Expository Article: Transboundary Water-Governance: Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

By Kamran Panahi.

Expository Article: Environmental/Social Science

Transboundary water-governance systems are evolving to facilitate the negotiation of water-sharing policies that promote security, stability, and sustainability. However, since Ethiopia announced the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011, the dialogue surrounding the Nile River has taken an unprecedented turn. The Nile system is contentious because the level of water stress appears insurmountable in the context of extreme food insecurity, burgeoning populations, and climate change. The fundamental controversy over the construction of GERD is rooted in conflicts of geopolitical interests.

The GERD will have a significant impact on drought mitigation and flood management in semi-arid and arid regions. A recent study commissioned by the Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office, stated that water infrastructure development, including reservoir construction, was one of the five pillars identified to adapt to or mitigate severe hydrological events, such as droughts and flooding, that are most likely to be caused by climate change. The GERD will undeniably allow for regulated and sustained minimum flow levels during the dry season. Sustainable and regulated flow will also enable for greater agricultural productivity downstream, assuring stable all-season supply to downstream irrigation schemes and, as a result, avoiding harvest losses caused by water shortages during growing seasons.

On the other hand, the complexity of the natural system within the river basin yields irreversible negative environmental impacts upon the establishment of the dam. The evident consequence of constructing the GERD is the transition of a downstream ecology from a free-flowing river ecosystem to an artificial water canal habitat. Furthermore, the river's water temperature will be cooler than it should be, with a temperature drop of 0.5 to 1.5 degrees Celsius. These temperature variations, as well as other water characteristics such as chemical composition, dissolved oxygen levels, and physical properties of the water, are frequently unsuitable for the aquatic plants and animals that evolved with the river system. Moreover, the Blue Nile has a significant sediment load due to strong soil erosion in the upstream sections of the Ethiopian Highlands. This causes serious sedimentation issues in dam reservoirs and irrigation canals downstream. Erosion and sedimentation concerns affect agricultural production, nutrients, and land loss upstream, and increase the operation and maintenance expenses of water infrastructure downstream, including silt clearing around hydropower turbines and irrigation canal de-silting. It also jams irrigation canals and is one evident problem when confronting the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project.

Ethiopians regard the dam's construction as a fundamental right that will provide energy to more than 66% of the country's population, who currently lacks access. Hydropower generated by GERD will be fed into Ethiopia's national grid, fully supporting the country's development in both rural and urban areas. GERD's mission will be to serve as a stabilizing backbone for Ethiopia's national grid, increasing the amount of electricity produced in the country to around 6,000 MW once completed. Due to the scale of the GERD and disagreements over its planning and construction, it has become a source of contention between Egypt and Ethiopia in recent years. Egypt is concerned that the project will diminish Nile River water supplies, which will have a severe impact on agricultural production, food availability, economic productivity, public health, and overall well-being. Much of the concern is focused on the multi-year period during which the GERD reservoir would be filled, reducing the flow of the Nile downstream to Egypt, as well as the size of the dam and hence its reservoir. The diplomatic dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia reached a climax with two disputed acts and displays of force. Egypt's military coordinated with Sudan to begin construction of an airfield for the publicly stated possibility of destroying the dam if required, and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi declared that "if our share of the Nile water decreases by a single drop, our blood will be the alternative." Though this conflict has de-escalated since 2013, the GERD still poses lasting threats to international relations and cooperation.

Despite the complexity and severity of water management tensions in transboundary river systems, there is space for reciprocal benefit-sharing agreements for all stakeholders, both upstream and downstream. In order to secure these agreements, it is necessary to first objectively evaluate and examine all of the numerous difficulties afflicting the Nile River to determine how best to proceed. This discussion focuses on and assesses specific difficulties confronting the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project from both positive and negative perspectives, with the goal of understanding controversies to pave the path for collaboration in transboundary river systems.


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