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Do we need a framework for dams?

Waakhe Simon
The Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office (ENTRO) is drawing up a coordination framework for dams in the region, aiming to ease conflicts about dams and water supply in the future.
31.03.2021  |  Juba, South Sudan
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) captured by the Sentinel-2 satellite on April 4, 2020. (photo: Copernicus Programme)
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) captured by the Sentinel-2 satellite on April 4, 2020. (photo: Copernicus Programme)

The planned framework seeks to organise and coordinate the operation of dams in the Eastern Nile Basin, according to Michael Abebe, the Regional Coordinator for Water Resources and Dam Safety at the Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office (ENTRO) in Addis Ababa.

The issue is getting more attention.”

“In the last ten years many more dams were constructed in the Nile Basin, so the issue is getting more attention,” said Abebe, of the planned coordination mechanism, which comes against a backdrop of rising tensions between countries about dams and water usage.

It aims to maximise dams’ benefits, helping to make the most of the water resources in the basin for the riparian states who share the waters of the Nile. It also reduces the risks of inefficient or unsafe operation of dams along the Blue Nile.

Work began on the framework back in 2018, and it will detail how countries can cooperate on dams’ operation.

Once the ENTRO technical team, in close coordination with the countries of the Eastern Nile region, has finished the framework, likely in two- or three-years time, it will need to be adopted by ENTRO member states.

Rising conflicts

Tensions have emerged between the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) member states as dams are constructed. For example, a long-running dispute between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan over the waters of the Nile flared in 2020, as Ethiopia moves toward completion of Africa’s largest hydroelectric power project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

“The dispute over the GERD is part of a feud the downstream states on the one hand, and Ethiopia and the upstream riparians on the other over access to the Nile’s waters, which are considered a lifeline for millions of people living in Egypt and Sudan,” writes John Mukum Mbaku, Nonresident Senior Fellow - Global Economy and Development, Africa Growth Initiative in an article published on Brookings.

“Despite the intense disagreements, though, Ethiopia continues to move forward with the dam, arguing that the hydroelectric project will significantly improve livelihoods in the region more broadly,” he adds.

Observers say that more dams are likely amid rising demand for water and other services. Currently, the population of the NBI member states is estimated to be around 505 million.

Dr Mohsen Alarabawy, Regional Technical Specialist at the NBI, says the region’s population increases by 2.5 percent annually. The basin’s total population is on track to double by 2050. This will mean increasing usage of the Nile waters as the population increases, putting intense pressure on the water supply.

Although organisations such as the NBI have worked for decades to ensure the best use of the Nile’s waters in the region, there is still no overarching coordination mechanism for dams.

“Unless you manage them properly or you coordinate your operation, there might be a scarcity of water in the region again because of security issues,” Abebe said.

Averting “water wars”

Nhial Tiitmamer, an environmental expert from South Sudan, said a framework on dam management “will reduce conflicts between member states and build cooperation instead of antagonism”.

“Most of the focus on dams has been on safety and environmental and social impacts of the dams, but there has been less focus on the rights and obligations of member states sharing an international river such as the Nile River,” he added.

The World Commission on Dams has underscored the need for moves to eliminate conflict relating to dams. It outlines best-practice models and bleakly states: “when rivers cross borders within or between nations, water scarcity leads to water stress which leads to water wars.”

The Nile riparians must understand that the river is a common resource.”

“Decisions on dams must respond to a wide range of needs, expectations, objectives and constraints. As matters of public choice and policy, they will always reflect competing interests and require negotiation.”

“The Nile riparians must understand that the river is a common resource whose effective management must be approached from a basin-wide perspective. Thus, it is only through cooperation that Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, and the other riparians can peacefully resolve conflicts over the Nile and achieve the type of water use that will contribute significantly to regional economic and human development,” recommends John Mukum Mbaku.

Coordinating the operation of dams in the Eastern Nile Basin is a crucial pillar of managing the Nile waters. If adopted by the ENTRO member states, the suggested coordination framework for operating dams would significantly contribute to ensuring equitable water supply for all Nile Basin citizens in the future.

And with every new dam being constructed, the need for such a framework increases.

This article is part of:
A boat cannot go forward if each rows his own way
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