Some talk about damned dams

Whilst leaders in the neighouring Nile countries of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan bicker over the building of a dam by the Ethiopian Government, lets lay down some facts.

The dam in Ethiopia is rumoured to restrict or according to some, cut off, Egypt from Nile water, leaving it without access to the main source of bounty and green in this country. This is not true. The Ethiopian dam will use a tributary of the Nile and because it is a power dam (i.e not a drinking water or agricultural dam) it will not lead to the consumption of the water, but the use of its mass as it is rerouted through the dam, to create electricity. Except for the evaporated water (which is half the level in Ethiopia than it would it would be in Egypt: 10billion cubic m/year v 5million cubic m/year), there will be no less water coming out than went in, like the technique used by the Egyptian Aswan dam to create sustainable reserves of water through good water management.

The Egyptian Governments tactics (which include a perhaps purposely ‘accidentally’ recorded private meeting: Arabic / English) which have been totally undiplomatic and like a child throwing its toys out of the playpen, fail to recognise that Sudan and Ethiopia provides Egypt with 85% of its drinking water (perhaps the real drying up of Egypt will come from Egypt’s arrogant and cack-handed dealings with its main water suppliers, not the dam itself!) AND that Egypt currently produces 14 times more power for the same population than Ethiopia. Some have attributed this to Egyptians ‘racist attitude’ to the rest of the African continent, of which it doesn’t consider itself a part of. Who knows.

At this point, given the level of regional water shortages, desertification, increasing urban populations and decreasing natural resources, it is plain short-sightedness that leads neighbouring Governments to fight over who gets what, rather than strategically manage what they do have, and what they can provide to each other (for a fair price of course). The climate impacts on this region are intense and unforgiving just take a look here for details on regional climate impacts, and below for a general overview of the water situation:


The tactical and peaceful offering by Sudan, of their dam and water experts to help the Ethiopian Government, is a far more astute judgement call. They now have a way in to affecting the outcome, they are working in collaboration, not through failed attempts of domination and threats which are embarrassing and unsustainable – bad game plan. Egypt rejected opportunities to be involved in this dam building (which by the way, will not be restricted to this one only, Ethiopia is planning to build 32 in total!) when in Sadat’s era he was invited to get involved but instead proclaimed himself “more interested in war”, and then again in Mubarak’s era, an idea he rejected after he became the most high profile visitor to Ethiopia to have an attempt made on his life.

What all of this current debate lacks however, is a discussion over the sustainability and resilience of this dam. When this region is known for its water shortages and increasing desertification WHY OH WHY are governments focussing their power generation plans on methods using water?

Yes not much water is lost (i.e only through evaporation) but there are many inherent flaws with dams and reservoirs, including the silting up of the dam, the huge infrastructural implications which could involve resettlement of people (as the Aswan Dam did to many Sudanese villages in the north), the fact that if it doesn’t rain or if the Nile (heaven forbid) did suffer from water shortages, that this huge block of concrete, representing so much money and developmental need, is then essentially useless. It is unnecessary when there are so many other power-generating options. Other environmental and developmental concerns can be major, and although they start off as environmental problems, given that in Nile countries the major area for agriculture and settlements exists along the green belt brought about by the Nile, they soon become social and developmental problems too.

So we’re talking, upstream of the dam, (depending on the construction of the dam) fish migrating upstream to lay eggs are often simply blocked by the dam from doing so, loss of fish species is a loss to biodiversity but also a hit on fishing communities upstream; in Brazil there was an upstream fishing loss of 80% because of the Porto Primavera dam. The shortages of bugs and algae and other tiny tiny organisms upstream (as well as downstream) can also affect bird populations.

And downstream is where gets messy: literally blocking the natural flow of the river deprives downstream communities of their fish and fauna often relied on for food and as a source of income, unnatural waves of water that come with release of water in the reservoir to generate power can disrupt normal river practices, and the silting of the dam (which is a problem for the dam) is also a problem for downstream agriculture because that was the sediment needed to fertilise the land when the river normally floods, so downstream communities suffer land fertility and productivity problems as a result.

But if we’re only talking money, lets face it, most people are, then listen up, this is worth hearing:

On the subject of the dams and upstream irrigation projects benefiting from the dams in Nigeria: “The economic gains of the upstream water projects were then compared to the resulting economic losses to downstream agricultural, fuelwood and fishing benefits (valued at $32 per 1 000 m3 of water in 1989 prices). Given the high productivity of the floodplains, the losses in economic benefits due to changes in flood extent for all scenarios are large, ranging from $3 million to $24 million. As expected, there is a direct trade-off between increasing irrigation upstream and impacts on the floodplains downstream. Full implementation of all the upstream dams and large-scale irrigation schemes would produce the greatest overall net losses, around $20 million.”

– The World Commission on Dams

So I’d be with the Egyptian Government if they were in fact challenging Ethiopia on the sustainability of its plans, economically, socially and environmentally, but their discourse so far is not informed by the realities of those three challenges, but a by a perceived threat that can be logically dismembered and the basis for their opposition therefore discredited. Dams should be opposed for many reasons, Morsi has just chosen the wrong ones. Evidently, whatever happens in this political debate, what is absolutely key going into the future, is that these 3 countries work together on a substantive, responsible and collaborative water management strategy; hopefully avoiding these confrontations in the future.

For more info on hydro dams and their side effects:

International Rivers

Report and framework for future dam-construction from The World Commission on Dams

Dams and tribal peoples website & report

Arundhati Roy’s film DAM/AGE on dams in India:


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