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The dam conundrum: to build or not to build?

Dominik Lehnert
The ancient technology of dams has fuelled human progress. Yet countries building and managing dams, especially in transboundary river systems like the Nile, face complex and difficult challenges.
22.02.2021  |  Berlin, Germany
Construction activity at Sudan’s Merowe Dam. (photo: David Haberlah)
Construction activity at Sudan’s Merowe Dam. (photo: David Haberlah)

The Nile Basin’s population is rising, as is the demand for clean water, food and energy. Over the past 50 years, six Nile Basin countries have built 25 hydroelectric dams.

Despite their drawbacks, dams are seen as a necessary step to provide for growing populations by the Nile Basin countries and their leaders.

Journalists from the Eastern Nile Basin shed light on the key themes of the region’s dams.

By definition, dams are an obstruction to the flow of water. Some of the risks associated with them, in addition to negative impacts on biodiversity, include conflicts, the danger of them failing, and sometimes the displacement of local populations.

As rivers, such as the Nile, often cross multiple countries, building a dam in one country can also create problems in nations further along the river.

This is clear when we take a closer look at the dams, existing, planned and under construction, in the Nile Basin.

Dams are impressive structures that require vast investment and can be part of a government’s legacy. On the negative side, as well as carrying debris and silt, they can also generate local conflict.

The potential for disputes between upstream and downstream countries is only one example of how dams can have major consequences for political, social, economic and ecological dynamics in the basin.

And there is much to learn from the past: Investigating dam failures, not only structurally, but also in their impact on humans and nature can pave the way towards a more open discussion on how cooperation can really take place.

But first and foremost, we need to understand how dams work.

Despite having a decisive effect on the Nile’s ecosystem, some science and environmental journalists, including Rehab Abdalmohsen, had never visited a dam until she investigated Sennar for this publication.

In this issue of The Niles, journalists from the Eastern Nile Basin shed light on the key themes of the region’s dams, probing them from a range of perspectives.

Cooperation is primordial in the Nile Basin.

Our correspondents zero in on Sudan’s long history of constructing dams as well as South Sudan’s plans and what they mean for the country’s future.

The reports reveal how it is all interconnected: for example, Dagim Terefe investigates how the changing climate of the Ethiopian Choke watersheds increases silting and other impacts in downstream countries like Egypt, where Asmaa Gamal homes in on the history and popularity of the Al-Qanater al-Khairiya dams.

Guided by this The Niles issue’s proverb “A boat cannot go forward if each rows his own way”, we end on a question and with a spark of hope: Cooperation is primordial in the Nile Basin – and it is a key ingredient in a dams’ success. So how can we ensure it happens?

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