14 October 2021

The Renaissance Dam and the Question of Water Rights on the Nile River

Yes, it has been awhile.

I was recently sent this video by a lawyer I met through some discussions about indigenous rights threats from Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam (aka GERD) on the Nile River. I have been asked several times over the last year by Egyptian journalists and professionals to weigh in on the dam project, given where it is today and that I was doing research on the project at the outset. I have declined, but not before I shared my critical view of the whole situation with those who have asked. The response in each case was crickets, so apparently it is not something anyone wants to platform. So here I am going to platform myself.

I do want to say that I am still interested to work with indigenous groups on the issue of their human/water/land rights threats from the project. Indigenous concerns in this case are tangible: based on human beings quality of life, right to life, and lifeways. Indigenous communities have maintained a way of life for themselves without needing to assimilate to whatever the dominant culture is in their given geography, as such Indigenous communities are like countries within countries - in some cases, not all, they actually are recognized as sovereign nations. Unfortunately, in the three Nile countries in question here, no such allowance exists. Nation-states or country concerns are centered on economics, often dressed up as human rights. The right to profit from water does not, in my opinion, come under the auspices of human rights. I am not going to work with indigenous groups if and when they are being used as leverage for national propaganda agendas. Egyptian, Ethiopian, Sudanese Governments, with a capital G, do not have a track record of integrity or justice when it comes to indigenous rights of the people in their own borders. I said this in a World Bank report that was subsequently scrubbed of such assertions - even though I backed them with peer reviewed scholarship that included critical examination of the situation of Nubians after the Aswan Dam, displaced people in the Rosaries dam footprint, and my own interview data that included Ethiopian officials stating over and over again: what is the sacrifice of 20,000 people for 90 million? Today, in all three of these countries, the Governments ignore indigenous voices and/or respond with violence. That any of these governments would suddenly care about the Gumuz or Berta is a deception. And look, this ugly behavior is not isolated to these three Nile countries - this is everywhere in the world, some, like European or North American Governments, do it more subtly but just as violently and insidiously. 

I see this video as problematic and confusing. Confident assertions of one's perspective at the cost of misrepresenting the actual situation at hand is irresponsible at best. Some could label this type of product propaganda, or gaslighting. Here I would like to weigh in on this video in 6 points and a suggestion: 

1. This narrative centers Egypt. When one people is centered in a narrative, this naturally erases or eclipses other people in a given situation. When you erase or eclipse other people, there are probably some human rights violations in the works. Another example of a country that does this consistently is the USA, my native country, in dealing with anyone they have to share resources with - Canada, Mexico, sovereign nations of indigenous people within their borders. USA needs, almost always to do with national economics, come first and or worse yet, are the only needs in question when you listen to the videos or narratives our government agencies put out. It is a thinly veiled supremacy agenda. When it comes to this video: Egypt is putting themselves at the center of a story that really centers in a place outside of their control - another sovereign land upstream: Ethiopia.

2. Passive aggression and gaslighting #1 Subtle imagery. When information is presented in this sort of format - using stock images referring to an unrelated topic, such as showing troop deployment when discussing Egyptian and Sudanese diplomacy with Ethiopia - this starts to warp the narrative. The viewer is confronted with disconnected information that they are then going to connect in their own minds. The result is thinking of the militarization of Egyptian response to Ethiopia as if this is acceptable or true. Showing the Ethiopians who live near to the dam project rather than the Ethiopian cities benefitting from the project, such as Addis Ababa is another example. This sort of weaving disparate ideas together through audio and visual products - film - is a very tried and true form of persuasion that often is not true or just one facet of reality.

3.  Passive aggression and stating "facts" that cannot be proven #2 Subtle language. The dismissive language - of what was translated - about Ethiopians, insulting and threatening, is not lost. This is passive aggressive behavior and a sign of unhealthy communication. The confident presentation of numbers and legal precedent is likewise problematic. This is not discourse, this is an attempt to force a narrative. This narrative is based more on emotion and sense of entitlement than it is facts. Ex. where is this loss of arable land? why are the dams between the Renaissance dam and the majority of Egyptian agricultural activity not addressed? how did you calculate your number related to water? why is this water assumed to belong to anyone? why would Egypt decide what Ethiopia does in its sovereign territory?

4. Talking about water as something that there can be a perpetual easement or international law guaranteed...Sorry colonizers; the days of the colonial spirit are dying, so let's stop using that language. This legal language constantly thrown around as if it means something reflects a set of rules made by and benefitting colonial powers and those the colonial powers favored. And that power has waned. Law and justice are not the same thing - and rights are a whole different bag of ideas and realities. Whose rights? At whose expense?

5. Once again asserting that Ethiopia built the dam because Egypt was in turmoil. I tire of this assertion.  Before I get into why let me point out that Ethiopia itself has been in turmoil for years now, including some huge number of political prisoners that are living (if they are living) under questionable conditions. I shudder to think what will be revealed outside the borders once current Ethiopian leadership changes hands. I digress, but only to point out - Ethiopia is busy and always has been busy - too busy to be building plans around an out of the blue revolution in Egypt. The plans to build this dam, the largest project of its kind on the African continent, did not happen out of the blue in a time of advantage centering Egypt. Ethiopia started this because of Ethiopia. The dam plans were formed first by colonial engineers, then by anti-communist efforts of the USA during all that Cold War tax dollar spending on foreign interests. The dam has changed names a number of times because it has been decades in the making. In 1970s the Emperor was planning to break ground. Ethiopia is a country of equal complexity and population numbers as Egypt and as such, has its own business to attend to - and it has built relationships. Relationships with the Italian construction company Salini - no matter the opinion of that outfit - they build things. Relationship ties with diaspora who have made a good life for themselves and want to invest back home. Relationships with neighboring countries. Contracts were established with about 5 surrounding countries to sell the electricity by the time I got there in 2012. Those kinds of negotiations and planning do not happen in one year in any culture or geography, especially not one as vast and complicated as where we are talking.

6. Fear. This narrative is a fear-based narrative. Violence is a response to fear. Fear is generated by the unknown and counter to the apparent confidence of the Egyptian experts highlighted in this video, it is the unknown that has everyone braced. This kind of forced control threats does not offer sustainable healthy societal outcomes - people just want to live their lives. Discourse and dialogue, which are done better in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan than most of the world, are the salve to fear. Talk it out - and yes, I know there have been talks ongoing since 2013 of so...so what...your societies are millennia in the making: keep talking. Figure out some ways to cooperate with shared water. Stop referring to models that just do not apply in contemporary reality - models such as colonial authored water distribution or outmoded models of war. 

Suggestion: Ask for help. This last point is directed toward my Egyptian, Ethiopian, Sudanese colleagues or the government officials in positions of making decisions on all of this: you do not need to go this alone. This does not mean that I believe these country governments are not capable of appropriate decisions for their geographies. I suggest this collaborative and diverse knowledge-base approach in any complex water system - which they all are. The Nile is one of the largest and most complex water systems in the world. You do not have to have all of the answers. If you bring in more experts do not pay the outrageous fees - anyone who charges huge sums of money to help assess water management is not really there to help, they are just to make a buck and possibly a name for themselves.  Avoid bringing in folks from counties where racism is taught from the very start of their education, they are going to have a hard time listening to anyone who does not look like them. Make sure that they are actually credentialed in peer reviewed spaces or community reviewed spaces. So many knowledge or "expertise" vacuums exist in the big banks or international organizations or governments. The ideas put forward are creative, but often unproven and apply only to a fantasy world. The Nile is not an experimental lab for scholars or experts to play with. Some of those folks have untested ideas and enjoy a career of theorizing. There are plenty of human resources that have practical on the ground knowledge of water management - tap into them - especially the ones who know your countries and have spent more than a vacation or workshop there.

02 May 2019

Yankton Sioux Tribe Flooded Basements and Health-related Risk

The following series of posts about flooding on the Yankton Sioux Reservation are coauthored and written with express permission of the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

The previous post about Lake Andes described the lake on the Yankton Sioux Reservation that has overtopped its banks over a state highway and has made access to the town of Lake Andes impassable from the east. Since the writing of that piece I am told that someone came out and dumped a bunch of sandbags…

There is a community just south and east of the center of Lake Andes that is referred to as “housing” or Indian Housing. These houses are administered by the Tribal Government through the Yankton Sioux Housing, administered by the US Federal Program: Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in a subset of grants/programs Public Indian Housing, Office of Native American Programs, Indian Housing (that is a mouthful). The houses in this development are divided into old housing (26 houses) and new housing (40 houses) with a total of 66 houses. According to the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s website, there are 252 units (http://dakota57380sd.tripod.com/ystha.html) under supervision on the reservation under this office, so this community represents more than 25% of the provided housing. While I am told that no houses have been built here in more than 25 years, houses are renovated from time to time, though many stand boarded up and empty and uninhabitable.
Crumbling bike path caused by Lake Andes flood

The houses are also located just shy of the approaching new south shore of Lake Andes. Getting to the housing posed a challenge, as the flooded road has cut off easy access from Lake Andes. “A woman drove her truck out in that water yesterday,” we were told. “She didn’t make it, and she ruined her engine.” The state highway is not only flooded, but given the state of the parallel bike path just crumbling under the rising lake waters, is most likely undercut and crumbling under that moving water.

Bike Path from Housing to Lake Andes (uptown)

Flooded Highway 50/18/281 looking east and south

First, our team decided to cross through the farmer’s fields between the highway and housing. We took our bicycles. As we cut through a tribal member’s yard, a man told us that no one was crossing that way in the last day or so because the ground was too wet. We decided to test it anyway. Within about 10 minutes it became clear we were not going to be able to cross the fields. Our bikes were cemented still by the mud which has a high clay content. Our shoes were caked in the dark stuff. We retreated to the road, dug the mud out of the fenders and wheels and headed back to town to ditch the bike idea.

Outlet of aquaduct from Lake Andes
Next, we decided to borrow a truck for the dirt road. (My city car, on a previous day driving on dirt roads north of Lake Andes, ended up with a rock grinding in the wheel well, undercarriage torn off, and damaged serpentine belt, which needed to be replaced.) The road over to housing is a dirt road less than a mile south of Lake Andes that drives between farmer fields. First we stopped just across the road where the mouth of a tunnel is gushing water and a flock of pelicans, cormorants, and herons were feeding. This tunnel is said to connect the water from Lake Andes just west of the housing, run the water under the farmer’s fields between and eventually to Svatos Bay and Lake Case (aka the Missouri River). Dozens of dead sizable carp littered the area around the outlet. And one lay gasping in the field, most likely cast off from one of the pelicans. We noted the high volume of water and then continued across the road to housing. The dirt road is washboarded and potholed and we didn’t get above 25 miles per hour across the land and up the hill. I could see farmers pulling haybales in the fields and we passed a few cars coming from housing.
Pelicans flock around the lake outlet south of Lake Andes
The flooded lake across 50/18/281 has cut the community off from the town of Lake Andes where the grocery store, gas station, hardware store, lumber yard, and other services and payment offices are located. Residents and the Yankton shuttle now need to drive up over the hill on a dirt road to bypass and get into town or to their jobs at the casino. The dirt road is in bad shape as my team drove it to get into the community. “My car is getting messed up having to drive that road every time we want to get to town. And they are speculating that the other road is going to be overtopped soon,” one resident told us. There are two paved roads that connect housing to the state highway 50/18/281. The road that connects further east is still passable and gives residents access to Wagner, about 20 miles to the east and south. The road that connects to Lake Andes which is about 1 mile west and north is the one that is impassable. “Those semis keep coming through here and our roads can’t handle it. They are driving too fast too for all the kids and pets around here,” one resident said. The tractor trailers that are hauling various things are using Indian Housing roads as cut throughs to meet up with the state highways on the opposite side of the dirt road pass.

Sump Pump and flood water pools in backyards
From above the community, you can see how close the lake flood is to the houses and the standing water in the yards glints in the sun. The yards and basements of most of these houses are flooded, and the sound of sump pumps drones on and off, with the related sound of pouring water out of the hoses and pipes onto the ground. Pools of water stood in the yard. Our team spoke with some of the residents in the community about their basements and, with permission, were able to go into the basements to document the water damage and mold. We also documented the yards and the areas where the sump pump outlets drain the water.

Rigged sump pump drain with PVC and gutter to the street
flooded basement with mushrooms growing
We spoke with residents who had water in their basements as early as November and December. One family had a sick baby due to the related mold that got into the walls and floors of the house, and Indian Health Services came out with Housing to get a new sump pump and rigged piping away from the house and into the street. The piping was partial PVC piping and jointing, and partial piece of gutter, and while the basement was dry, there was still evidence of mold. That resident told us that if they did not leave the basement windows open, the smell became strong and the mold came back. They were told to bleach the walls regularly to keep out the mold, though one family member had to throw out her bed because the mold from the wall had corrupted her bed too. Bleach was not enough to keep the mold at bay.

“Everyone around here is sick. And we’ve been sick for more than a month. We think it is from what is coming up from the basements,” one resident said.

Another house we entered told us that they had mushrooms growing in their basement and when we entered the water was about 4 inches deep, even with the sump pump. One look outside at the sump pump destination told us why. The pipe was sticking out about two or three feet from the wall of the house, periodically throwing out heaps of water that created an enormous pool along the entire back of the house’s foundation. The pump was just recycling water from the basement to the backyard and to seep back in again.

Sump pump drain only a few feet from the house, pooling along the foundation and most likely seeping back into the basement.
Another few houses visited and we saw similar situations of water seeping in along the seams of the basement floor. Sump pumps piping water just out into the backyard and against house foundations, rather than being snaked away from the house with a hose or pipe. One sump pump pond formed just around the resident’s propane container, undercutting the legs.

Our guess is that this is groundwater connected with that approaching lakebed and nearby creek. Mold smattered the walls and floors and some of the possessions people left downstairs. Some of the residents are elderly and could not get the beds, bedding, blankets, and clothes out of the basement before everything was ruined with the flood water. One Elder couple put a bed in the basement on top of commodity cans. It at least kept the bed out of the water, but ultimately with the moisture that bed will need to be thrown away.

One resident said, “That water come up and I didn’t know it. My light doesn’t turn on from upstairs and I was just going down to do laundry and I stepped off that last step and was shocked to step into water!”

Mold visible along the foundation walls and the windows of one basement, and in the house above.

Another Elder said, “I don’t even go down there, I just keep the door closed. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t stand that smell!” Her basement had 1 to 3 inches of standing water even with the sump pump going.

Washers and dryers sat up on boards and were still being used in some cases. Things are soaked through and moldering including quilting supplies, regalia, photographs, family heirlooms, and other valuables.

Even with sump pumps and floor squeegies the flood doesn't stop.

We were told about the local BIA officer, one is assigned to live within each housing development, who had a whole living area built in his basement and when the flooding started, he moved out. “I think he lost everything down there.”

Basement of an Elder with mold and flood waters, and sump pump active.
When we asked what people plan to do about it, the responses were varied, but restrained. “There’s not a lot we can do,” one resident said. “We’ve asked for help, I’ve been asking since December. At first they just came out and replaced my sump pump. Then that burnt out and they came back. After that they just tell us to wait for spring clean-up to put our things outside to be collected. I don’t want to put things out now because of the rats and mice making homes in the piles.” When we asked when spring clean-up was going to happen, no date had been issued.

Our last stop was the police station and community center where we saw sandbags scattered about, some broken open. We spoke to the man on staff who told us that about 5 inches of water had come in in March, flowing under the front door and seeping in through the gymnasium. They responded by sandbagging and using a pump to eliminate the water. Since then no more water had come in. The Pow-Wow grounds are inundated just on the other side of the road from the community center. The cook-houses sitting in about a foot of water, and the old commodities house sat in water.

Cook houses out in the flood water.
Another resident mused, “This is the last push for us to move out of here. I don’t know if this community is going to survive this flood once the spring rains come. That lake just keeps creeping up.”

Flooded pow-wow grounds
As we stood at the Pow-Wow grounds we heard the sound of an 18 wheeler and looked to see a big tractor trailer coming into the community. Lifting my camera, I shot a picture and the truck stopped. A moment later it started backing out of the road. A BIA Police cruiser came snaking by the truck, but no one stopped to talk. We watched as that big truck struggled until it was turned around and headed back out onto the highway.
Semi trucks are using Indian Housing roads as a cut through to bypass flooded Highway 50/18/281

01 May 2019

Flooding in Davenport, Iowa

Image result for flooding in davenport iowa
Flooding Mississippi River busted a barrier and flooded downtown Iowa city according to this news report. Davenport is home to 100,000 people. The flood waters are said to be 6 feet deep in places.

Floods are hitting the midwest this spring, and the water is going to keep coming from snowmelt in Montana all the way down the Missouri River system, combined with potentially heavy precipitation events, the kind that are linked with climate change. The Missouri is the largest tributary to the Mississippi. The Missouri River is also the longest river in North America and the combined Missouri/Mississippi system constitutes the 4th longest river system in the world, after the Nile, Amazon, and the Yangtze. So why isn't there more attention paid to how these rivers are managed? And why are the Feds managing the river from Omaha or DC without more feedback and input from the stakeholders that live along the banks? That seems like a recipe for disaster, and in fact, it is.

A large flood situation hit Nebraska last month due nearby to where I live in part to a failed dam on the Niobrara, coupled with a decision from the US Army Corps of Engineers to allow high releases from the Gavins Point dam (Yankton, the town behind the dam was flooding from backed up Lewis and Clark Reservoir, plus heavy precipitation and snow melt (that "bomb cyclone" event). The estimated loss to farmers is devastating as numbers and dollar estimates are still rolling in about lost cattle and sanded/ruined fields, but some reports say there is more than $1billion USD in damage.

Some news articles are paying attention and one opinion piece in Bloomberg about the Missouri River speculates that the floods are less a situation driven by natural causes and more by manmade management decisions. Poor management decisions by the Federal Government rather than the stakeholders. Decisions like controlling the Missouri River for navigation, flood control, and hydropower generation in preference to listening to stakeholder input, or management that considers the natural system. There is this stretch of Missouri that runs along the Yankton Sioux Reservation called a "wild and scenic" stretch. And this stretch is in the last category of what that connotation means - it is a recreation stretch really. And the rest of the river is either bloated from being backed up behind a dam or flanked by engineered infrastructure.

Here is a digression: if middle America is in trouble, the coasts are going to feel it in the grocery stores as most of the country's cereal and wheat comes from this region, a good portion of the beef and pet food, a portion of dairy. And if California keeps seeing dry years like they did just recently, we, as a nation, are going to have to figure out how to keep feeding ourselves.

Articles abound about how the cities along the rivers in the Missouri and Mississippi systems are preparing for flood waters to rise up. Just as Gilbert Fowler White identified in his research in the 1940s, the US Government, with all these water development projects, gives people a false sense of security. And the insurance companies enable those communities to build in the floodplains. And this can spell disaster and death for middle America.

Just ask the folks in New Orleans how that infrastructure on the Mississippi is working out as they look UP at the river from Jackson Square; those who didn't leave after Katrina and those failed levees.

Or ask the Tribes whose homes were taken when the Pick-Sloane project bullied through the river valleys on the Missouri, displacing families and communities in the name of "progress".

"Progress" that is now a billion dollar operation with federal agencies using expansive budgets and employing scores of workers to "manage" the river. Keeping the USACE full of water engineers with something to do and provide US Fish and Wildlife and related scientists with a living laboratory.

Engineering massive rivers is a bad habit of those who seek control and lack acceptance of life on life's terms and nature on nature's terms.

Perhaps these floods will highlight the disparity that Native American communities face along this river system, just as the Mississippi flood in 1927 supposedly highlighted the disparity between North and South and the disgusting behavior of the white people toward the black people.