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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.

Environmental scientists and researchers are becoming more reliant on the power of citizen science to overcome barriers due to resource and time constraints. Further, cuts in funding are making it increasingly difficult to conduct regular and accurate research and monitoring, such as the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’s budget being slashed by 57% since 2010. Areas suffering the most from these cuts are water quality monitoring, ecology and biodiversity. 

At the core of many environmental charities and NGOs are volunteering programmes that facilitate community outreach while also collecting important scientific data. Examples are Thames21, which encourages volunteers to participate in monthly surveys of river health, as well as Surrey Wildlife Trust’s species surveys on hedgerows. Academics and scientists are beginning to view volunteers as an untapped energy source that can increase the scope of data collection and environmental monitoring. 

Citizen science is the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. Through citizen science, people share and contribute to data monitoring and collection programs. While it is a relatively new term, the increase in citizen science projects can be attributed to technological advancements that can compensate for a lack of research training or experience. 

These advancements vary from smartphone apps to open-access remote sensing software, which are free to use and openly shared.

Example of Citizen Science

An example of open-source technology that is gaining momentum in citizen science and environmental monitoring projects is Arduino. It is an accessible, easy-to-use approach to software and hardware and the ‘Arduino boards’ are able to read inputs- light on a sensor, a finger on a button, or a Twitter message- and turn it into an output- activating a motor, turning on an LED or publishing something online. You can tell the board what to do by sending a set of instructions to the microcontroller on the board. 

To instruct the board, a simple programming language is used. The board can be instructed to take temperature measurements every minute, for example; the outputs will change depending on the project and attached hardware. 

Open-source technology has the potential to be applied to environmental issues. By increasing the public’s access to science, it encourages people to collect data of their own. This do-it-yourself approach encourages people to take an active interest, and if they should get poor results from their own data, they are more likely to inform local government, increasing pressure to improve environmental monitoring and reform policy.

An understudied yet salient Arduino application is water quality monitoring. Producing a sensor that could continuously record multiple environmental parameters, such as pH, temperature and dissolved oxygen, could monitor the health of a freshwater ecosystem in real-time. The advantages that Arduino sensors yield over spot-sampling includes lower costs, scalability and accessibility. 

Challenges of Citizen Science

However, as with many novel technologies, it has limitations, the main one being accuracy.  Anyone can make these sensors, and the calibration and testing process is less rigorous than factory-standard. Additionally, there are a small number of sensors on the market, resulting in restrictions on the research that can be conducted. Important parameters like nitrates, phosphates or total dissolved solids cannot be monitored yet and the complex, interactive nature of freshwater ecosystems requires the measurement of multiple parameters, meaning spot-sampling is conducted sporadically.

While the accuracy of results is a major concern when conducting scientific research, the continuous data monitoring capabilities of open-source technology allows for pollution presence/absence to be documented in real-time. Recording this provides evidence that pollution events are being missed and is crucial in changing environmental policy; policymakers can be pressured to crack down on polluters or increase government monitoring. 

Practically, this Arduino-based water quality network would benefit the Okavango Delta in Botswana, for example. The UNESCO World Heritage site is a centre for biodiversity and is an ecologically important area due to the habitat heterogeneity of the landscape and its water quality.  However, the Okavango River, which terminates in Botswana, also flows through Angola and Namibia, countries experiencing rampant economic and population growth, as well as urban development. Anthropogenic pressures are threatening the water quality of the river. 

An establishment of an Arduino network could monitor pollution events and the overall health of the freshwater system, providing evidence against upstream polluters.

Anthropogenic pressures are threatening freshwater systems, and governments and scientists lack the resources to prevent or even monitor these valuable ecosystems. The opportunity for new novel solutions to environmental issues is allowing for the rise of citizen science and the use of accessible technologies like Arduino, resulting in increased awareness and engagement from the public on environmental issues. The impressive momentum at which citizen science projects have produced potential solutions to environmental issues means that they should not be immediately dismissed at the discovery of their limitations, but continual trial-and-error should persist. 

Research suggests that groundwater reserves in sub-Saharan Africa are more resilient to climate change than previously understood. But overexploitation by humans could still dwindle them.

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Previous studies that indicated climate change caused rapid depletion of groundwater — the largest source of freshwater resource on the planet — had raised serious concerns among climate scientists and conservationists. But new research by a consortium of international hydrogeologists suggests that climate change may not deplete groundwater in sub-Saharan Africa.

The study — the first regional assessment to look at how climate change has influenced groundwater across sub-Saharan Africa — examined patterns of groundwater replenishment in 14 multidecadal groundwater level records from nine African countries that represent a range of climates from hyper-arid to humid. Researchers found that groundwater was consistently replenished every year regardless of the amount of annual precipitation. The replenishment process has been more sensitive to the intensity of rainfall than to the overall amount of rain.

Although the climate crisis is expected to cause less overall rainfall, the research suggests that groundwater supplies in Africa will survive because of the heavier and more intense rainfall caused by global warming. Even if annual rainfall is low, periods of intense rain will be sufficient enough to replenish local groundwater resources.

Groundwater Levels in Africa

In Africa, groundwater reserves are 20 times larger than the water stored in lakes and reservoirs above ground. A vital source of drinking water for millions of people in cities and villages across the continent, these reserves are accessed through wells, boreholes, and springs. People rely more on them during droughts than other water sources on the surface, which often remain dried up during the summer.

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Multi-decadal groundwater levels across Sub-Saharan Africa show that groundwater recharge due to intense periods of rainfall.

The researchers determined groundwater levels analysing a relative balance between recharge — the process by which groundwater is replenished — and discharge — the flow of groundwater to springs, streams, wetlands and the sea. Individuals and companies collecting water for irrigation and drinking also contribute to reducing the amount of stored groundwater.

A comparative analysis revealed that groundwater is mostly replenished by rainfall that trickles down through the soil to the water table in wetter regions of Africa. This phenomenon occurs consistently across large areas on the continent. But in drier regions, groundwater is mostly recharged locally by water leaking from temporary streams and ponds, which usually start overflowing after heavy rains.

Scientists consider these findings path-breaking because previous studies had ignored an important fact about groundwater replenishment. “Previous regional-level assessments of groundwater resources using large-scale models had ignored the contribution of leaking streams and ponds to groundwater supplies, underestimating its renewability in drylands and resilience to climate change,” says co-lead of the study Dr. Mark Cuthbert from Cardiff University.

Those studies based on computer models had earlier predicted that freshwater will become scarcer in African drylands as climate change continue to reduce rainfall. But, the reality appears to be the opposite as per these findings: global warming is making rainfall come in fewer but heavier bursts accelerating overall groundwater replenishment. 

These findings debunk myths of groundwater depletion in Africa and will encourage policymakers to adopt new strategies to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) like food security and access to clean water. Food production on the continent can be improved by allocating groundwater for irrigation through sustainable resource management, which can also ensure safe drinking water for generations to come.

Agriculture accounts for around 70% of all water withdrawals globally according to the World Bank, and approximately 60% of that is wasted, largely due to inefficient applications according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). With water increasingly valuable against the backdrop of a rising human population and climate change, can AI be used to prevent water wastage? 

Simple techniques like rainwater harvesting and wastewater recycling are already being used in many regions to reduce water consumption. And many farms have realised the benefits of replacing their surface and sprinkler irrigation systems with more efficient drip irrigation systems.

But there’s another technology that could provide much bigger benefits to farms the world over: Artificial Intelligence.

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Global water stress map (Courtesy of TheCropSite)

How can AI solve climate change?

An Italian startup, Blue Tentacles, has come up with a “precision based” AI system that takes note of humidity, temperature, climate data and forecasts as well as satellite data to help farmers improve their irrigation practices whilst preventing water wastage and conserving energy.

In Japan, similar digital farming solutions collect data from soil and light sensors to advise on the quantity of water and fertilisers required. This is particularly useful to inexperienced farmers who might need help to improve productivity while reducing water consumption. These digital technologies are already being used by a number of large scale company run farms in Japan like GRA Inc, a strawberry farm that has gained a competitive edge by embracing technology.

A fuzzy logic system developed in Cordoba Spain, assesses and predicts the varying water needs of different users (for example, different crop growers in an association). This allows farming associations to not only manage water supplies more efficiently, but also to schedule maintenance and repair tasks, hire staff and manage electricity usage more effectively.

ConserWater tracks how water is distributed in a field using satellite and historical data. This allows users to fine tune their irrigation supply and also identify any leaks in the irrigation pipes. Their AI system can learn to identify damaged areas in a pipe without the need for manual inspection. It is a scalable solution working without ground sensors, and farmers would only need a desktop or a smartphone to access the data and receive notifications. Their products are being used by a 100+ farmers across the globe.

The fight to preserve freshwater extends beyond bucolic countryside hedges spilling into hydro-supply monitoring. UK-based United Utilities has partnered with Emagin to develop AI to manage their water networks and plan to test the technology on leakage reduction.

Similarly, WINT Water Intelligence in the US has developed an AI system to analyse water flow in residential and commercial buildings, identifying faults, waste and leaks and, if needed, shutting off a water supply to prevent damage. While this system has been designed for commercial facilities and manufacturing industries, similar solutions could be exported to the farming sector.

The agricultural sector is primed for disruption, from automating the analyses of aerial imagery of a field to identifying crop stress, weather forecasts and supply-chain optimisation. But how to ensure global wide-scale adoption?

Granular data collection for each farming zone is key and governments should facilitate it as much as possible. Data is the backbone for any AI system and the sooner it is collected the more historical data will be available for calculations.

Providing tools and training to farmers is equally essential. In 2017, when India collaborated with Israeli scientists and agronomists to establish drip irrigation in the country, teams of specialists educated local farmers through seminars and field visits to smooth the shift to new tools and practices.

Also in India, Microsoft collaborated with ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for Semi Arid Tropics) developing a predictive analytics app that calculated the best crop sowing date for maximising the yield. As a test case, farmers across seven villages were sent text messages with dates for sowing and other advice. Despite meager rainfall, farmers that used the app boosted their yields by 30%. When other farmers witnessed the results, they were also more likely to use the app themselves.

Introducing new methods and sophisticated machinery is expensive and would require tax breaks and financial support. This could come in the form of private sector grants like Microsoft’s AI for Earth Grant or through government policy. Funding would also be required to ensure adequate testing of the technology in the farms once it is developed.

Preventing water wastage  is not an intractable issue but whatever new AI tools or systems are devised, widespread public awareness and adoption should be a top priority. The OECD projects that Northeast China, Northwest India and Southwest USA are fertile grain belts supporting millions of people but also areas on the verge of imminent water scarcity.

Featured image by jcomp/ Freepik

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