Why Ethiopia and Egypt can’t agree over hydro dam
Image credit: Planet Labs
E&T looks into reasons behind friction and confusion around Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam. Findings suggest that disinformation and state funding campaigns may have contributed to the mess. If the parties can’t agree, the result could be unpredictable.
Tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia are running high. For the past 40 years, the two nations have not experienced such friction. The reason? The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). After nine years of construction, Africa’s largest hydroelectric project is about to start churning out energy. Yet there is disagreement about how much water Ethiopia should let through in the future.
The GERD has sparked multiple protests. Since the start of its construction in 2011, it faced opposition from the downstream nations of Egypt and Sudan. The tragic 2018 death of GERD’s head of engineering, Simegnew Bekele, whose body was found in his parked car, remains controversial to this day and sparked debate in the community. Rumours say he was killed. The official story is it was suicide. ACLED, an organisation that collects conflict data, recorded protests linked to the alleged murder in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. In February, there are records that residents from Sudan’s Blue Nile state demonstrated over fears about the effect of the GERD on water levels in their area.
One side argues GERD will be a curse for downstream countries. The other claims it will be a boon and game-changer for growth and property. So who is right?
E&T reveals that both sides – downstream Egypt at the end of the Nile as well as Ethiopia, the builder of the dam – were found to have influenced the debate. Both have reason to sway public opinion.
By doing so, they have confused citizens, impairing their judgment when measuring up pros and cons of the GERD project. This may have made it harder to come to an agreement. E&T finds that, under circumstances of continued disinformation and manipulation, it could be more difficult to resolve disagreement between the nations involved.
The core of the argument
So what are those disagreements about? From the outside, the current ‘beef’ is about how quickly Ethiopia should be allowed to fill the dam. Egypt demands Ethiopia must fill it in no less than 12 years. Ethiopia says it will do so in half of that time, between five and seven years. Rapid filling reduces the amount of water that flows downstream.
In July, the process started, which, it turns out, couldn’t have been stopped this year, even if Ethiopia wanted it to (see satellite images for the dam, courtesy of Planet Labs). Egypt insists the quicker the GERD water reservoir fills, the more harmful it could be for periods of extreme low precipitation. Its people and economy will suffer if such an event strikes.
Yet analysts and researchers have spoken up, finding the crux of the disagreement to lie somewhere else. It’s less about average filling time and more about managing the dam in case of contingency.
Crisis Group Ethiopia analyst William Davidson argues that much of the technical quarrel has already been settled, with “considerable convergence” on how the dam will be filled under average conditions. There was lots of misrepresentation by the media, he says. Under average hydrological conditions over the next five years, Ethiopia will see the reservoir filled to its target of 49 billion cubic metres (bcm) – but what happens when a drought hits is disputed. At the moment, the rarely reported fact in Egypt’s media is that the Aswan dam is full to the brim and therefore can help compensate for some shortfall in precipitation in the short term.
Egypt is concerned with any upstream development project which interrupts water supply, Davidson says. As dry periods can exacerbate water shortages, Egypt wants to ensure it gets its minimum provision. That relies on the magic number of 55.5 billion cubic metres that Egypt was allocated under the 1959 bilateral agreement with Sudan, effectively reinforcing the terms of the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty.
However, Egypt’s claim to this amount is on shaky ground. What has (mostly) been gracefully avoided in the Egyptian press is that the country has been benefiting – for a while – from more water than it said it uses. Marc Jeuland from the University of North Carolina says due to the shortfall in Sudan’s economic development and exploding growth of Egypt’s population – adding 1 million citizens every six months – water allocation to Egypt was a windfall for many years, adding that without it “it will be painful for [Egypt] to adjust to a new reality”.
How likely is that a major drought hits during the filling time? US academic researchers point out that medium-term predictions over only a few years are notoriously difficult. However, historical data and prediction models indicate that it’s feasible for such an event to occur during GERD’s filling time, albeit with a number of caveats and very low probability.
E&T spoke to Oxford University hydrologist Dr Kevin Wheeler, who put the chance at around seven per cent. Researchers like Paul Block, at the College of Engineering at the Wisconsin Madison university, find it easier to make short-term predictions that range over mere months instead of years. For this year, Block and his team calculated a six per cent chance of rainfall being below normal rate. Such forecasts can then help invoke alteration to the flow of water that passes through the GERD, and could leave enough time to avoid a severe water crisis.
Impartial predictions over five to seven years are difficult to venture, but they do exist and disagree with what Egypt and Ethiopia say (see chart). What may help is that researchers found a correlation between major droughts and El-Nino. It’s when the warm phase of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, associated with a band of warm ocean water, develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific. In those years, the odds are higher for extreme droughts in the upper catchment of the Blue Nile (see timeline).
Arguably, the stakes for Egypt are high. It’s a desert state that sources over 90 per cent of its water supply from the river Nile for its households, and irrigation for agriculture. Almost all rainfall that feeds the two major tributaries to the Nile – the Blue and White Nile – falls in South Sudan, western Ethiopia and Uganda. Parts of the Lower Nile Basin, which includes Sudan and Egypt, receive very little precipitation by nature and depend heavily on the Nile for water.
Historical precipitation data for Egypt reveals a rhythmic pattern in extreme low precipitating levels. Data seen by E&T for a 31-year period shows rainfall dropped below 50mm in 12 years. More severe shortages hit around every 12th year, though three decades alone may be too short to judge. Research found drought conditions - defined as inflow into the GERD as less than 37bcm per year - occurs in around 12-13 per cent of years.
Some droughts, like the one of 1980 to 1985, remain in the public consciousness because of their length and severity – droughts can persist for up to six years, but are rarer – being spotted twice across North Africa, in 1930-1935 and 1980.
So, is Egypt’s demand for a much longer filling period justified? Experts say GERD opponents in Egypt only focus on the extreme, which may not reflect the likeliest scenario. Cairo Water Week published a technical analysis focused almost exclusively on the extreme cases. This and other examples make Egypt look as if it plays up the risks. They want assurances. The media output focuses obsessively on the risks, which would come to pass only in the worst imaginable climatic scenarios”, Davison says.
Hard numbers on filling are not helpful, argues Ben Zaitchik, researcher at the department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. Zaitchik reckons it’s a matter of flexing. Instead of talking about years [to fill the dam] it should be ‘per cent of flow’, he says. His research suggests it’s better to be flexible. “If Ethiopia has a bunch of wet years in a row, they fill the dam in five years. If drought hits, it will be nine.” But Oxford hydrologist Wheeler is sceptical and says there are methodological issues to this and significant implementation challenges. Forecasts can be wrong. They are inherently imprecise. It raises questions on how to introduce such uncertainty into a legally binding agreement.
What worries researchers like Marc Jeuland the most is the lack of agreement between Egypt and Ethiopia after the filling period. Jeuland, who published a paper on Eastern Nile infrastructure in 2017 thinks it’s likely that the countries will get through it without a drastic crisis. Unless there was a very serious drought that coincided with filling of GERD, Egypt will be able to get through it, even without a pre-agreed balanced filling policy, he says. Yet at some point, there will be a big drought, like in the 1980s.
Back then, Egypt cut back on its water use and was managing solely with its own infrastructure. Now there will be two dams. When that next big drought happens, Ethiopia’s dam will drain out as it will need to keep generating hydro power to make this dam viable. Here, GERD benefits Egypt as less water would be lost to evaporation or spilled into the Toshka canal, an Egyptian irrigation project that has fierce critics who range from environmentalists worried about its demands on Nile water to economists who question its profitability.
But then Egypt’s Lake Nasser will empty out as the country needs to meet urban and agricultural water demands. It then raises questions about how to refill these colossal infrastructures. If they’re both empty, that’s a very different situation than the one we have right now, where Lake Nasser is full and GERD is empty. With both empty, there will be painful trade-offs associated with filling dams. That’s where you need agreements most, Jeuland says.
“If there’s lingering distrust between Egypt and Ethiopia and feelings and perception are not based on scientific reality, people may assume that one country has been harming the other maliciously, even if that may not be the case. Such distrust could lead to a very difficult situation,” Jeuland says.
Misleading interpretation of science
Jeuland mentions that misrepresentation of scientific reality may already affect the disagreement. All efforts to conduct an impartial study by consultants were thwarted over disagreements on how to establish a baseline where Egypt insisted on current conditions while Ethiopia refused to accept the status quo baseline. Furthermore, since the start of the GERD in 2011, Egypt and Ethiopia have prudently prepared their arguments and research for their own benefit, E&T finds. There are clear signs of partisanship in research that portrays one-sided conclusions on the GERD’s risks or benefits. Biased research is a problem, experts point out.
Bad quality papers can be spotted by biased conclusions, affiliation of authors and peer-reviewers, and how a conclusion rests on limited data. One expert told E&T that “a lot of people do studies with a national agenda. Ethiopian studies say the dam is going to be great and helpful and Egyptian studies say it’s going to be destructive and horrible”.
Examples are plentiful. One paper called ‘Integrated Watershed Management of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam via Watershed Modeling System and Remote Sensing’, by El-Sayed Omran at the Suez Canal University in Egypt, concludes that “it is more probable that the GERD Dam will collapse... The safety of the dam is very low”. The research was radical enough to get the attention of international researchers who then published their own research into perceived failings in El-Sayed Omran’s paper. Published in July, researchers used direct and indirect fact-checking methods, including consulting the design report of the GERD, literature reviews and re-calculation of some parameters to reflect on major flaws. “[it] has several accounts of scientific misconducts of plagiarism, falsification and fabrications that should not have passed any standard peer-reviewed processes for a highly reputable publisher with the stature of Springer”, the team concluded.
Another 2018 paper called ‘Managing risks of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on Egypt’ concludes that “political effort is also needed to postpone filling GERD’s lake which is expected to start in July 2017.” It was written and peer-reviewed by an Egyptian academic institution.
The paper on ‘Water resources in Egypt and their challenges, Lake Nasser case study’ objects to the dam more directly, criticising “rapid implementation plans of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”, but may lack consideration of caveats to those risk assumptions. It’s both written and peer-reviewed by the Egypt-based National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries.
Ethiopia may also be involved in one-sided research. The paper ‘evaluation of multi-storage hydropower development in the upper Blue Nile River (Ethiopia): regional perspective’ written by two researchers at Ethiopian institutions concluded that – without much counterweight of Egyptian concerns – “under normal and wet flow scenarios of the six years filling period, GERD has no significant impact on downstream water uses... Current irrigation water demand will not be affected by the upstream development”, it concluded.
Davidson at Crisis Group says the truth is that there may not be a simple answer on how the dam will affect countries downstream. He believes claims from studies like the 2017 research by Cairo University – claiming Egypt loses 51 per cent of its farmland for a fill time of three years, and 17 per cent for six years – “ are simplistic and perhaps misleading … sometimes these kind of calculations on farmland losses seem to pretend the Aswan doesn’t even exist”, he adds.
Partisan research was quickly spread across social media amid a polarised debate. Some drew directly on academics who supported the dam. One Ethiopian activist quoted comments by Samuel Tefera, an assistant professor and Asian desk coordinator at the centre for African and oriental studies at Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa University. In a video, Tefera says “accusations [by Egypt and Sudan] are not valid”. The Egyptian media produced a large amount of propaganda on GERD, “propaganda masquerading as a news report … Ethiopian commentators focus excessively on historic injustice and downplay any potentially damaging effects on Egypt and Sudan”, Davidson found.
On social media platform Twitter, E&T found largescale one-sided campaigns supporting GERD. These used the hashtag #Itsmydam, a meme that refers to Ethiopians wanting to take back control of their dam. The first time #itsmydam appeared on Twitter was 10 January, open source intelligence suggests. The trending hashtag was tweeted after an AP correspondent quoted Sileshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s Minister for Water, Irrigation and Energy. In a response to a journalist’s question as to who controls the dam at a press conference, Bekele said: “What does it mean? It’s my dam! (It is my dam!)”. Bekele was senior water and climate specialist for the UN and is Ethiopia’s senior inter-regional adviser on national strategies at the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Bekele used the hashtag a number of times to say “lots of women travel long distances & carry firewood” or that “60m Ethiopians don’t have access to electricity”, adding: “GERD is the solution”.
E&T has found nearly 19,000 tweets using #Itsmydam since January (18,647 until 21 July). State-sponsored government campaigns supported it. The Ethiopian embassy in the UK adopted #itsmydam on its social media profile and wrote: “the #GERD stands as a beacon of hope for all Africans. The use of a hydroelectric dam, which doesn’t consume the water but rather allows it to continue its flow to Sudan and Egypt, will finally allow the lights to turn on in all Nile Basin countries”.
The main goal was to get the public on board. A number of other hashtags were used, including #JustFillTheDam – stressing that Ethiopia should not ask for approval from Egypt when to fill it – or #ethiopianilerights.
The volume of #itsmydam tweets peaked on 14 June after Egypt accused Ethiopia of wanting to scrap previous agreements and said that many “fundamental issues” would remain unresolved (Chart: Tweet volume #itsmydam, monthly, Jan to July 21).
Tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia go beyond the periphery of the web. There are the protests mentioned before, but there is also increased militarisation. Online reports say an air defence system (Ethiopian officials ordered to install it) has been set up to protect the dam from attacks by Egypt.
At this point it’s not clear which country helped Ethiopia build an anti-aircraft missile system. Israel denied having anything to do with it. High resolution satellite images of GERD from July showed no trace (courtesy of Planet Labs) of such a system. Yet when E&T checked the wider area around GERD, several 5GHz interference lines, perhaps from air defence systems, showed up (see image). These interference bands build when there are powerful sources of radio frequencies – such as those for military defence systems – in the C band of Sentinel-1 satellite data, which were then operating close to the 5.5GHz frequency.
There is more friction. At the end of June, Ethiopia claimed Egyptian hackers had launched major cyber attacks against a number of its government websites which would “halt filling of the dam”. One source familiar with it told E&T that Ethiopia’s Information Network Security Agency (INSA) would get statements out via state media, which makes it likely that the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA) was ordered to publish the English language story.
Such activities will make it harder to find a way out of the situation the two countries are in. What if Ethiopia doesn’t move? What options will Egypt have? Dr Kevin Wheeler, hydrologist at Oxford University, says to ensure water supply for its population, desalination could work, but it won’t be enough to provide sufficient water for Egypt’s agricultural sector. The second option is to reduce water use by increasing agricultural efficiency or developing strategic cropping policies. In 2018, the government announced cuts to the area of land available for rice cultivation.
At least the benefits of GERD to Ethiopia should be sound. But even here there are concerns. The turbine generators of the GERD will run at 5,150MW (scaled back from 6,450MW) in capacity, with an annual expectation for 16TWh/year in power generation and a plant load factor of 28.6 per cent. That is three times the capacity of the Egyptian Aswan dam, which runs at 2,100MW and 10TWh/year. Yet experts aren’t sure where all this energy would go.
For it to be valuable, there must be infrastructure that uses it. In the short term at least, the country might lack that. Ethiopia does have an aggressive electrification strategy that wants to electrify the entire country by 2030, but most of it off-grid, experts say. Rural users may not be large enough energy consumers, adds Jeuland. He thinks most of this energy would need to be consumed in higher-energy-use activities “like industrial activities, and that’s going to be in urban areas… a lot of energy not necessarily required”. The newly added capacity dwarfs that of Ethiopia’s current national capacity of 4,425MW electric power. True, some energy can be sold. Sudan is a suitable partner. This is partly why Sudan’s opposition has been fairly moderate, so far.
Whether the country will be able to use all of its new energy or not, there is no question that GERD will turn on some lights. The difference between Egypt and Ethiopia on night-time satellite images remains stark. Egypt is buzzing with light while Ethiopia remains dark. Ethiopia could get brighter in a few years; at least this is something all parties might agree on.
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