30 December 2012

Part 1: Water Charity? Hell is full of good meanings, but heaven is full of good works.

There are many water charity groups set up to do things like provide water purifiers or dig wells. Over the last week, while taking a break from research having left Ethiopia, I have been reading about Western efforts to curb the water sanitation problems in the world. These groups ask for your contribution, they give you back numbers of people served in foreign lands where water does not come out of the tap, but can you trust this information to be evidence of real change? Are these groups making the most appropriate choices for the water problem solution? Are their projects sustainable and do they have quality assurance checks on their projects 1 year, 5 years, 10 years down the road?
I don't know, but I would like to find out.
I thought I'd do some investigating. So over the next few blogs I hope to highlight some NGOs or charity groups working on water-related projects world-wide. The ones that take Western donations and apply them on the ground. I want to get a break-down of how much money goes to the end-user and how much goes toward employing the ideas that these groups have.

The first is Charity: Water - see ad above. They've even got their own blog. This is a New York City based group that claims 100% public donation to the project. They also take donation to run their enterprise. I wrote to ask how much of their funding goes to what - I am curious to know how much their operating costs are and how much their investment in projects on the ground costs are. I ask this for several reasons.

In Ethiopia, it costs about $100 per day to rent a vehicle. This is without fuel costs, but may include a driver. These costs can run upward of $250 per day or as low as $40 per day - depending on who you know and the type of vehicle. Typical foreign charities are charged the former, not the latter. This charity dug 100 wells in Ethiopia in 2012. They feature a cute Ethiopian boy with a jerry can, collecting water from a spigot.
This charity has made spiffy videos about projects with trendy looking participants. I am curious about this cost break-down - media promotion, private aircraft, office space in NYC, equipment, staff, website upkeep...

I have other questions.

From their website map, the majority of their projects appear to be in the north of the country. The majority of the population of Ethiopia is in the south. While traveling there I saw scores of people taking water from muddy streams and rivers, from puddles on the roads. I am not saying that their efforts are misplaced, because there must be a need in these places that they are working. But, I wonder what the motivation is for their project placement.
How do they measure the efficacy of their projects? How do they know 25,000 people will use their wells? How can they account for the sustainability of the wells? Do they go back to check and is their funding for these updates in the project design?

No, I do not have my own charity to combat these water issues. Yes, I still think someone should be critical about charities and their efforts. I saw many things in Ethiopia that reeked of corruption or mismanagement of funds. I do not think it is malicious intent, necessarily. More ignorance, naiveté, or just oblivious management decisions.

One of my favorite professors at Oregon State University often says in his lectures: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." This is not his quote but one of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

15 December 2012

First feedback about Grand Renaissance Dam case study

This week I had the opportunity to present some initial findings on my case study of Human Security Dimensions of Dam Development on the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia: the case of the Grand Renaissance Dam. I presented two separate times - one to the entire Wondo Genet Natural Resources College and the other to a group of graduate students taking a research methods course. Both presentations helped me a great deal to understand flaws in my work, what people expect from this work, and where I need to improve communication. A half-hour presentation was followed by one hour of questions...and this is just the beginning!

I came to Wondo Genet through the invitation of a Peace Corps couple finishing out their service at the College. Since arriving I have had the privilege to meet with the Ethiopian professors, International professors, US Forest Service folks, and Colorado State University researchers. Being back in the academic environment has helped get me back on track with how to analyze my work in a meaningful way. I was taught how to input my situation maps into an Access program in order to highlight relationships between concepts. This helps to identify relevant themes in the respondents answers to my interview questions. I feel super appreciative of having time to be able to actually work indepth on my data collection and have a peaceful spot in which to work. There has also been time to hike, go bushbaby hunting by flashlight, and rest.

On Wednesday I will present again at Addis Ababa University's Geography and Environmental Studies Dpt. 

I will post the PowerPoint Presentations sometime in the near future.

06 December 2012

Alarmist article about the Grand Renaissance Dam

I am holed up right now at Wondo Ganet University, Ethiopia, to complete analysis of the research I have collected on the Grand Renaissance Dam project. It is a peaceful and lovely campus, perfect for working and late night model running and analysis.

I am tempted to write something comprehensive about what I have learned in Ethiopia about the project, but I don't want to be irresponsible, making statements before finishing a thorough analysis of my collected data. The lack of open public information is creating a lot of misinformation in the media, especially outside of Ethiopia. This country is a very misunderstood country. I do not feel it is fair to accuse the GRD project of being a secret or being poorly constructed or being maliciously designed. It is too big a project to be a secret. If it was, why would the Ethiopian government have shared their reports and documents and assessments and maps and plans and everything with me when I asked? 

Conspiracy theorists love potential calamity, and propagating it through the press is very irresponsible of journalists. Maybe I am losing my patience with people, but it seems that the world is full of alarmists and pessimists. Why must we assume that something someone else does, in this case Ethiopia is doing this on their own, funding on their own, is bound for failure or problems? The engineers here are fully capable. The intellectuals here fully intelligent. Is there something about being Ethiopian that makes one less trustworthy to the outside world? If the US government was building a new national-level project, would they also be held accountable to release all related documents, budgets, plans on the internet for journalists and NGOs (self-appointed VIPs) to consume? Would they be assumed to make idiotic decisions like manufacture an earthquake? Were these accusations flying with the Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee, Aswan?

Is this a form of racism? A form of prejudice or nationalism? 

Here is a recent article written about the dam that has elements of absurdity too often touted by the international press. Although the author raises legitimate questions and concerns, this is shadowed by alarmist and unsubstantiated statements.


Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam: A Mega-Dam with Potentially Mega-Consequences


Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam: A Mega-Dam with Potentially Mega-

Without greater oversight, Ethiopia's secretive new dam could have
disastrous environmental, social and political impacts.

3 December 2012

By Haydar Yousif

While Egypt was undergoing dramatic political changes last year,
Ethiopia was secretly moving to unveil �Project X� � a huge hydropower
dam it intends to build on the Blue Nile, 40 km from the Sudanese

Political commentators, environmental experts and hydrologists have
all voiced concerns about the dam�s ecological impact, the strain it
might place on relations between the three eastern Nile nations, and
the financial burden of this mega-dam on Ethiopian citizens.

Now renamed the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the project (due for
completion by 2015) is set to become the largest hydroelectric power
plant in Africa. The scale of the project is staggering: the plant
will be capable of producing almost double the electricity of Aswan
High Dam in Egypt, while its 63 billion cubic metre (bcm) reservoir is
double the size of Ethiopia�s largest natural lake. Crucially for
Ethiopia�s Nile neighbours, the filling of this huge reservoir is also
likely to greatly reduce the flow of water to Egypt and Sudan for
several years, and could even permanently alter the amount of water
those countries are able to draw from the river.
Details trickling through

The planning and implementation of this project has all been decided
behind closed doors. Its $4.8 billion contract was awarded without
competitive bidding, for example, to Salini Costruttori, an Italian
firm favoured by the ruling party; Salini is also building the
controversial Gibe III Dam on Ethiopia�s Omo River.

Furthermore, the nature of the project was kept under wraps until
after site preparation had already begun, to the great surprise of
regional governments, Nile planning agencies, and Ethiopia�s Western
donors. It was especially shocking to Norwegian agencies who were
working with the Ethiopian government on a similar project for the
same stretch of the Nile, now made obsolete by the Renaissance Dam.

This level of official opacity has worryingly prevailed beyond the
initial announcement of the project. Expert analysis that would
normally accompany such a titanic project has either not been
undertaken or kept characteristically secret. No environmental
assessment is publicly available for the project. And no steps were
taken before its launch to openly discuss the dam�s impacts with
downstream Nile neighbours Egypt and Sudan.
Do the environmental and social plans hold water?

The consequences for Ethiopia�s downstream neighbours could
potentially be catastrophic. The Renaissance Dam�s reservoir will hold
back nearly one and a half times the average annual flow of the Blue
Nile. Filling the reservoir � which could take 3 to 5 years � will
drastically affect the downstream nations� agriculture, electricity
and water supply. Evaporative losses from the dam�s reservoir could be
as much as 3 billion cubic metres per year.

The dam will also retain silt. The Ethiopian government argues that
this will be a net positive as it will increase the lifetime of other
dams downstream, particularly in Sudan where, for example, the
Roseires Dam has been nearly incapacitated by sedimentation. But what
about the life expectancy of the Renaissance Dam itself? This is a
serious issue for the dam�s viability, and there are no known plans
for watershed management or soil conservation to address it. In
addition, the retention of silt by the dam reservoir will dramatically
reduce the fertility of soils downstream. Sediment-free water released
from dams also increases erosion downstream, which can lead to
riverbed deepening and a reduction in groundwater recharge.

Some have predicted even more calamitous consequences of the dam�s
construction. The Grand Renaissance Dam site is in the Great African
Rift Valley near the Afar Depression, an area in which tectonic
turmoil is so great it could, according to some accounts, eventually
tear the continent in two. The dam could be at risk from damage by
earthquakes, yet no one knows if it has even been analysed for this
risk, or the largest earthquake it is being designed to withstand. The
failure of such a huge structure puts the more than 100 million people
living downstream at risk.

On top of that risk is that of �reservoir induced seismicity�. A dam
with a reservoir as large as this is not just vulnerable to seismic
events � it can cause them. Scientists believe that there have been
more than 100 instances on six continents of large reservoirs inducing
earthquakes. The most serious to date was China�s devastating
magnitude 7.9 earthquake in 2008, which some experts believe was
induced by Zipingpu Dam.
Holding back the tide of criticism

However, some of the most pressing concerns regarding the dam�s
construction are political. Although its timing coincided with Egypt�s
political upheaval, the sudden unveiling of the project nevertheless
resulted in an outcry. Egypt�s primary fears are a reduction of its
main water supply from the Nile, and diminished nutrients and sediment
essential for agriculture.

Towards the end of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi�s rule,
Ethiopia adopted a more aggressive stance over the Nile, moving
swiftly to build a number of large hydropower dams. However, tension
in the region regarding control of the Nile waters has not all be
centred on Ethiopia. In May 2010, five upstream Nile states (Ethiopia,
Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania) signed a Cooperative Framework
Agreement (CFA) to access more water from the Nile. The move was
strongly opposed by Egypt, which brandished a colonial-era treaty from
1929 asserting its exclusive rights to the Nile�s water supply.

With the Renaissance Dam, these tensions seemed to be coming to a
head. Following its announcement in March 2011, Egyptian authorities
were quick to lobby international support and strongly hinted that a
military response was not deemed disproportionate to protect such a
vital resource. Indeed, Wikileaks recently released documents
detailing a planned Egyptian attack on the dam from Sudan.

However, attitudes appear to have since softened, and dialogue was
opened last month between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. In a bid to allay
Egypt�s wrath, the Ethiopian government proposed an International
Panel of Experts (IPoE) to review and assess the dam�s impacts on
downstream neighbours. The panel of ten consists of two members from
each of the three countries eastern Nile countries, plus four
international experts. Their names have not been released and their
meetings are behind closed doors, but they are expected to announce
their findings four months from now. This seems to have placated
Ethiopia�s neighbours for now. Egypt has toned down its opposition to
the dam, while President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has even pledged
Sudanese support for the project.

Yet whatever the IPoE�s findings, the Ethiopian government seems
adamant the dam will continue. In September 2012, the Ethiopian
Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that Ethiopia would never halt or
slow the construction of the dam due to external pressure, calling
into question the significance of the panel. Needless to say, many in
Sudan and Egypt still have serious concerns about the project.

Whatever the outcome of political arbitration, it remains
irresponsible for Ethiopia to build Africa�s biggest hydropower
project, on its most contentious river, with no public access to
critical information about the dam�s impacts � a flawed process which
can hardly result in a sustainable project. If the Ethiopian
government is serious about maintaining good relations with its Nile
neighbours, and if it truly wishes to develop projects that will carry
its people and the broader region into prosperity, it must begin by
allowing some light to penetrate this secretive development scheme.

About the Author
Haydar Yousif is a Sudanese hydrologist who has worked for 35 years on
water issues on the Nile. 

05 December 2012

With 1 billion without access to safe water, is climate change just a distractor?

This was a conversation I was engaged in last night at Wondo Ganet College, Ethiopia. In my dissertation, I don't want to include anything about climate change issues because to me the present challenges related to the nexus of freshwater, human, and environment systems are crucial issues on their own. In other words - the fact that there are so many people without access to safe, clean water is a human rights violation and needs to be addressed with appropriate applications of technology.

I have seen, in the months I've spent in Ethiopia, so many examples of people having to make due with the water they have available. This includes drinking unfiltered water directly from rivers full of sediment and unknown pollutants and/or bacteria, people waiting in long lines at a common tap or pump, women and children gathering water from muddy puddles or road runnoff.

In the west, we turn on our tap.

Why are people forced into such situations? Why would people live in an area without access to safe drinking water? Has the water always been unsafe? Is it a choice? Is it a political problem? Is it an environmental problem? Is it an economic problem? Is it a technical problem? Is it a security problem? Is it a little bit of everything? Are there simple, low tech solutions? I believe the answer is yes to at least the last 2 questions.

I am not sure about the answers to these other questions though, but I do think that the question of safe drinking water access can and should be addressed. Immediately. Instead of spending our time and resources on these big problems of climate change that we feel unable to really control, why aren't we starting in small steps - addressing real problems? Another expensive study on atmospheric or ocean changes is sexy, but how is it really practical when you consider human suffering at the cost of these adventures?

Perhaps we've missed something important. Perhaps we will find that small changes turn into big changes - climate change control may be addressed from taking care of controlling what we have the power to control. The little things like land-use management or drinking water quality.

In a country like Ethiopia, where you throw a rock and hit an international consultant, I find these realities bordering on the absurd if not fully planted in the absurd.

What are we doing standing by while people fetch water from a muddy puddle on the side of the road? I am not sure, but I know I am also guilty. I want to see change, and we should all want change. There are ways to achieve this that aren't too complicated...or impossible.