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Case Study

Aug 16, 2013

Linked by Water: Egypt, Ethiopia, and Damming the Nile

That the fate of Egypt is bound to the fate of the Nile should go without saying. The nation’s history, national identity, mythology, industry, and food production have always depended on the great river. Amidst its domestic turmoil, recent crossborder events in the Nile region have provoked serious diplomatic tensions between Egypt and its neighbors. There have been threats of joint Egyptian and Sudanese military action, and, before his ousting, former President Mohamed Morsi vowed in a fiery speech that he and his countrymen would defend each drop of the river with their blood.

Causing all the trouble is an ongoing Ethiopian dam project on the Blue Nile, the Nile River’s primary tributary. The dam and the aggressive reaction to it reveal just how anxious Egypt and its downriver neighbors are about the slightest changes in flow. Remember, grain shortages, particularly of Nile-dependent wheat, sparked 2008 protests that were a teaser for those that eventually brought down the Mubarak regime. So central is bread to the Egyptian culture and diet that “Bread, freedom, and social justice” was the most popular protest cry arising from Tahrir Square in 2011. Now reports show that Morsi was falsely inflating numbers on grain stores—by a lot—to quell anxieties about shortages. Egypt is already the largest importer of grain in the world, and wringing greater production out of its current system would require huge infrastructural and social transformations. A future in which its share of the Nile is reduced is among the primary issues keeping the country’s rapidly successive leadership up at night.

Grand Dam

The Nile might be the longest river in the world, but because of where it is situated on the planet, its flow is astoundingly small, only 15 percent of the Amazon’s. Egypt’s extreme dependence on that water is more than a romanticized history lesson. Harnessing those waters has been vital to the country’s modernization. Since the opening of the gigantic Aswan High Dam in 1971, Egypt’s population has nearly tripled. Now Ethiopia, long a sufferer of terrible droughts, poor infrastructure, and slow economy seeks to grab a little of the river’s productivity for itself, something the country has been prevented from doing by post-colonial treaties compelling it not to touch the Blue Nile.

The Nile might be the longest river in the world, but because of where it is situated on the planet, its flow is astoundingly small, only 15 percent of the Amazon’s.

The project, optimistically named the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), is being built full speed ahead in the area where the Blue Nile descends into the plains of the Sahel. There, a huge gorge provides ample room to collect and store water, enough, say the Ethiopians, to make GERD an energy supplier for Ethiopia as well as its regional neighbors. The Ethiopian government has downplayed the dam’s potential impacts, insisting that once the dam’s reservoir is full, maximum flow will return to the Nile.

The Egyptians and Sudanese bristle at the Ethiopian nonchalance. The process of filling the dam is projected to take at least three years. And once it does fill, all that standing water will be subject to evaporation, further reducing the volume of water available downriver. Additionally, dams let silt and other nutrients settle, effectively removing them from river flow. These nutrients are vital for the extended fertility—and, by proxy, food security—of the countries downstream. Disrupting their availability to farmers will have unpredictable effects.

Experts are divided as to whether these claims are justified. But to Ethiopia’s neighbors, that division is irrelevant. What really concerns them is the influence over their own resources, economies, and agricultural sovereignty the Ethiopians are demonstrating through their position on the river. The reservoir behind GERD will have the capacity to store more than a year of the Nile’s flow. How, wonder its neighbors, will Ethiopia manipulate flow in times of drought or regional political instability? And how will Ethiopia respond to increasingly frequent and severe droughts in this age of climate change?

When completed, GERD will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, doubling the output of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam. The Ethiopians hope it will bring them the development that has long eluded them. Their downstream neighbors fear this development is likely to occur at their expense. In recent years, huge amounts of land and water rights in the southern half of the country have been leased to parties from India, China, and Saudi Arabia. Anxiety about Ethiopians using the Nile to irrigate the north for agriculture and development is being exacerbated by the specter of expanded land grabs by foreign investors.

Measuring a Mess

Because of its increasing water scarcity, complex agricultural challenges, teeming population, and climate vulnerability, the Nile River system vividly bears out the real-world implications and linkages between environmental assessment and socio-political realities. It reminds us as researchers that we must be vigilant and careful to address the exigencies that rankings could never demonstrate on their own.

So how does the controversy over GERD square with the EPI?

An enormous renewable energy project seems to stand to improve Ethiopia’s performance in the category of climate change. And if revenue for development begins flowing in, as the government hopes it will, a number of improvements might follow, from greater access to sanitation and clean water to a stronger agricultural sector. But potential benefits must be measured against a long list of potential harms. As the hugely controversial, methane-emitting, Amazon-flooding Belo Monte dam in Brazil has shown, gains from clean energy can be wiped away by carbon released through the manufacture of enormous quantities of concrete and, over longer time scales, the underwater decomposition of submerged organic matter. Like Belo Monte did, GERD is scheduled to inundate a gigantic swath of forest.

Ethiopia has still not performed an Environmental Impact Assessment of the dam’s effects. Beyond wiping out the forest ecosystem and forcing the relocation of tens of thousands of people, there is still no credible word on the dam’s effects to the hydrology of a region already starved for water. The same is true for the seismic implications. The region is rife with major and active fault lines that could threaten the dam, and experts are concerned that the weight of reservoirs of huge dams may exacerbate or even provoke tectonic activity, as some believe a Chinese mega dam did in 2008.

Nobody actually believes the Blue Nile’s flow will not be reduced, regardless of what Ethiopian experts say. And few argue with projections of huge and rapid population increases (pdf) in the Nile Basin. But should GERD be completed, a host of troubling questions about Ethiopian control of the water supply of an entire region will arise. Primary among them is whether the country will hold true to its promises to not withdraw water for irrigation, formally or not. As Ethiopia develops agriculture in the north, what kinds of pressures will it put on an already maxed-out river system in a region that essentially derives all of its water from a single source?

Which brings us back to Egypt. If GERD is completed, a reduction in Nile water available to Egypt is inevitable. Even in the 2012 EPI Egypt performed dismally in the availability of water to ecosystems. The indicator we used then recorded the change in that availability from pre-industrial times to 2005. Now that number seems set to decline, through no fault of Egyptian policymakers or agricultural producers. Clearly, a weakness of that indicator is that in situations where countries are crowded and dependent on the same water systems, gauging availability alone is not sufficient to tell a complete story.

A similar weakness can be seen in the category of agriculture, where the reality of Egyptian production and our 2012 take on it diverge in troubling ways. As of the last EPI, the only globally consistent data available to us for assessing agricultural performance were proxy measures that examined agricultural subsidies and the regulation of persistent organic pollutants (known as POPs), many of which originate from agricultural pesticides. With its dwindling grain stores, lackluster irrigation efficiency, (pdf) heavy imports, and conversion of desert into cropland Egypt was still able to rank fourth highest overall in our Agriculture category. It is troubling that our  fourth performer overall in any category could be left so vulnerable to slight changes in water availability. We would love to take into account resilience, sustainability, or food security as primary considerations for agricultural rankings, and we are hopeful that the means for measuring them on global scales are on their way. For now, we have to stick with the best, most consistent means we can get.

Moving Forward

The fact is, the state of data available to develop global rankings are not good enough, and the controversy over GERD reveals it. Perhaps agriculture, water policy, and energy production cannot be teased too finely apart. And in putting together a global index that speaks across dozens of indicators in hundreds of countries, sometimes proxies are the best we can do—for now. We don’t think we can combine every consideration into sleek, nuanced yet comprehensive indicators. But we believe that spending time with the EPI and moving between our data, rankings, and indicator and country profiles should provide a reader with a basis for understanding the picture on the ground more finely. When real-world politics and conditions show us that something is out of line with the story the EPI is telling, we want to be open enough to look for solutions and honest enough to say so.

The linkages between Ethiopian energy policy and development, Egyptian agricultural security, and the human and ecosystem health of an entire region are all wrapped up in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam controversy. The story is compelling to us as a reminder that environmental and human concerns are deeply and intricately tied together. It also reminds us that our job is to construct an index that is sensitive and responsive, even if the data hasn’t caught up yet. As we join the world community in sending our thoughts and best wishes to the people of Egypt, we also take pause to remind ourselves that we aren’t simply speaking in a policy wind-tunnel, or for legislators looking to boast of where their countries fall in our rankings. We are in communication with the people of the countries we assess, and we owe them rigor and transparency.

Author's Note: The recent violence in Egypt has shocked everyone in our offices. And it has reminded us that any assessment of global environmental performance is, in its way, an assessment of the political and social conditions that structure it. Environmental performance is the last thing on the mind of the vast majority of Egyptians now, rightly so. Yet almost three years of political instability and regime change have shaken the country’s policies regarding the environment, a formidable challenge moving forward for a nation with a swelling population set in a region of perpetual water shortages.