01 April 2014

IPE Report Part 2: What is the international panel of experts report on the grand ethiopian renaissance dam and what does it say?

I was sent the International Panel of Experts Report on Friday. What I received is just the report itself, though the text indicates that the official document has a number of appendices, presumably some of the official documents used to write the report. I do not have these. I decided to send the report to a few trusted colleagues who could provide me feedback in their areas of expertise - I include our general ideas below.

First of all - what is the report? The report is an assessment written about documents and plans pertaining to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. It was released in May 2013 - but only to the officials in the countries of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. This document is presumably the basis by which the tripartite meetings moved forward in the fall of 2013.

People following debates on the Nile are curious as to the findings of the tripartite group of experts. The experts are people that poured over the Ethiopian dam documents, familiarized with the policies and legal aspects of the dam, the geotechnical aspects, the structure, the economics, and wrote about their opinion of the project. Here is what I could glean from the report about the process:

The IPE did not do their own research - what this means is that their data input is only as good as the existing documents provide. It does not new information about the dam and its impacts - both benefits and costs to economics, regional stability, local communities, ecosystems, the river hydrology, etc. The Ethiopian government provided documents on several occasions, sponsored a few trips to the dam site, and did not provide documents in some cases. This IPE report serves as a gut check to the Ethiopian documents and processes. One of the colleagues I sent the report to stated that this process serves as a sort of peer review process done with other projects of this magnitude - esp. when dealing with other countries that will be impacted by change to a shared river. That the IPE report exists is a good thing. The report itself misses a few key points and makes a few key points which I will highlight.

Why has this report been kept secret? I am not sure entirely. There is nothing new or earth shattering contained in the IPE assessment. In fact, I saw many of the same exact documents that the experts were permitted to see. The IPE does highlight that some reports need updating, further analysis, more information. The IPE was not permitted or had limited access to some reports/documents.

Another colleague asked why I thought Egypt had not released the report before now? What is the motivation for secrecy? Ethiopian government is pretty clear why they are keeping their project under wraps. Expediency may be one reason. The Ethiopians would like this project to commission as soon as possible. The more people involved, the more lengthy and complicated the process. Sudan is keeping quiet all around. They are in a tight spot - two bordering neighbors, 25 years of conflict sapped resources, immediate downstream benefits once the Renaissance Dam is complete. Egypt being quiet? Perhaps this has to do with the fact that Ethiopia did conduct so much work on reports, due diligence, or with their own plans to develop water projects from Lake Nasser to the desert. Maybe there is no interest to turn the spotlight on things like Lake Nasser because of a want for transparency.

Sometimes somethings are just state secrets. This is a big national project.

What did the experts highlight? This report is now about a year old - so presumably, some of the issues highlighted by the IPE have been addressed. There are some technical issues with the structure itself. My colleague, who knows more about dam structure than I do, indicated that these are the simplest challenges. The Ethiopian government told me more than once that they are open to technical modifications for the dam. I imagine, if anything, this was helpful for the Ethiopian government. Some of what is being decided upon at the dam is in the hands of consultants hired from abroad. EEPCO is managing and overseeing, but the lead engineer, Semegnew Bekele, drops in unannounced constantly in order to keep everyone on their toes - and to make sure things are going as planned. Having another set or sets of eyes on design is always a good thing. There are issues with the spillway, the saddle dam. These are all fixable given time and money.

There are some questions about the flow and evaporation rates. The hydrological information is a matter of data availability. My colleague pointed out that normally two hydrologists will not agree on the frequency of flood events. Take, for example, all the recent flood events in North America and Europe where lots of water infrastructure exists, based on flood projections.

I was asked to review a paper that has not yet been published that covers different forecasts of reservoir filling using a model - and data that they input with large assumptions. Although I understand the need for these forecasts, they are not that useful in my opinion. In this case especially - we don't have the data to input in the first place. When I spoke with people at the Ministry of Water and Energy in Ethiopia they told me that they can't collect the data as the equipment installed isn't functioning - also the infrastructure that exists in some other countries - good roads to get to remote river stretches or populations able to read and relay data to offices in the city, do not exist, nor do the funds to fix equipment and supply gas to cars making a weekly or monthly trip to the river or the tributaries. So, although records state that Ethiopia has flow gauges on the tributaries of or on the mainstream Blue Nile River, the actual data collection is not and has not been happening. What about rain gauges to track precipitation? Runoff? The story is the same. My colleague who is more versed in hydro-models explained that using assumed numbers is something engineers do, but with such a mega project more careful consideration is necessary to be able to predict future flow trends, filling, dry season, electricity generation. So, if there is not good data to being with - what are we predicting with these models?

The report does not take global climate change into account and only touches briefly upon sediment flows. The Blue Nile River is highly reactive to the precipitation patterns in the highlands. If, for reasons of climate change, these patterns should change, the reservoir and dam functioning would be impacted. Ditto for sedimentation issues - the dam really should have some sediment traps built at the bottom - these are trap doors at the bottom of the dam structure that allow for sediment movement - not the dead storage volume space for silt depostion - I saw this design on the Xayaburi Dam in Laos - I don't know if it works. Even if the Ethiopian government could come up with as aggressive plan for soil conservation as they have been able to do to get this dam going - the soils are old and will continue to erode into the river with every rainy season. Step one - address holistic, watershed wide, federal program for soil conservation. Step two - address what to do with the sediment storage that will inevitably shorten the life of the dam. As for climate change? There are some predictions out there for East Africa - I think one can start there and make some informed suggestions for scenarios and how to prepare?

A colleague highlighted this statement from the report: "the dam height was determined on technical criteria...does not consider environmental and socio-economic impacts downstream" - or I'd argue, upstream for that matter. The most important aspects of the documents for the experts have to do with the flow, the feasibility, the structure, the water quality. The experts do not explore the ecosystem impacts, the socio-cultural impacts downstream - probably because this information is still unavailable. The IPE is not concerned with Ethiopia's own people so much either - as mentioned in other posts, the Ethiopian government is making plans for those to be relocated. To be honest though, in everything I have read about dams in the past few years, there has never been a fully successful relocation of riverine communities due to dam projects. Whatever the World Bank says it does or the Asian Development Bank or whoever, people lose. River people know how to live on the river, their lives are in the river, around the river, based on the river. Take the river away, or take the people away from the river, it is like taking an arm and a leg from people in the communities. At least with many of the adults. Kids will adapt, but whether the culture can survive is unknown.

Stay tuned for further assessment shortly...