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Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are unable to resolve a dispute over water rights amid the development of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Addis Ababa on the Blue Nile river. Seasonal rains are starting to fill the dam, which is set to become Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant and two-thirds of the dam has already been built, prompting researchers to urge the countries to move faster to resolve the conflict. 

What is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam?

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam able to hold approximately 4 billion cubic meters of water, which constitutes more volume of water than the entire Blue Nile. 

Benefits of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Half a century in the making, the US$4.8 billion project is a source of national pride as it will be able to generate 6 000 megawatts of electricity to tens of millions of Ethiopians. The infrastructure, which was paid for through taxes, promises reliable electric power, a boost for industry and new jobs, components which are critical to nearly half of the country’s population who lack access to electricity. 

Problems of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

For Egypt, however, the dam is raising concerns over how it will affect the Nile River. Over 90% of Egypt’s nearly 100 million people live along or around the Nile, which supplies most of the country’s water. Egypt fears the dam will disrupt the Nile’s flow of water, particularly during times of drought, affecting the lives of many who depend on it. Currently, only Egypt and neighbour Sudan have any rights to its water, further complicating efforts at diplomacy. However, this control depends on what comes downstream, over which it has no control. 

Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are currently unable to reach an agreement on how to share the water among the three countries, the measures that should be enforced to protect the Nile’s flow of water, and what will happen in the event of a drought. 

The nations have resolved some key issues, however, including the volume of water and time needed to complete the fill. However, there is still disagreement as to what would happen in the event of a drought, as well as some other technical and legal issues. 

In the case of a drought year, the filling period would extend to seven years, but they have yet to agree on what to do in this case. The countries have agreed that when the flow of Nile water to the dam falls below 35 to 40 billion cubic meters per year, that would constitute a drought. In such an event, Egypt and Sudan want Ethiopia to release some of the water in the dam’s reservoir. Representatives of both countries say that this would still allow Ethiopia to continue generating electricity, but Ethiopia wants the flexibility to decide how much water to release during drought conditions because more water equates to more power per unit of water. 

On July 15, Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s minister of water and irrigation, is reported to have said on state television that “the filling of the dam doesn’t need to wait until the completion of the dam,” leading many to believe that Ethiopia has begun filling the dam. However, the government clarified that the flow of water into the reservoir was because of heavy rainfall and runoff.

Egypt has previously said that if Ethiopia needs electric power, then it should involve a third party, such as the World Bank, in financing Ethiopian power stations. Alternatively, Egypt could potentially share electricity with Ethiopia, similar to its arrangements with Sudan. Egypt says, “One nation’s need for electricity is pinned to another nation’s need for water.” 

An Attempt at Diplomacy 

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have been engaged in years of negotiations and talks which have failed to produce a deal that satisfies the three nations.

On June 26, following another round of negotiations, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan pledged to reach a deal within two weeks- in which Ethiopia agreed to withhold from filling the dam during the period. As July and August are regarded as the summer’s ‘rainy season’, Ethiopia is eager to start filling the reservoir in order to maximise utilisation of the forthcoming rain. From the perspective of the Ethiopian government, if it misses the summer’s rainy season, the country would have to wait another year to start filling and operating the dam. 

Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister, stated his country was ready to “mobilise millions” in order to defend the dam, while Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president, stressed Egypt would do anything to protect the rights of the Nile river. In the past, Egypt has said that any attempt by upstream nations to take what it regarded as Egyptian water would result in war. 

An official water-sharing agreement does not exist between Ethiopia and Egypt. Under the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between Egypt and Sudan, Egypt extracts 55.5 billion cubic meters of water from the Nile annually, and Sudan 18.5 billion. This agreement was established not long before Egypt began constructing the Aswan High Dam, the country’s own ‘mega dam’. Ethiopia, however, was excluded from the negotiations that constructed the agreement, and for that reason, does not recognise it. 

Egypt Threatens Ethiopia?

The tension between the countries has been described as toxic- Egypt has accused Ethiopia of stealing their water supply with the intention of drying up their country, and Ethiopia has portrayed Egypt as a neo colonial power treading on national sovereignty

Egypt wants to establish a thorough deal to mediate the filling and operation of the dam that would include agreed upon drought mitigation measures. 

In February, Ethiopia dismissed an agreement produced by the US and the World Bank, following talks in Washington, on the premise that the deal was biased towards Egypt.   

Ethiopia has previously stated that it will ‘cause no significant harm’ however dismissed the notion of being bound by agreements that could govern how it operates the dam. William Davison, Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group, says, “Ethiopia feels no compulsion to sign anything that could potentially disadvantage it in the future” and that “Egypt and Sudan on the other side want something that is as detailed and as binding and long-lasting as possible.”   

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UN Involvement in Pressing for a Deal

In May, Egypt sought help from the UN Security Council to press Ethiopia to produce a deal. Sameh Shoukry, the foreign minister of Egypt, said in a speech to the Security Council, “the unilateral filling and operation of this dam, without an agreement that includes the necessary precautions to protect downstream communities . . . would heighten tensions and could provoke crises and conflicts that further destabilise an already troubled region.”

Egypt wants the final deal to have the status of any other international treaty, and would prefer a third party, such as the Afircan Union (AU) or UN, to intervene should any disputes arise. Ethiopia, on the other hand, wants disagreements to be settled between the riparian states without the involvement of foreign parties.

Latest Update 

Talks resumed over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on August 3, but there are no updates as of yet. Follow Earth.Org for updates.

Featured image by: Hailefida

A study has found that China’s Mekong River dams held back large amounts of water during a damaging drought in downstream countries in 2019 despite China experiencing higher-than-average water levels upstream. 

US-based research company, Eyes on Earth, conducted a ‘Wetness Index’ observational study, which looked at the wet season period from May to October and found that the severe lack of water in the Lower Mekong during the wet season of 2019 was largely influenced by the restriction of water flowing from the upper Mekong during that time.

China disputed the findings, saying that there was low rainfall during last year’s monsoon season on its portion of the 4 350km river.

However, satellite imagery of surface wetness in China’s Yunnan province, through which the Upper Mekong flows, suggest the region in 2019 actually had slightly above-average combined rainfall and snowmelt during the May to October wet season. 

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Mekong River, China: the Conflict

Last year’s drought, which saw the Lower Mekong at its lowest levels in more than 50 years, devastated farmers and fisherman and saw the river recede to expose sandbanks along some stretches, with some parts drying up entirely when fishing should have been plentiful. At one gauge in Chiang Saen in northern Thailand, such low water levels had never been recorded before. 

Alan Basist, co-author of the report, and his colleague studied this gauge over a 28-year period and calculated that dams in China had held back more than 410 feet of river height. 

The river supports 60 million people as it flows past Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and through Cambodia and Vietnam. Beijing’s control of the upstream Mekong provides as much as 70% of the downstream water in the dry season. 

“If the Chinese are stating that they were not contributing to the drought, the data does not support that position,” stated Basist. “There was a huge volume of water that was being held back in China”, Basist added. 

Adding to the downstream woes were sudden releases of water from China, which often came unannounced and drowned crops that had been planted near the banks because of the drought. Local fisheries have complained that their catches have faced a very steep decline, while agriculture harvests are stagnant as a result of the persistent droughts and unpredictable floods.

Studies by the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental organisation that works with governments of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam to jointly manage the shared water resources and the sustainable development of the river, further predicts that the decrease of local agricultural production will result in these countries being over-dependent on China for food imports, ‘making them even more vulnerable to Chinese influence’. 

In February, the Chinese foreign minister had asserted to regional foreign ministers that China was suffering from the drought as well. He added that even in the unprecedented times of the coronavirus outbreak, the government was being magnanimous in sending water downstream’. Basist, however, refutes this claim.

“You look at our mapping, and it’s bright blue with plenty of water in China and bright red from an extreme lack of water in Thailand and Cambodia,” he said. “China can regulate this river flow through dams and that appears to be exactly what it’s doing”. 

He adds, “The satellite data doesn’t lie, and there was plenty of water in the Tibetan Plateau, even as countries like Cambodia and Thailand were under extreme duress. There was just a huge volume of water that was being held back in China.” 

Today, the Chinese section of the river in the southwest of the nation has 11 damns, which produce more power than the region needs. These water reserves in China are swelling, as dam reservoirs fill with the glacial melt that has fed into the River for thousands of years.

Basist says, “Glaciers are bank accounts of water but with climate change they’re melting fast. The Chinese are building safe deposit boxes on the upper Mekong because they know the bank account is going to be depleted eventually and they want to keep it in reserve.”

Since China doesn’t have any formal water treaties with countries in the lower Mekong regions, cooperation between the countries is poor. The Mekong River Commission works with the governments of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, but China is noticeably absent.

The climate crisis will hit the water cycle the hardest. Many of the negative and most severe impacts of climate change are manifested through changes to the water cycle. Climate change will severely alter the quantity, quality and spatial distribution of global water resources. Consequent increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme events like droughts and floods will have significant implications for water scarcity and human well-being. However, the conception of water is often local in scale (for example, local irrigation) and the policy response to water-related challenges are often based on standalone strategies and short-term repair and remediation (for example, repairing flood levees). Water needs to be collaboratively managed on a global level to ensure that the best responses to these challenges are implemented. 

Global Water Challenges

Measures to adapt to climate change and past international climate summits have so far failed to adequately consider the link between water and climate change. In fact, water is intimately embedded in all processes of the global climate system and is often a common element in strategies for climate change adaptation. Appropriate water management is not only important to ensure adequate water supply; water permeates across other sectors and adequate management can help tackle a wide variety of resilience-relevant challenges such as disease transmission, health and sanitation, environmental refugees and migration and transboundary resource conflict

Water-Centric Climate Adaptation 

Despite its important role in connecting some of our most pressing challenges, water resources are far too often considered a separate and standalone issue. As an example, in the 4 pages dedicated to water in the Global Commission on Adaptation report, water resources were considered as separate to infrastructure resilience and early warning systems, despite the fact that appropriate water management is critical to the success of both.      

A new, more holistic paradigm is emerging at this year’s COP25, the latest Conference of Parties where policy-makers around the world convened to discuss and enact global climate targets. At a jointly organised side event, the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) launched a new background paper titled “Adaptation’s Thirst: Accelerating the Convergence of Water and Climate Action” which argued for the need to reframe the story of water and climate change beyond the traditional lens of devastation and menace. 

The background paper attempts to usher a paradigm shift in the adaptation community by presenting the first coherent vision on how water is able to connect the various components required to ensure climate resilience. Adopting a water-centric adaptation approach can simultaneously align climate adaptation with water management and mainstream the practice of integrative water management in the broader climate adaptation agenda. Introducing the new background paper, Dr John Matthews, executive director of AGWA, injected some hope for the future by suggesting that water is a ‘menace with hope’ and is the best tool to coherently organise our national and global climate solutions. Flexible, co-management regimes in collaborative water governance, the inclusion of water resources in bottom-up multi-sectoral risk assessments and the need to fully consider water resources in the finance, investment and insurance industry were among the recommendations given in the background paper for effective climate change adaptation.

Figure 1 Climate adaptation solutions framed around adequate water management and fully considers the role of water in climate resilience (Source: Smith et al. 2019)

Crisis into Opportunities

The Netherlands, widely regarded as having the best protected deltaic region in the world, is a worthy case to consult in the mission of fostering a culture that thrives by living with water rather than acting against it. At a separate side event at COP25, Henk Ovink, Netherlands’ inaugural National Envoy for International Water Affairs, spoke about the novelty of his role and the idea of using water to accelerate action against the climate crisis. Ovink cited The Netherlands’ groundbreaking Room for the River Programme, an example of successful water-centric resilience and capacity building. The major nationwide programme, completed in 2019, is aimed at increasing flood resilience by enhancing floodplain capacity through interventions such as deepening river channels, reclaiming floodplains, creating artificial hills and constructing dykes. The programme adopted a multi-sectoral systemic approach where alongside improving flood protection, project interventions also build community resilience and address social and economic concerns of local residents. Outcomes of the programme included urban river parks for recreational use, foot- and cycle-paths along newly created river dykes and areas reclaimed for the development of sustainable housing. Water-centric projects such as this emphasise the potential to leverage human ingenuity and use design, innovation and creativity to strengthen both institutional capacity and climate resilience. 

Climate change will lead to significant shifts in the water cycle and the frequency of extreme floods and droughts will increase. However, as the background paper and all the panelists at the COP25 launch event suggested, the story of water in the future under climate change need not be one of devastation and destruction. For climate adaptation to make economic sense in the long run, it has to be done effectively. For climate adaptation to be effective, it must consider water management in all future strategies and appreciate water resources as the integrative resource that it is.

A version of this article was originally published on copcas.uk as part of the Walker Institute’s COP Climate Action Studio (COPCAS) Programme at the University of Reading, UK.

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