26 March 2015

Declaration of Principles for Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam, and Egypt's Cooperation

Earlier this week negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan that have been ongoing since 2013 resulted in official determinations about Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam. Egypt's President el-Sisi was in Ethiopia this week, primarily to address the irreplaceable resource of the Nile River, but his trip offered opportunity for other negotiations and diplomatic discussions between Ethiopia and Egypt. Diplomatic negotiations around water are fascinating for this reason - water forces otherwise uncooperative parties to the table, when they get there they realize there is so much more to discuss and cooperate about beyond just water.

Regional stakeholders as well as an international audience have been eagerly awaiting some news about ongoing negotiations. Social media discussions highlight frustration of the nationally fueled dialogue in Ethiopia and Egypt regarding the shared resource and the unknown attitude of their own leaders on the topic. The outlook appears to be a compromise. Egypt will get some of the electricity from the proposed 6,000 MW dam and will help technically, Sudan will act as an intermediary, and Ethiopia wont be threatened by possible sabotage and can continue construction in peace. The next series of decisions are technical regarding how long Ethiopia will take to fill the reservoir behind the dam so that Egypt still has a consistent flow for their own hydroelectric dam. As I've stated in earlier posts, 6,000 MW is three times what Ethiopia currently has online. Only some 42% of the country has electricity, and in rural areas the very last of the forests are being consumed for fuel wood.

I take this to mean that the project will continue. But issues of environmental impacts in the area of the dam remain unaddressed, which could cause entire system change and shift, such as localized climate change. The environmental impacts of dams are complex. There is the immediate aquatic impact, of course. But what of a possibility to lessen impact on forest due to fuel wood harvesting being replaced by electric stoves? It is not an impossible idea, in Addis Ababa older generations told me that the shift happened in their lifetimes in many homes in Addis. Benefits to the environment in other areas of the region can be highlighted, planned for, and brought into the official plan of mitigation for the damage that the Renaissance Dam will do to Ethiopia's vast biodiversity. This is an opportunity. However, there is no mention of the potential loss of terrestrial and aquatic species in the Blue Nile (Abey), no question of the environmental impact statement. My recent trip in Egypt highlighted to me the absolute need to address this in the total absence of so many animals depicted in the ancient ruins - these animals aren't extinct, just locally extinct. This, I was told is mainly because of the 1970s commissioning of the High Aswan Dam. Hippos, crocodiles, and unknown amounts of other aquatic species were not able to navigate the block in the river. What species will disappear because of the Renaissance Dam? We may never know.

Issues of regional human impact also remain unaddressed, like that of the situation in the Blue Nile State in Sudan, a place still locked up in Sudan's endless civil war - how many people are subsisting on the river? How many internally displaced people are just surviving because of access to that water? Would the Sudanese government rather not address these questions for political reasons? This is a rebel place - but there are innocent people just living or running from war living there too. One of the largest displaced people camps from that conflict still exists just down the road from the dam. International community vehicles flood the nearby town of Assosa. How many lives will be completely disrupted when the flow changes? When the seasonal floods no longer replenish the soils or the flood recedes to reveal fertile soils for planting? The population in Ethiopia of 20,000 people have relocation plans in place, but what of the people just over the border only 20 kilometers from the dam? We may never know.

NPR recently interviewed Dr. Aaron Wolf regarding his expert opinion in treaty negotiations. You can listen to the story here or read below.

Wolf states that what we are seeing in the world right now, the trend of upstream development, has to do with geopolitical economics and time. That the countries have decided to cooperate on the Renaissance Dam is a rational response to a possibly conflictive situation. I was in conversation recently with an Ethiopian hydroengineer who stated, "of course [they will negotiate], this is about water." I think that is the underlying benefit when dealing with water resources - they are essential so as long as the parties involved are civil - they will try to negotiate a compromise. There are certainly cases where one party has dominated and forced the other into submission, or even worse. However, with Wolf's work he's found that this is not the case at the international negotiations level.

Don't Torpedo The Dam, Full Speed Ahead For Ethiopia's Nile Project

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is under construction near Assosa, Ethiopia. When it's completed, the dam will have be able to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, making it the biggest hydroelectric power station in Africa.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is under construction near Assosa, Ethiopia. When it's completed, the dam will have be able to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, making it the biggest hydroelectric power station in Africa.
Elias Asmare/AP
I once met a popular spoken word poet in Ethiopia who was asked by a government official to write a poem about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. (He politely explained that he didn't do poetry about infrastructure.) But it's not surprising that Ethiopia would like to inscribe this dam into the Ethiopian epic.
When completed, the Renaissance Dam promises to be the largest hydro-electric project in Africa. Funded without help from America or the West, the "renaissance" in the dam's title refers to a 70-year-old vision of Africa rising on the strength of its own abundant resources. Independence and self-reliance in the so-called "dark continent" begins with electricity.
But since Ethiopia began construction in 2011, Egypt has spun the dam as a threat. Egypt's way of life depends on the Nile River. Former president Mohammed Morsi once warned that every drop of water stolen from the Nile would be defended by a drop of Egyptian blood.
In fact, a hydropower dam doesn't steal water from downstream. It only draws power from its flow. Except during one crucial period: just after the dam is built and the reservoir is filled. A reservoir this huge will hold 63 billion cubic meters — roughly as much water as Egypt gets from the Nile over the course of a year. If the basin were to be filled too fast, Egypt's farmers would plunge into drought and its own hydropower dams would stop producing electricity.
Fear of that scenario is why Egypt's former president almost went to war with Ethiopia over the dam.
Instead, on Monday, Egypt's current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn signed a "Declaration of Principles" with Sudan's president as broker. Egypt approved the project and will have rights to some of the electricity that will be generated. The key negotiations to come will be over the pace of filling that giant reservoir when it's completed in the next few years. Fast enough to satisfy Ethiopia's grand ambitions but slow enough not to hobble Egypt's economy.
Aaron Wolf, a professor of geography and trained mediator who runs the Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation at Oregon State University, says that once the reservoir is filled, the long term impact of the Renaissance Dam will be less to Egypt than to traditional Ethiopian tribes who will lose access to the river they depend upon for fishing or mining.
"Like all big dams, there are going to be impacts," he says. "But if all things were equal, you do want [to build] your dams upstream."
Negotiators for both sides will have to overcome centuries of conflict and distrust. Ethiopia rightly complains that colonial-era water treaties gave Egypt a virtual monopoly over Nile waters. Geography has also played its role. Wolf notes that "downstream" countries like Egypt tend to develop first, because that's where the flat plains and agricultural land is, while upstream countries like Ethiopia are generally more hilly and later to develop. Then when those upstream countries develop, they have a downstream impact. "That chronology is fairly common," Wolf says, from water conflicts in China, to Tajikistan, to Laos.
Even more common, of course, is the distrust that accompanies all water disputes. "I grew up in San Francisco and I grew up resenting Southern California for their incessant water needs," Wolf says. "But the corollary to that is that water also brings people into a room who wouldn't normally sit in a room together. So it brings Arabs and Israelis together, Egyptians and Ethiopians, Northern California and Southern California."
When it comes to water, even the bitterest rivals eventually end up having to take up arms or negotiate. Two powerful African economies, Egypt and Ethiopia, have moved a step toward the latter.