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Some facts about Ethiopia’s Nile Dam and unsound downstream concerns [reply to National Geographic megazine]

By Zenebu Ayele
Tigrai Online, October 01, 2013

Some facts about Ethiopia’s Nile Dam and unsound downstream concerns reply to National Geographic megazine
The Grand Renaissance Dam project is one of the largest hydroelectric dams in the world. When it is completed it will generate 6000 mega watts of electricity. Just the one dam will produce three times the total amount currently Ethiopia producing.

Last week, the famous American Megazine "National Geographic" published a story on the Nile waters and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam.

With a heading "Water Wars: Egyptians Condemn Ethiopia’s Nile Dam Project" and a sub-heading "As the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam takes shape, tempers rise", the article presented an inaccurate and incomplete picture of the matter.

Indeed, the article included informative and factual remarks, such as this one:

Ethiopians see [the dam] as an intense source of national pride and a symbol of their country’s renewal after the debilitating famines of the 1980s and ’90s.

“People are enthusiastic. They’re excited, because no leader has tried such a project in Ethiopia’s history,” said Bitania Tadesse, a recent university graduate from the capital, Addis Ababa. “It’s a big deal that is going to be beneficial to future generations.”

However, it is the article's inaccurate and misleading remarks that I will focus one, as my objective is to correct flaws and complete half-truths.

As it is usual in the western media, the article started with a soundbit that could bias its readers infavor of Egypt. And, the quote was not even from a scholar rather a taxi driver. It reads:

“Ethiopia is killing us,” taxi driver Ahmed Hossam said, as he picked his way through Cairo’s notoriously traffic-clogged streets. “If they build this dam, there will be no Nile. If there’s no Nile, then there’s no Egypt.”

Then, the article makes the following 5 inaccurate and potentially misleading remarks.

1. The article claimed: <<Egypt insists Ethiopia’s hydroelectric scheme amounts to a violation of its historic rights, a breach of the 1959 colonial-era agreement that allocated almost three-fourths of the Nile waters to Egypt, and an existential threat to a country largely devoid of alternative freshwater sources.

Ethiopia maintains that Egypt and Sudan downstream have no reason to be fearful. The government says it’s merely redressing the inequalities of previous water-sharing arrangements, which had left the nine upstream countries largely bereft of access to the Nile.>>

However, Ethiopia never recognized such treaties and its intent is not "redressing the inequalities of previous water-sharing arrangements" rather establishing a new legal regime based on equity through the Nile basin Cooperative Framework Agreement. This is was explained even by a downstream scholar water law from Sudan a few weeks ago as follows:

According to the international law and to the logic and justice, Ethiopia has got rights in the Nile water. The main theory on which the international law is based is the theory of the fair, reasonable and equal benefits by all states of the Nile Basin. This theory is the basis of the United Nations treaty on utilization of the international water-courses for non-navigation purposes.

The Sudan voted in favor of this treaty at the UN General Assembly session on May 21, 1997. Although it commended that treaty, the Sudan has not yet signed or joined it. The treaty needs to be ratified by 35 nations to come into force which is expected next year as 30 countries have so far ratified it while more than five nations are preparing to do so.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)that has established the Nile Basin Initiative and that was signed by Sudan and Egypt in Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania, on February 22, 1999 was also based on the premise of fair and reasonable benefits. This can be seen clearly on the main page of the electronic website of the Nile Basin Initiative. (No confusion should be made between the MOU and Entebbe Agreement which is opposed by the Sudan and Egypt and which was signed six countries of the source in May 2010.

2. The article also claimed: <<For decades it has used Egypt's regional clout to stymie the dam-building plans of its impoverished upstream neighbors. International organizations, such as the World Bank, which has financed hydroelectric ventures in the past, shied away from involvement in such a controversial proposal, handing Egypt a de facto veto.

But weakened by several years of economic and political unrest in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Egypt now finds itself ill-placed to counter a resurgent Ethiopia. (See “Saudi Arabia Stakes a Claim on the Nile.”)>>

Though there is an element of truth to this remark, it gives the impression that Ethiopia came up with the project after the downfall of Mubarak - a conspiracy theory often heard in Cairo and reitreated by some foreign media as well.

To the contrary records show that most of the issues pertaining to the dam project had been the subject of intense study as far back as 1935 and include companies from USA, Sweden and others.

A US and Ethiopian joint project, titled: USA-Ethiopia Cooperative Program for the Study of the [Blue Nile] Basin, (1959 – 1964), produced a comprehensive report on the hydrology, water quality, hypsography, geology, sedimentation, mineral resources, land resources, ground water and the local socio-economic situation.

That study proposed four dams downstream with a total holding capacity of 51 bcm as the annual rate. The master plans for the Blue Nile[Abbay], Tekeze[Atbara] and Baro-Akobo basins were completed in the 1990s, according page 166 of the same book.

Recent planning activities include: In October 2008 ‘extensive surveying had been conducted; in September 2010 studies for a Hydroelectricity plant had been completed; in Nov. 2010 the final study was completed and submitted to government.

3. The article brings a vague conspiratorial claim in its referrence to Sudan's position. It said: <<Egypt’s southern neighbor, Sudan, has switched sides and chosen to support the dam, not least because Sudan had agreed to an Egyptian request to build an airbase near the Ethiopian border, according to Wikileaks.>>

However, the grounds for Sudan's position were clearly outlined about two weeks ago by a prominent Sudanese scholar Dr. Salman Mohamed Ahmed Salman as follows:

There are ample benefits to the Sudan from this Dam which can be listed as follows:

First: The Renaissance Dam will hold back a big portion of the great quantities of the silt, more than 50 million tons, carried by the Blue Nile to the Sudan each year. Those quantities of silt over the years, made the Er Rosaires and Sennar dams lose more than 50% of their water storage and electric-power generation capacities. Many of us must remember the continued power failures a few years ago due to the silt accumulation of the turbines at Er Rosaires Dam as announced by the government in official statements.

Second: The Renaissance Dam will prolong the life-span of Er Rosaires Dam by holding back the trees, corpses and other materials swept by the Blue Nile during its powerful drive in July and August of each year.

Third: The Renaissance Dam will check the destructive flood that hit the Sudanese towns on the Blue Nile each few years. Instead, it will regulate the flow of the Nile in the Sudan throughout the year in lieu of the present seasonal flood during July, August and September. A suggestion that the Renaissance Dam will do away with irrigation by inundation is unfounded. While the Sudan has failed to use its share of the Nile water (an issue which we will discuss later on, there is no point in lamenting the loss of irrigation inundation. It’s just like placing the optional before the obligatory duty.

Fourth: The flow of the Blue Nile throughout the year will help feed the ground water in the surrounding area all over the year instead of the three months of the flood, will regulate the hydroelectric power generation at Merowe Dam and will help multiply the irrigated crop rotations.

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Fifth: Ethiopia has promised to sell the electricity generated by the Dam to the Sudan and Egypt at the cost value which is 25% of the cost of the electricity that is generated by Merowe and High dams. The Sudan has already begun making use of the electric power which Ethiopia generates from other rivers, especially from Tekezy Dam on Atbara River after concluding an agreement for the purchase of electricity with Ethiopia.

4. The article gives a veneer of credibility to the unscientific or non-factual claims ofte heard from Egyptian politicians regarding the impact of the dam:

It claimed: <<Egypt’s concerns are far from groundless. Its population is forecast to almost double to 150 million by 2050, so as demand for water surges, its supply will be restricted by the dam.>>

However, the allegation of the Professors have no scientific or factual basis, as Ethiopia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs pointed out months ago:

The GERD will have 74 billion cubic meter (BCM) storage capacity and about 60 BCM live storage. 14 BCM is reserved to be filled by sediment. The 60 BCM is mostly made up of renewable water sources that will be released every year. If the GERD filling coincides with wet years in sequence there can be no concern for anybody.

If, on the other hand, the GERD filling coincides with a dry year sequence (as during the drought of 1984), then the filling strategy will be revised to minimize downstream impact.

In any case, there is no reason to worry that farmers in Egypt will be adversely impacted, even in the case of dry years. In the event that the Aswan Dam water level reached an historic minimum, a negative effect could occur during consecutive drought year filling conditions.

However, the giant Aswan Dam, with over 130 BCM live storage, is designed to sustain two years water needs in Egypt without having any inflow. An evaluation of the risks needs to factor in the Aswan Dam's ameliorating potential.

The planned robust filling strategy of the GERD will not lead to any appreciable harm during the filling period even under a worst case combination of the Aswan Dam reaching minimum level and dry year occurrence during filling.

The existing storage volume of Aswan Dam (twice the annual volume of Nile flow) has the capacity to absorb any potential mulch-year shocks caused during the infilling phase of the GERD.

5. The article quotes another unscientific claim as if it is a established fact, saying: <<Egypt fears that storing water behind the Ethiopian dam will reduce the capacity of its own Lake Nasser (thereby reducing the power-generating capacity of Egypt’s giant hydroelectric plant at Aswan). “The production of electricity at the Aswan High Dam is likely to drop by almost 40 percent should the Ethiopian dam be built,” concluded Nader Noureddin, a professor of agriculture at Cairo University.>>

In reality, key inflow data, provided by the White Nile at Morgen and Atbara at Nile Junction, have been used to simulate GERD’s impact on Egypt's Aswan dam and indicated otherwise.

The evaporation and rainfall estimates over the GERD reservoir have also been fully considered. The spillway design flood, the Probable Maximum Flood and diversion flood estimates fulfill the highest safety requirements that International Commission on Large Dams recommends.

The evaporation loss that GERD will incur is significantly lower than the amount of water that the GERD will save from evaporation loss. The difference is positive. The saving will come from preventing flooding during high flood seasons and limiting the seepage or dumping of water into the desert through spillways. The storage will brings over 5 to 10% savings.

Before concluding my commentary, I should also make a quick note to correct the article's claim that "the dam is now 20 percent built."

According to the latest from the MiddleEastMonitorNews, however:

"Ethiopian government has completed around 30 per cent of the Renaissance Dam on the River Nile. Sources in the government say that the administrative and technical work at the site of the dam is almost ready for the second phase to begin with the construction of the main body of the structure. It is estimated that the hydro-electric project will produce approximately 6,000 megawatts of electricity when it is commissioned in 2016. Ethiopia is expected to earn around €2 million a day by exporting electricity to neighbouring countries."

It should also be noted that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has recently urged: "Sudan and Egypt to work with Ethiopia in implementing the recommendations of the International Panel of Experts which was established to assess the impact of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on lower riparian countries. Ethiopia is ready to implement the recommendation and stressed the need for Egypt and Sudan to do so. The need for all sides to note that Ethiopia, which is the source of 85 per cent of the Nile water, has the right to make use of its own water resources for development in accordance the accepted international norm of reasonable and equitable manner."

Indeed, as Oxford University scholar (Harry Verhoeven), quoted on National geographic, advised:

Egypt needs to wake up to the new world. This doesn’t need to be a problem.”

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