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.