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The dam

The scenes on the television screen were gruesome: a baby sucking on a dried breast, a man crawling on all four because his skinny legs could no longer support his frail body, a child with skinny hands begging for some grain, a mother clutching on a skeleton of a baby refusing to let go even though he or she is breathless, vultures scavenging the terrain for fallen human bodies to feed on. For me, the most heart-wrenching image that remains vivid in my mind, though some 28 years have since elapsed, is a young boy carrying the lifeless body of a younger boy. He could have been his brother, his childhood friend, I don’t know.

These are not surreal images from a movie scene, but factual ones from the devastating famine that struck parts of Ethiopia in 1983 through to 1985 which, according to United Nations estimates, claimed the lives of some one million Ethiopians. During those years a drought prevailed as record low rainfall literally dried the rivers and tributaries that feed Lake Tana (origin of the Blue Nile, or Abbay as the locals call it in Ethiopia.) The water levels in the gushing arteries (Tekezee, Baro/Sobat, Blue Nile) that supply Egypt with 85 percent of its water were reduced. The drought’s aftermath would have been equally catastrophic on the people of Egypt except for Lake Nasser’s strategic fresh water reservoir behind the Aswan High Dam, which kept the Egyptian household water fountains flowing, and the Delta irrigated downstream.

Ethiopia is an agricultural country and relies on rainfall to plant its grains (wheat, teff, corn, sorghum) and when the rain Gods look elsewhere, drought ensues, grain supply becomes scarce, and, absent logistical resources in a poor country, famine and loss of life become just inevitable. Ethiopia’s mid-1980s calamity occurred within the context of a civil war which compounded the famine’s effect.

The world responded to Ethiopia’s plight and the international community clamored to send aid. Egypt is a Third World developing country, helping the people of Ethiopia was just beyond its means. Yet, from the middle school geography class we learned that the Nile River is the world’s longest river and one of its southern two main arteries is the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia. We also learned that we have ancient historical ties with the people of Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia.) So, perhaps former President Hosni Mubarak should have had the sense and decency to send a single military air dispatch to deliver anything to the famine victims. Even as a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the people of Ethiopia to express sympathy. Instead, just radio silence across the airwaves and the sporadic reporting on the 9 o’clock news broadcasts of the state-sponsored television station. Ethiopia seemed as if it were a very distant nation (geographically and historically) to Egypt.

Fast-forward 28 years and the Egyptian airwaves are no longer silent on Ethiopia. The reason? The people of Ethiopia have decided to take matters into their own hands and replicate what Egypt did in 1960 by building their own icon of national pride: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Egypt built the Aswan Dam in its southern reaches and the project did not impact any upstream country on the Nile Basin. So the colossal dam didn’t instigate any uproar. That isn’t the case with the Renaissance Dam since it will be built two nations south of Egypt along a crucial transboundary river. The Ethiopian authorities adamantly declare the dam’s sole purpose is a hydroelectric power source to generate 6000 MW with an annual energy production of 15,000GWh to cover the power supply demand in Ethiopia and serve as a power hub for East and perhaps the North African region. With a 70 BCM water reservoir, energy production is part of the equation as the dam’s broader purpose is to harness the mood swings of Mother Nature and use the waters for irrigation and not be at the mercy of seasonal rainfall for agriculture.

Since the inception of the project, Egyptian media outlets have delivered a barrage of statements that forecast doom and gloom to the people of Egypt. The claims vary: “a substantial reduction in the water supply to Egypt,” “the dam violates all Nile Water treaties,” “the dam has structural weaknesses that could affect its safety,” “Egypt will face a reduction in the Aswan High Dam’s electricity-generating capacity,” “Israel is conspiring with Ethiopia to sabotage Egypt,” and so on. The controversy and conspiracy theories are endless. But I think we need to take a step back and sort facts from fiction.

For over a century, Egypt (and to a lesser extent Sudan) was waiving a series of colonial-era Water Treaties brokered by Great Britain that gave Egypt the right to amass the lion’s share of the waters of the Nile. These treaties were signed while the riparian countries were occupied by foreign powers and the treat of 1959 was bilaterally signed between the Egyptian and Sudanese governments (giving a cold shoulder to the other eight countries on the Nile Basin) and allotted the two nations the entire average annual flow of the Nile. Egypt, unjustly and adamantly, insisted that these historical treaties are still binding in this day and age and blocked any upstream water projects and ignored the need of other Nile Basin countries (south of Sudan) to utilize the river’s waters. In the past few years, the upstream Nile Basin countries united and formed the Nile Basin Initiative to redefine a more equitable water-sharing agreement given their population growth and need for sustainable economic development through industrialization and hydropower generation – the impetus for the Renaissance Dam.

In 2011, the government of Ethiopia, in an effort to build trust and confidence, invited in good faith the two downstream countries (Egypt and Sudan) to form a national and international panel of experts with the objective of soliciting an understanding of the benefits (to Ethiopia) and impacts (on the two downstream countries) of the Renaissance Dam. Accordingly, the governments of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan each nominated two national experts. The six national panel members mutually agreed to include four international experts in the following disciplines: (i) Dam engineering; (ii) Water resources planning and hydrologic modeling; (iii) Environment; and (iv) Socioeconomics. The six national experts, after careful deliberation on the selection of the four international experts, submitted the final list of nominees in February 2012. The four international experts were consultants working for different renowned international corporations specializing in different fields.

The scope of the international panel was not to draft or create any design and/or technical documents, but rather to scrutinize and evaluate existing documents that were already created. Upon completing the evaluation, the international panel would then submit findings and recommendations in its final report. The Italian company Salini Impregilo is the primary contractor that was awarded the construction of the dam and its engineers provided all documents pertinent to its design, construction, and stability. As for the dam’s impact and assessment studies, either Ethiopian experts or other international contractors provided these.

During the course of one year (between May 2012 and May 2013) the panel of 10 scrutinized countless technical documents that covered different aspects of the dam: structural stability analysis, construction design, hydrological reports, reservoir simulation study, environmental and social impact assessment, hydrological calculations, energy production, dam elevation considerations, dam foundation geotechnical assessment, etc. The artifacts’ list is endless. The most compelling section in the panel’s final report (released May 2013) is chapter five, “Findings and Recommendations.” That chapter is divided into three areas of technical expertise: (i) Dam Safety and Engineering; (ii) Water Resources and Hydrology; (iii) Environment and Socio-economics.

The second area (Water Resources and Hydrology) is the most relevant to Egypt it delineates the dam’s impact on the supply of water downstream. The “Hydrological and Reservoir Simulation” study that was submitted to the panel for review states:Egypt will not be affected during first filling of the dam, given wet or average years, although power generation at the Aswan Dam will be decreased by about six percent due to the general lower water levels in Lake Nasser.” It continues: “Should the first filling occur during dry years, the Aswan Dam will reach the minimum operating level during at least four consecutive years which would significantly impact on water supply to Egypt and cause the loss of power generation at the Aswan Dam for extended periods.”

In the findings section, the international panel of experts in a strong statement commented: “The submitted report of the dam’s impact on Egypt is preliminary and the analysis presented is very basic, and not yet at a level of detail, sophistication and reliability that would befit a development of this magnitude, importance and with such regional impact as the Renaissance Dam.” And in the recommendation section the panel concluded: “A comprehensive study of the dam in the context of the Eastern Nile System using a proven, sophisticated and reliable water resource system/hydropower model is strongly recommended to be able to assess and quantify the downstream impacts in detail with confidence.”

So Egypt’s concerns are far from groundless, and it is evident that as of today the government of Ethiopia did not submit a conclusive and scientific study that clearly states how the Renaissance Dam will impact water levels downstream. Instead, there is a primitive and hypothetical study that relies on empirical terms and provides inconclusive and unscientific results. As far as the dam’s stability and structure, the report raised some red flags in the design document, but the project is still in its early stages and the Italian construction firm has the time to address these concerns.  

Earnestly, the findings and recommendations of the report should be the cornerstone of Egypt’s negotiations with Ethiopia. Yet Egypt needs to be cognizant that, historically, with primitive diplomacy, it has executed with great diligence all the wrong moves starting with Mubarak using Egypt’s political clout to block all potential international financing for any upstream Nile projects and ending with former President Mohamed Morsi’s aired meeting with opposition leaders laden with hostile threats. So a new negotiating spirit with cooperation in mind has to prevail. The panel’s finding report (executed by independent international consultants) clearly says that the study the Ethiopian government conducted on the dam’s impact on downstream nations is basic, primitive, and inconclusive. It is only fair for Egypt to insist on a more comprehensive, reliable and scientific study on the dam’s impact on downstream water levels and based upon its findings the reservoir filling can be executed based upon concrete mathematical figures that allows for the reservoir water impoundment without impacting downstream operations.

On a final note, as far as Egyptian media reports that the usual suspects (Israel, Qatar, Iran, China, Greenland, Iceland, the Vatican City, whatever) are conspiring to sabotage Egypt by funding and helping the construction of the Renaissance Dam – well, I hate to disappoint you and be the bringer of bad news by informing you that it’s none other than the people of Ethiopia who are collaborating and contributing from the little they have to fund the construction of this, their national icon.

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