Talk about the environmental and economic impacts of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

    08 Sep 2021

    With a current water volume of around 7 billion cubic meters retained in the reservoir of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and an agreement on its initial filling and operation still beyond reach, Egypt and Sudan remain concerned about the future usage of downstream Nile flow. Egypt has resorted to diplomatic efforts to leverage pressure from the international diplomatic community, including the United Nations Security Council, but these efforts have not resulted in a material impact on Ethiopia’s stance with regards to reaching an agreement with downstream countries.

    While the negotiations and security concerns continue to occupy the center of attention, the projected environmental and economic impacts of the GERD have increasingly drawn more attention. Questions about energy generation, sustainable development, biodiversity and the future of agriculture are all tied up with how the GERD will set a new precedent in transboundary water management in the Nile Basin. But because deliberations around the environmental impacts — an issue that has potential to engender a more cooperative dialogue about the future of water management in the Nile Basin — have largely remained in the gated realm of technical experts and high level politicians, public conversations about the dam have been confined to a politically charged and hostile cul de sac.

    Media representation of Nile Basin scientists often falls into archetypal characters: the minister, the prophet and God’s eye, Emanuele Fantini from Delft University wrote in a book chapter on media discourse surrounding the Nile. Where the “minister” is the nationalist scientist or ex-minister who presents data and numbers “to legitimize specific claims and official government discourses on the sharing and management of Nile waters,” the prophet “‘points at’, or ‘warns about’ key issues that are missing or that might be overlooked in the public debate or in diplomatic negotiations.” And the God’s eye perspective provides “solutions that come from outside the political boundaries of the controversy … illustrated through the voice of international scholars or by quoting international studies or research groups.”

    To try to find a more sober basis for analysis of the impacts the GERD will have beyond partisanship, Mada Masr sat down with Mohammed Basheer, a PhD student and engineering researcher at the University of Manchester, who has primarily been working on Nile River Basin modeling for over a decade to study how different water management strategies impact water uses in the basin. Basheer co-authored an influential 2016 study on cooperative filling approaches to the GERD and has published several papers recently on the mega-dam and its environmental and economic impacts on Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. He is currently working on macroeconomic models that are tied to the river’s hydrology to measure the future impacts of the GERD on the three countries.

    In the following edited transcript of our conversations, Basheer outlines the environmental impacts of dams, ways to think about energy, food and water resources in the Nile Basin more holistically, and the economic impacts that the GERD might have on Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.

    Mada Masr: Let’s start a bit macro, from your multidisciplinary background as a civil engineer and water management researcher, before we get into the specifics of the Nile Basin and the GERD. Can you explain what the main dilemmas are in the field of water management?  

    Mohammed Basheer: In water management, there are three main problems. It’s either “too much, too little or too dirty.” If you have too much water, you get floods and destruction. If you have too little water, you get issues related to how, where and when to use the limited water supplies, and if it’s too dirty, you get negative impacts on the environment and the different water users. The three problems are present in the Nile Basin, but having “too little and too much” water are the most known and studied, simply because the Nile streamflow is highly variable. Sometimes, you get a lot of water in a short time, causing floods. And on average, the Nile streamflow is limited and highly stressed, and that causes issues around water use. 

    MM: When we talk about the issues surrounding the GERD, how do engineering issues – the technical “too much or too little” – sit beside the more ostensibly political conflicts that we’ve seen playing out in the press over the last decade? 

    MB: There are a few pending issues about the GERD. Some of them are technical. Others are political. And others are a mix of the two. Some of the issues seem technical on the surface, but they have political implications. For example, managing multi-year droughts in the long-term would have political implications for Nile water allocation. Some other outstanding issues are somewhat technical in nature, such as data sharing, socio-economic impact assessment and dam safety. 

    MM: What do you mean by safety? 

    MB: There is a branch of study in engineering called dam safety. This is important because if a dam breaks, it could lead to massive destruction. I personally haven’t studied this aspect of the GERD, but the “declaration of principles’ ‘ between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, signed in 2015, states that Ethiopia had taken measures to ensure the safety of the GERD, and that other measures needed to be completed after 2015. But the final safety documents of the dam have not yet been provided to Sudan and Egypt to follow up on these measures, according to Sudan’s water minister. 

    But from a different angle than safety, one that I’m more familiar with, the dam’s management will definitely impact downstream countries, whether positively or negatively. The GERD is quite large. The reservoir volume is about 1.5 times the average annual natural flow of the Blue Nile at the dam’s location, and, consequently, it can change the flow pattern within the year and from year to year. This will result in some challenges for both Egypt and Sudan, and some opportunities for Sudan. 

    For Egypt, the dam can impact water availability during multi-year periods of drought. Take, for example, the drought in the 1980s — if you look at some data of the Aswan High Dam or Lake Nasser, you will see that, in this decade, the water level of Lake Nasser was very low. And that was because the inflow to the reservoir was also quite low, resulting in a drop in water levels. So, if there is a similar drought period with another dam upstream, and that dam is not releasing enough water downstream, there will be a larger impact on Egypt during that period. This is the main point of contention between Ethiopia and Egypt: how to manage multi-year droughts. 

    But if we take the impact on Sudan, it will be quite different from the impact on Egypt. Sudan doesn’t have a dam as large as the Aswan High Dam. So, for Sudan, what matters is really the timing of flows within the year, whether the flow is going to be regular, how it’s going to change from one day to the other, and then how to coordinate the operation between the GERD and Sudan’s Roseires Dam, which has a reservoir very close to the GERD, located about 15 km away. Any releases from the GERD need to be communicated to the Roseires Dam well in advance and in consultation with the operator of the latter.

    MM: You and a team of researchers did an extensive study on the effects of drought on Khartoum. Can you walk us through a basic description of what drought looks like in the Nile Basin, based on your research? 

    MB: Droughts are common in the Nile Basin. They impact water use and they are experienced frequently in Nile Basin countries, especially where rainfall and river flow variabilities are closely linked to irrigated and/or rain-fed agriculture. So, when there is a drought, you can see its effects on agricultural production. For example, in Sudan and Ethiopia, rain-fed agriculture is widely practiced and is also a source of livelihood for a large proportion of the populations of the two countries. A meteorological drought directly impacts rain-fed agriculture. If you look at rain-fed food production in Sudan and Ethiopia, you will see some level of correlation with water availability. 

    If you look back to the 1980s, Ethiopia was hard hit with a famine, and you can see many pictures of barren lands and starvation. So, what you see in the pictures is what happens in reality. The question is whether we can mitigate such impacts by improving the infrastructure and modernizing the water, energy and food sectors.

    MM: The water, energy and food nexus is a framework through which you study the impacts of dams and how to mitigate the effects of drought. Can you give us a brief account of what the framework entails?

    MB: The main idea behind the water, energy and food nexus is that the three sectors are strongly interlinked. Interventions in any of the three sides of the nexus impact the other two. So, for example, if you intervene in the water system by building a dam on a river, this will affect the amount of energy you generate, and it will also impact how much food you can produce. The Aswan High Dam is a good example that impacted the way Egypt produces energy and food. 

    Food also consumes water, and this impacts water availability and hence energy generation through hydropower. Agriculture can also contribute to energy production through bioenergy. These are just some examples of possible interlinkages, but, in reality, they are quite complex. Considering these interlinkages in the planning and operating processes of the three resource systems can lead to better decisions in managing limited resources that are under pressure due to population growth, economic growth, climate change, etc. So, in general, that’s what the nexus is and why it is important. 

    For example, a recent study I co-authored looked at how the interlinkages between water, energy and food are impacted under different environmental hazards: floods and drought. The study focused on Khartoum because you can easily identify elements from all sides of the nexus in this large city. Khartoum is the largest city in Sudan and one of the largest in Africa. It has a population between 6 and 7 million, which is around 17 percent of the population of Sudan. There is irrigated agriculture in Khartoum on the banks of the Blue Nile, the White Nile and the Main Nile. Also, water treatment plants draw water directly from the Nile for domestic use. Some of the energy use in the city comes from hydropower plants that depend on the Nile. So, we can see quite a few nexus elements in Khartoum that are linked to the Nile.

    The geographic location of Khartoum is also quite interesting. It’s at the confluence of the two main rivers of the Nile, the Blue Nile and the White Nile, so you’ve got different regions that govern the flow of the Nile at that location.

    And when it comes to the urban side, Khartoum is a fast expanding city, a fact related to how Sudan has been administratively managed over the past few decades. Sudan is quite centralized. Most of the services, such as education and health, are in Khartoum. And that causes migration from other parts of Sudan. 

    Our study on Khartoum State shows that both environmental stressors, i.e., floods and droughts, have implications for the water-energy-food nexus, by affecting water quality and treatment, energy needs for pumping irrigation water and energy generation from hydropower.

    MM: In this urban nexus study, the focus was on the period between 2006 and 2010. Why is this period interesting to look at? What are the important things that we can extrapolate from this period, especially when we think about climate change more broadly in the Nile Basin? 

    MB: The most interesting thing about this period is that it has both a flood year and a drought year. The 2009-2010 year was dry. But, if you look at 2007-2008, it was a flood year. So the overall time period included both environmental hazard types. That’s why we chose this specific timeframe.

    And regarding your question about climate change, if you look at climate change studies on the Nile, many of them show an increasing river flow variability. This means, in the future, we’re going to experience more frequent droughts and more frequent floods. 

    MM: Your work also shows that dams don’t merely sit in a context of a changing environment but have an impact themselves on the environment. Can you walk us through some of the insights your work on the environmental impacts of the GERD will produce?

    MB: Dams have environmental impacts. There’s no way around that. These impacts depend on the size, design, location and operation of the dam. Designing a dam involves balancing the risks and opportunities that will result from the dam. So, when we talk about the effects of a dam, there are benefits such as hydropower and irrigation, but there are also negative socio-economic and environmental impacts. 

    Regarding the expected environmental impacts specific to the GERD, first, if we look at the design of the dam itself, the reservoir of the dam is large in terms of volume and depth. The lowest point in the reservoir is at about 510 meters above sea level, and the highest point is at about 640 meters above sea level. So, you have a maximum water depth of about 130 meters when the reservoir is full. This high depth would affect many physical and chemical characteristics of the reservoir’s water. Also, the reservoir volume is large, which means that when water gets into the reservoir, it spends an extended period of time until it leaves the reservoir. This impacts some water parameters, such as temperature and oxygen content. Large reservoirs also trap natural nutrients that benefit the downstream ecosystem.

    The environmental effects also depend on where the dam outlets are located. If you have outlets that release water downstream from the deep reservoir layers, that water will be low in oxygen and will negatively impact the survival of the ecosystem. Also, when you have a deep reservoir, the water temperature at deep layers will be different from the natural temperature of the river. If you change the pattern of the temperature of the water, that’s going to impact the river ecosystem. 

    Another expected environmental impact of the GERD is its effect on water salinity. When you store water in a reservoir, the water salinity increases due to evaporation from the reservoir. This increase in salinity has adverse impacts on the ecosystem downstream. Evaporation from the reservoirs in Sudan is also expected to increase with the operation of the GERD, further increasing water salinity.

    MM: But are people in the research community talking about how to measure these effects? Or are these just concerns that some researchers have but there’s no way to measure them or monitor them. Are there existing bodies that might do this work in the future? 

    MB: There are ways to model water quality. But currently, there is not much focus on quantifying these impacts of the GERD. But these issues are very serious, especially with such large dams. 

    In a paper I recently co-authored, we tried to emphasize that dams are not as green as many think. A lot of people think that hydropower is a clean energy source, a green energy source. But it’s not. Many people think that dams do not directly contribute to climate change. That’s not true. Dams produce greenhouse gases as well, especially in the tropics.

    Dam reservoirs emit greenhouse gases, specifically methane and carbon dioxide. These are produced because, first, you flood the reservoir, which results in processes that decompose biological residuals. Second, reservoirs release carbon from the soil. Both these aspects contribute to climate change. 

    MM: There are a lot of environmental movements around the world that now advocate against building dams in general, and, even if people don’t talk about this in public in Egypt, there are those who criticize the Aswan High Dam and its environmental impacts. However, when we look to the future of the Nile Basin, it seems like dams are here to stay. Should we be fated to this as an eventuality? Is there any alternative technology, more environmentally-conscious engineering perhaps? 

    MB: If you look around the world (e.g., the United States), there are campaigns against dams. Many dams that have been built in the United States and Europe in the past century are now being removed. There are many rivers where there is an effort to restore the natural ecosystem. If you remove an existing dam, it will take several years for the ecosystem to return to normal again. And that’s also the flip side of building dams. When you build a dam, you don’t see the environmental impacts right away, but also, when you remove a dam, the system doesn’t restore itself right away. 

    But the issue is that if you want to stop building dams, what’s the alternative? If, for example, you’re building dams for hydropower, an alternative is building thermal power plants, but those also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, and there’s a global push against them. Another alternative is developing renewable energy sources like solar and wind, but then again, these two come with their caveats as well because they are highly variable, and you can only generate wind energy when the wind is blowing, and you can only generate solar energy when the sun is shining. 

    MM: But Egypt and Sudan get a lot of sunlight. 

    MB: Yes, but it shines during the day, not at night. There is an important and growing field focusing on integrating solar and wind energy. Many researchers are looking at dams as a way to supplement renewable energy sources. So, along with having solar and wind energy generation, you could have a dam that acts as a backup for when you don’t have renewable energy. Also, researchers are looking at what is called pumped storage as a means to integrate variable renewable energy sources. The way this works is when you have a lot of renewable energy, you generate electricity, and you use that energy to pump water from a low level to a high level and then when renewable energy is no longer available, you release that water from the high level through turbines to generate energy. So, there are many new technologies advancing. The question then becomes, is it worth it to build dams now or should we invest in fast-advancing renewable technologies to help us produce energy in a more “green” way? Because there are uncertainties, tough decisions lie ahead.  

    MM: Why hasn’t there been more consideration of the environmental impacts at the level of the state negotiations? 

    MB: If you look at the history of the GERD, in 2013, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt formed something called the International Panel of Experts, which included scientists from the three countries to look at the design reports of the GERD and evaluate them. And one of their recommendations was to conduct studies by nonpartisan bodies, including one on an environmental impact assessment of the GERD. The idea was to have a somewhat independent firm or a consortium of firms to conduct these studies, but this hasn’t been done, due to disagreements over the terms of reference for the studies. 

    MM: It’s interesting that there is at least a professed intention to do this, but it hasn’t actually been done, or maybe some people were trying, but they weren’t given the chance.

    MB: Yes, indeed. It’s been a request since 2013. From an Ethiopian viewpoint, they say that they did environmental studies themselves. But that’s not enough. When you have a transboundary river, a study needs to be conducted by an independent body. 

    More generally, the issue with environmental costs is that you don’t see them immediately. They manifest over a long time. So it’s not very hard to sell a dam as purely positive because you will not start seeing the negative impacts immediately. Of course, it depends on who talks about these impacts. Often, environmentalists will say that it is not worth building dams, while engineers will say that dams are still very important and they help in economic development and lift people out of poverty, etc. But environmental impacts are often sidelined, especially in developing countries, because of the other benefits from dams. When a government builds a dam and starts producing hydropower or creating other benefits, you get political backing and momentum as the public starts seeing some benefits. That’s why it’s easier to sell a large dam to the public than a small dam. 

    MM: Why do you say that it is easier to sell a bigger dam to the public? 

    MB: It is about the benefits that dams bring. So, if you build a 300 megawatt dam, you will have less public backing compared to if you build a 6,000 megawatt dam. The GERD has a hydropower capacity of 5,150 megawatts at the moment. That’s the latest design, but it will not generate that much most of the time if the dam is used for baseload generation. It’s going to generate something around 2,000 megawatts or less most of the time. 

    MM: Really? Why do you say that? 

    MB: Because of the hydrology of the river. Imagine that you buy a Ferrari. It is very fast: 500 km per hour at maximum speed. But then you take it for a drive in a mountainous area. You wouldn’t be able to hit that maximum speed. You might find some straight stretches of road where you can hit 500 km, but only for a minute or two. You cannot really use it at full capacity all the time. This is similar to hydropower capacity. You can put in as much power capacity, you can pack in as many turbines as you want, but if the river’s hydrology doesn’t support operating all those turbines, then you will have to operate at a lower capacity. 

    MM: But why does the Blue Nile’s hydrology not support this level of operation?

    MB: Imagine that the GERD is full. The filling has been completed, and they are now trying to decide on how much power to generate. On a particular day, if you want to generate 5,000 megawatts, you need to release a certain amount of water, and if you want to generate 1,000 megawatts, you will need to release a different amount of water. In both cases, such a decision is dependent on the reservoir level. If you want to generate 5,150 megawatts throughout the year, you will have to release a lot of water, resulting in the reservoir emptying out very quickly, even before you finish the year in some hydrologic conditions. So that means the hydrology of the river itself, the amount of water that the river delivers at the location of the GERD, is not enough to support generating 5,150 megawatts all the time. 

    MM: And it is also highly variable due to rainfall variations and climate disturbances, right? I imagine this will have an effect. 

    MB: Yes. Several studies looked specifically at how best to operate the GERD for baseload generation. Because if you try to generate 5,150 megawatts all the time, that’s a bad idea. If you try to generate 500, that’s also a bad idea. It has to be something in between, and the range that is most often presented is somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 megawatts. I think it is better to describe the GERD based on the energy generation potential rather than installed power capacity. The expected annual electricity generation of the GERD is 14,000 GWh, assuming dam operation aimed at maximizing firm power generation. For comparison the High Aswan Dam’s annual energy generation ranges between around 8,000 and 10,000 GWh.

    MM: And how is this related to the issue of public backing that you mentioned above?

    MB: I am sure that Ethiopian engineers and scientists know that they don’t need all that capacity for baseload generation. That capacity might be useful for short-term peak electricity generation. This is why it’s important to think about the political gains that come with presenting a mega project to the public, rather than a modest one. 

    MM: Did the initial designs have realistic numbers that increased with the national momentum? 

    MB: The initial designs of the GERD date back to 1964 (the dam was known as the Border Dam back then). The storage capacity back then was around 11 bcm with a power capacity of 1,400 megawatts. The design evolved until it became the 74 bcm that we know today. I think until about 2009, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt were discussing a storage capacity of around 15 bcm. 

    MM: Beyond the environmental, though, or perhaps as an extension of the environmental into the realm of political economy, have you modeled the industrial-economic impacts of the GERD? 

    MB: I have done some analysis about the economic impacts of the GERD. I use whole-economy models to see how the GERD would impact the three countries. Through these models, we can look at things like GDP, employment and the outputs of different sectors. And the idea is to link this model to the biophysical model of the river system. And what we can do through such a framework is examine how changes in the water-energy-food system can impact macroeconomic performance. So, for example, we have modeled a scenario in which Ethiopia doesn’t build the GERD and a scenario in which Ethiopia builds the GERD to see how that impacts the economic performance of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. 

    MM: What do these scenarios look like for the different countries? 

    MB: In one of the scenarios, I tried to quantify how the GERD would impact Egypt. This is assuming that the GERD would be operated unilaterally to maximize Ethiopia’s energy generation. In terms of GDP, the impact on Egypt is going to be relatively small, simply because the agricultural sector makes up a small proportion of Egypt’s economy, which is more dependent on services and industry. But the impact is going to be felt more by the poor who rely on agriculture for their income. So, when we looked at the income of poor rural households and the income of rich households, we found that the income of the poor will be significantly more affected than the rich. I think that’s one of the things that Egypt is trying to avoid. This is the distributional impact in the language of economics, which means when you intervene in the economic system, there will be winners and losers.

    I have also looked at how the GERD electricity would impact Ethiopia’s economy. The impacts will be positive because electricity will stimulate higher output by different economic sectors, resulting in an overall positive impact on the economy.

    I worked on a paper recently with some colleagues, in which we looked at a scenario whereby the GERD were to be operated in full collaboration with Sudan. In that scenario, Sudan would have some benefits because the flow would be more regular. Sudan could expand its irrigated agriculture and increase hydropower generation, which would benefit Sudan’s economy in the long term. 

    Finally, in some of my recent analyses, some colleagues and I looked at other scenarios to operate the GERD. One of the scenarios was based on a recently negotiated proposal in Washington DC and the other scenario involved an increased level of cooperation between the three countries in which the political boundaries would be relaxed while retaining some national goals. The cooperative scenario, which involved imagining collaborative dam operation, included having the Aswan High Dam and the GERD operating in a synchronized manner during droughts and periods of high flows.

    We found that when following a coordinated approach, both Ethiopia and Egypt will experience positive economic impacts, while the impact on Sudan will largely be neutral compared to the less cooperative scenario. Our results signal that cooperation is highly beneficial and should be the way to go in managing the Nile water. Ideally, collaboration between the three countries should be based on the comparative advantages of each country and develop on the basis of benefit-sharing, rather than water-sharing. 

    Only then, will there be enough water resources to meet the ever growing water, energy and food demands of the three riparians. 

    We’ve previously described conflict around controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam here.

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