Ethiopian dam deal ignores science, warn experts

Blue Nile Falls_D.J. Clark_Panos
Copyright: D.J. Clark/Panos

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  • Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have agreed to regulate Nile water use
  • But the deal has been dismissed as a science-free ‘political agreement’
  • There is concern that the dam’s environmental impacts are being ignored

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[CAIRO] Water scientists from Egypt have raised concerns over a declaration governing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that is meant to ensure fair access to Nile water for countries downstream.

The Declaration of principles, which the leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed in Khartoum, Sudan, on 23 March, is meant to regulate Nile water use following political upheaval over the dam, which is about a third into its construction.

Talking to SciDev.Net, scientists monitoring the declaration’s creation have warned that concerns over the dam’s impact on the environment and local people have been sidelined for gains in political negotiations.

Nader Noureddine, a water resources and soil researcher at Cairo University, says the technical committee appointed by all three countries to oversee the dam’s construction will be allowed to study documents provided by the Ethiopian government, but “will not be allowed to visit the dam or to witness the work on the site”. This, Noureddine says, will seriously impact its ability to make an evidence-based assessment of the dam’s environmental impacts.

“They are not even allowed to discuss issues like the width of the reservoir and specifications of the dam,” Noureddine says. A report from the committee is due to be issued in around 15 months.

Meanwhile, Dia El-Din Ahmed El-Quosy, a professor at Egypt’s National Water Research Center and former advisor to the country’s Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, says: “The agreement is free of any technical details, such as how the dam reservoir will be filled.”

El-Quosy describes it as a “political agreement”, in which the Egyptian side agreed to recognise the dam and Ethiopia promised to cooperate more with Egypt on its construction and management.

The declaration sets out ten areas for collaboration between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, including researching the water needs of the countries through which the Nile flows, and ensuring fair and appropriate water access. The deal is also meant to force countries to take appropriate measures to avoid “any significant damage” to the environment of the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the river, which the dam will sit on.

The document is an attempt to resolve an international dispute over the dam. Its construction was previously opposed by Egypt, because the country — the last one to benefit from the Nile before it flows into the Mediterranean Sea — feared for the security of its freshwater supply. Around 97 per cent of Egypt’s fresh water comes from the Nile.

Concerns do not just exist on the Egyptian side. Mesfin Hailemariam, an Ethiopian environmental activist, says the deal will do nothing to protect the environment, as the three participating countries have shown no interest in studying and safeguarding the river system. They have also neglected to research how the dam’s construction will affect local people, he says, so the deal “has no meaning”.

But Lori Pottinger, the director of the Africa programme at International Rivers, a US-based NGO that monitors the impact of dams, says the deal has positive points, and that it “sets aside the war ghost” — meaning it could prevent Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan from going to war over water access.

“Cooperation is always better than further aggression,” she says, but points out that the deal does not mean that all political conflict over the issues has ended.
Pottinger says Egypt had no choice but to sign the deal, as the dam is already being built and Ethiopia is unwilling to change its design or slow down the work. She says she would like more public involvement in the debate, instead of closed negotiations.

The three governments should also get advice from a broad range of experts in river ecology, hydrology and climate change, Pottinger says, as the dam will “greatly impact the river, and thus the lives of people and animals who depend on it”.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Middle East & North Africa desk.