By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
It’s being taken as a given that the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is going to be built on the Blue Nile and that the downstream countries, Sudan and Egypt, are going to have to face the consequences. If the so-called Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is inevitable, what is it we can do about it on our own home turf?
This may seem terribly unpatriotic but it isn’t. The idea of the dam is very old indeed, going back to the 1960s, and even Muhammad Hassanein Heikal and Bourtrous Boutrous Ghali had expressed their sympathies towards the idea of a hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile. It’s part of a country’s natural aspirations. And Sudan has several of its own dams along the path of the Blue Nile as it is.
Science as a Solution
It’s often been said that science is a map, it shows you different options – routes you can take to reach your destination – but at the end of the day you have to take the hard decision you believe is most suitable for you and insure that you take the right steps to attain your objective.
Therefore, the first step is to understand the sheer dimensions of the problems posed by the GERD. My focus here is on Egypt. 95% of the country’s freshwater is Nilewater and 60% of that is from the Blue Nile. Then there’s the uncomfortable fact that Egypt has already fallen beneath the UN’s water poverty threshold of 1000 cubic meters per capita. It currently stands at 700 cubic meters per person and is likely to get worse as the population continues to expand. (We can add that urbanisation will only exacerbate the situation, since the new cities out in the desert are far more demanding of water resources). Not to forget that 10-15 billion cubic meters of water are lost annually from Lake Nasser thanks to evaporation alone. Then there’s how much gets lost through seepage and evaporation along the rest of the Nile and the irrigation channels we use to water our already thirsty crops.
Conclusion, water conservation is a must, GERD or no GERD. Not to mention searching out other sources of water, such as digging wells, relying on aquifer water and desalination. But, again, water conservation is a more immediate problem and solutions for it can be implemented more quickly. Consulting an African studies professor from Sudan, without naming names, there is the option of ‘drip irrigation’. The way irrigation is done in Egypt and Sudan at the moment, the professor explained, is that the peasant opens the water tap and leaves the rubber pipe in the field while he goes to sleep and only turns it off when he wakes up. That’s a tremendous waste of water and not terribly healthy either for the soil when it comes to water clogging and soil erosion.
Consulting an American expert he explained that solving Egypt’s water problems involves more than just government policy since there are several initiatives pushed by a multitude of actors, including experts, donors (foreign and domestic) and the private sector. (The European Council on Foreign Relations helped the Egyptian government put together a ‘National Water Resources Plan’ that covers everything from water conservation to desalination plants). The byword for all this is to reduce the amount of water needed to produce the same or greater quantity of food. Water conservation is a quantifiable science with international standards. Next to drip irrigation there are the very feasible options of using pipes instead of irrigation canals, which reduces evaporation and water seepage, as well as avoiding over-irrigating crops as well as reusing water and recycling sewage water. These are all options within reach of a developing country like Egypt and have actually been studied in the field, as it were.
There’s also the choice of crops, since rice and sugarcane are major consumers of water. This is more policy than science but even here science can make a contribution. Sugerbeet has been optioned as a less water consuming substitute for sugarcane and there are new strains of rice (and wheat) that can live off water with higher salinity levels and in different kinds of soil. An engineer friend has assured me that Egyptian scientists have already bred or genetically engineered such strains, in preparation for the day that sea levels will rise due to global warming and sink the Delta, God forbid.
Blessings in Many Guises
An unexpected dimension to GERD, amazingly enough, is that it might actually be a good thing for Sudan and Egypt. Having a reservoir in Ethiopia, it is argued, is a good thing because it reduces the risk of damage to the Aswan High Dam from flooding. The other added benefit is that it reduces the amount of silt in the water, since the GERD will hold back the colossal amounts of mud and gravel dislodged from the mountains in Ethiopia by the monsoon rains. Less silt in Lake Nasser means more room for water, and also a longer lifespan for the Aswan High Dam itself. The same goes for dams and reservoirs in Sudan.
I’m citing Cairo University’s Group of the Nile Basin (GNB) who have said that the new dam will lead to a uniform flow of water that in turn means “flood protection, irrigation expansion, water use efficiency, sediment load reduction, affordable clean power trade and an energy production uplift” (quoted in Ghali, 2015). The above mentioned American expert explained that negative effects to the flow of the Nile will chiefly apply during the ‘filling’ period, when the new reservoir in Ethiopia becomes operational and begins to store water till it reaches its maximum holding capacity – expected at 70 billion cubic meters. Once that’s over and done with there will be no bad effects, even in terms of the speed of the water reaching us, because that speed’s already been reduced thanks to the Roseires, Sennar, and Merowe dams in Sudan.
How long this filling period is going to take, nobody knows. It could stretch from 2 year to 10 years, the expert explained, adding that the consensus is that the Egyptian and Sudanese governments are happy that the process take as long as is humanly possible. It gives them more time to make water conservation and exploration preparations, and gives the Ethiopians more time to change their minds and scrap the whole project to begin with. A week is a long time in politics, as the saying goes, never mind a decade!
Homegrown Common Sense
The real problem in the meantime, again, is evaporation, estimated at 2-3 billion cubic meters, which is nothing compared to what we lose in Lake Nasser at 10 billion cubic meters a year. One option there, made by Egyptian experts and for quite some time now, is to build a plastic dome over Lake Nasser to reduce evaporation. The same experts, I’m glad to say, have also optioned that the silt locked up in the Lake can be harvested and used as fertilizer. Good natural fertilizer, cheaper and better than the chemical variety. I’m more inclined to this option, personally, given that the quality of agricultural produce in the pre-Aswan High Dam days was always better, specifically because of the silt contained in the waters of al-nil al asmar (the ‘tanned’ Nile). For some inexplicable reason this tremendous wealth of silt has been left ignored and untapped for way, way too long.
Actually, a business editor explained the reason to me; in the Nasserist days the Dam was seen as a hydroelectric project, ‘not’ an irrigation project, and bureaucratic inertia seeped in afterwards. There’s also the outbreak of lotus plants in the Nile waters itself. An Egyptian expert explained once that the silt used to block sunlight entering the water and so preventing the water seeds from sprouting!
Farouk Al-Baz, the great geologist who worked for NASA, also explained that silt is important for levelling out the Nile Delta, and slowing down its sinking into the Mediterranean. (He argued this as a rejoinder to the predictions and ‘evidence’ used by advocates of global warming). And Farouk Al-Baz is also a great advocate of shifting the burden from the Nile Valley by building up the Western Desert. Less people in the Nile Valley means less pressure on existing water resources. It also means using new water resources (aquifer and subterranean water) contained in the Western Desert, and North Coast. Both the ancient Egyptians and the conquering Arabs grew crops in these areas, to feed the people in the Nile Valley, so there’s no reason why modern technological man can’t do the same, and more.
We’re always piling up our responsibilities on the rural sector, the poor miserable farmer, and forget the tail end of the problem, namely, the urban consumer. We’re a country that insists on having only one water system in our homes, using fresh water for everything from drinking and cooking to washing dishes and bathing. Let alone splashing water out on the street to ‘cool’ things down for the employees indoors and literally drowning cars in freshwater and ruining the rubber tires in the process. Such bad habits simply have to stop. The farm sector can’t do everything for us and the building of new cities and urban centres in the desert actually opens up an opportunity to put in place pipes that carry freshwater and another set of pipes that can carry water for cleaning and washing, like they have in the rest of the world. I don’t just mean Europe but places like China and Lebanon and Jordan and the Gulf Arab countries.
Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. What an annoying name. reminds you of the Great Man-Made River, Qadafi’s big pipedream to nowhere!!
 Please see Deena Khalil, “Cairo’s Hidden Urban Water Scarcity”, March 24, 2019, Alternative Policy Solutions, http://aps.aucegypt.edu/en/commentary-post/cairos-hidden-urban-water-scarcity/.
 Please see Walaa Y. El-Nashar and Ahmed H. Elyamany, “Managing risks of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on Egypt”, Ain Shams Engineering Journal, 2017, and Mohie El Din M. Omar and Ahmed M.A. Moussa, “Water management in Egypt for facing the future challenges”, Cairo University: Journal of Advanced Research, 2015.