ample and affordable electricity. That would help draw and nurture the capital needed to venture into heavy industries which would pull the country into the era of industrialization.

The above mentioned developments in the agricultural and industrial sectors would also do much more needed justice to the health and educational systems that play the most pivotal roles in ensuring a brighter future for the country. A society of healthy and educated people is also usually characterized by a low population growth rate. With the 8th fastest population growth rate in the world, the Ethiopian population is expected to reach 200 million in just 25 years from current figures of about 91 million. By then, the country would become the 9th most populous country in the world from a current position of 13th. As economic development and the social benefits that come along with it can be used as an effective weapon to control population growth, and that the construction of the dam, as has been discussed above, makes that possible, the country can not back away from seeing it through. As a result, not seeing the project through would clearly be a threat to the national security of the nation as diminishing resources in the face of a population explosion create the breeding ground for internal strife.

Now that we have established the scope of impact the dam could have on the lives of Ethiopians, let’s explore whether its construction is beneficial or harmful to other riparian countries.

To quote Seifulaziz Milas once again, he noted in his article “Ethiopia: Nile Waters Diplomacy and the Renaissance Dam”, “In 2008 the Eastern Nile Power Trade Studies carried out pre feasibility studies at three sites in the Abbai Gorge under the auspices of the Nile Basin Initiative/Eastern Nile Subsidiary Action Program (NBI/ENSAP) in which Egypt had been taking an active part. These studies confirmed the suitability of the present site along with others for hydro power generation and for the promotion of inter regional trade in power supplies. According to the experts, the amount of water available to the downstream riparian states would not be affected. Even if Ethiopia drew significant quantities of water, Egypt and the Sudan would still benefit from the construction of the reservoirs in Ethiopia.”

There are also a number of Egyptian hydrologists and Nile experts who back the fact that the dam would not decrease water discharge with some even going further. The Nile Basin Core Group (NBCG) is where such opinions are heard aloud. In what has been a notable scientific revelation on the topic, Haytham Awad, a hydrologist from the University of Alexandria, has conducted research that indicates the GERD may actually increase water flow to Egypt. Awad’s research shows that during the flood season in late August and early September, the majority of Egypt’s water arrives in Lake Nasser, where it is stored for approximately ten months until peak agriculture season in July the following year. During this period, approximately twelve percent of the stored water evaporates. On the other hand, the evaporation level in the Ethiopian highlands water storage projects is only three percent. Therefore, the water being stored in the GERD, where there will be less evaporation, will help conserve water.

As Prof. Sief El Din Hamad Abdallah, the Sudanese Minister of Water Resources, pointed out at a Forum organized by the Sudanese Bar Association in cooperation with the Ministry of Water Resources in March 2012 on The Cooperative Framework Agreement between the Nile Basin Countries and the Impact of the Secession of South Sudan, “Most or more than  80  percent of the Nile Basin water resources evaporate  in the route from the sources to the final destinations in Sudan and Egypt, and  that  in South Sudan swamps alone more than  53 billion cubic meters evaporate yearly.” Considering the GERD is only fourty kilometers from the Sudanese border and the Blue Nile meets the white a good distance away from the South Sudan swamps, it is beyond contention that the GERD provides ideal water storage that adds more water to lower riparians.

Historical accounts document that the Nile has always caused floods and dry spells seasonally, especially in Sudan and Egypt. Long term attempts to control the flow of the Nile have culminated in the construction of the Aswan low and high dams in Egypt. Though the construction of the Aswan high dam controlled seasonal flood waters, mass flooding occurred upstream on the Nile displacing a large number of people and devouring sites that were once the home of archaeological wonders. The flooding also contributed to an increase in erosion along the lower courses of the river.

The narrow Nile valleys of Nubia in the Sudan have also been subjected to flooding and dry spells seasonally. This centuries old problem has been confronting Sudanese people living along the banks of the river whose rise and drop of water amounts are both unfavorable.

The construction of the GERD would, however, tackle this old problem by ensuring a steady year-round flow of the river. That could prove to be a very valuable change in both Egypt and Sudan as it positively affects agriculture and other economic activities the river supports.

The other major problem associated with the Blue Nile in lower riparian countries has been the deposition of silt, fertile soil washed away by the river, behind their dams. The lake that is formed behind the Aswan high dam, Lake Nasser, provides the best instance of silt deposition. The Aswan High Dam Reservoir extends for 500 km along the Nile River and covers an area of 6,000 km2, of which the northern two-thirds (known as Lake Nasser) is in Egypt and the remaining one-third (called Lake Nubia) is in Sudan. As a result of years of silt deposition behind the dam, the water holding capacity of Lake Nasser is shrinking. In simple terms the lake is filling up with silt that subsides to the bottom of the lake and gradually takes up much of the space displacing water. Experts have also projected that the rapid siltation near the head of the reservoir in Lake Nubia of Sudan may dam up the narrow Nile valley in Nubia in a relatively short time since 99.98% of silt was deposited in Lake Nubia Until 1973.

Another problem associated with silt deposition behind the dams is that it denies Sudanese and Egyptian farmers of free fertile soil that makes their lives easier while demanding a big chunk of money from the government for cleaning it up. Prof. Sief El Din Hamad Abdallah, the Sudanese Minister of Water Resources, in the March 2012 forum stated above, noted that the accumulation of silt at the Egyptian High Dam in Aswan had now reached 6 billion cubic meters. He further stated that his country spends US $12 million to remove mud from the irrigation channels of the Gezira Scheme. The banks of the Nile are also undergoing severe erosion, because they are being eaten away by the Nile without being replaced by fresh silt, and the fertility of the Nile Delta has declined dramatically.

A significant decrease in the amount of silt deposited in down stream dams would help lower riparian countries spend less on cleaning up while providing an opportunity for farmers along the banks to benefit from government assistance in their agricultural endeavors. By taking up part of the silt that currently goes to lower riparian countries, the GERD would dramatically decrease silt deposition in both Sudan and Egypt increasing the water holding capacity of their dams.

With the main aim of the GERD being the generation of hydro-electric power, both upper and lower riparian countries have a lot to benefit from it in this regard. The project is expected to produce 6000 MW of electricity per year. This amount leaves Ethiopia with an electric power surplus after meeting its demands. That surplus would be sold to both upper and lower riparian countries strengthening their ties in the utilization of Nile resources. Ethiopia has already started selling electric energy to Kenya whose purchase of electricity has contributed a lot towards the fulfillment of its demand to electrical power. The two countries are currently laying down a 433 kilometer high energy electric transmission line. The Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation has also completed the transmission lines to make Sudan the second country to benefit from Ethiopia’s export of power. The 296 kilometer transmission link has a 230 kilovolt capacity and will start operations this year. Tanzania has also put in a request to buy electric power from Ethiopia, with the latter considering ways to strike a deal. One can infer from the above facts that the GERD is tremendously beneficial to upper and lower riparian countries alike. Considering its contribution towards increased water, lower evaporation, flooding, seasonality and silt deposition, however, it vividly shows that Sudan and Egypt are the two countries that benefit the most.

Recent trends in both countries also imply their understanding of the facts on the ground. After repeated reports of Egyptian high ranking military and government officials claiming the need to exercise force in order to maintain its hegemony of the Nile waters and a possible subsequent outbreak of war, the Egyptian government recently announced that the comments do not reflect its stand. In the contrary, the government announced that it is willing to work with the Ethiopian government. President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan, while receiving the credentials of Ethiopia’s newly appointed Ambassador Abadi Zemo in April 2012, said the Sudan government understood the mutual benefits that the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project could offer Ethiopia and Sudan. He said he would extend the necessary support to ensure the massive hydro-power project would be successfully completed. The fact that Sudan, last year, donated about 170 million birr worth of machinery to assist hydropower projects in Ethiopia is a testament to increased understanding and cooperation between the two countries.

With better understanding of the importance of the Nile as a major resource in all riparian countries, the highly skewed benefit arrangements of the colonial era could be replaced by an all rounded cooperation based on shared resource management. The contribution of the GERD, in that direction, is commendable and the recent cooperation it is drawing from other riparian countries is bound to grow as more people in governmental decision making positions base their opinions on scientific facts rather than mere suspicions.

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