By Otula Owuor
Hardly a week passes without one reading or listening to mass media stories about the pending Nile Water Wars between Egypt and Ethiopia.
However, in this era of climate change, there is need for extra caution in selectively using vague and biased scientific, technical and policy perspectives to beat war drums that fuel the simmering conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia, the two most powerful African nations with rich and unique history.
To begin with there is need to constantly remind the two nations and others in the Nile Basin that this mighty river should be used sustainably to foster peace, increased trade, environment conservation and overall regional socio-economic development driven by credible science, technology and innovation. War should not be an option. Other Nile Basin countries that must pay extra-attention to curbing the simmering conflict include Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, Kenya, South Sudan, The Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
However, all other Nile Basin countries also have major roles to play in protecting and conserving their national and transboundary water resources that form the intricate web constituting the River Nile whose ancient roots once extended to Lake Tanganyika and the northwards flow was later blocked by Virunga Volcanoes in Rwanda.
At the centre of the conflict is Africa’s largest hydro-electric plant, The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, initiated along the Blue Nile near The Sudan border in 2011. Egypt claims it will reduce the amount of water reaching its population and country survival is at stake. Ethiopia vehemently denies this. The simmering conflict has led to what seems like selective and biased use of scientific data and facts.
In Egypt minister of water resources and irrigation, Mohamed Abdel Aty, once said that reducing Nile water by two percent would result in about 200,000 acres of land being lost. However, Ethiopia asserts that hydroelectric power stations do not consume water and all depends on how fast Ethiopia fills the huge dam.
The former prime minister of Ethiopia, the late Meles Senawi always stressed that the dam would never interfere with water availability in Egypt. Ethiopia explains that it may even take a decade and half to fill the dam meaning that the normal rate of Nile flow will be maintained. In Sudan there are experts who say the dam will help regulate over-flooding of irrigation projects by creating a much needed steady flow.
What is increasingly clear is that Egypt constantly needs endless reassurances that no Nile Basin nation is plotting to use Nile waters to cause death, destruction, starvation and unlimited economic sabotage using Nile waters.
The current regime realizes that Egypt as the continent’s big brother should take a more progressive approach emphasizing socio-economic progress and integration driven by home grown science technology and innovation.
This was clearly emphasized when Egypt hosted the recent Third Africa Science. Technology and Innovation Forum held in Cairo during the second week of February, 2018. The minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Khaled Abdel Ghaffar, pledged Egypt’s willingness to build a continent driven by knowledge and innovation.
He told delegates that Egypt would continue to support young African researchers and increase scholarship opportunities for students from other African countries. During the Forum Egyptian Government and the African Development Bank championed a new push for African nations to work together towards building a new Africa driven by innovation, technology and commercialization of research outputs.
When Egypt completed building Aswan High Dam in 1970 it reduced annual flooding that benefitted some farmers while the availability of the fertile alluvial soil that increased farm yields declined drastically. There were fears that the dam would cause widespread flooding especially in Sudan because it slowed the flow of the Nile.
Still some experts say that much of the Nile water is lost in Egypt due intense evaporation in the hot arid desert environment. But some experts in Sudan and Ethiopia say that the dam could help curb the loss. However, currently there no effective technological package that can be developed quickly to manage such massive evaporation process that has been going on for millions of years in Egypt’s sunbaked desert environment.
Egypt is raising its claim of “Nile water flow” to 90 percent from the original 66 percent as major precautionary measure. Although in this era of climate change excessive floods in the Nile Basin may briefly meet the demand. However, there is need to focus on science for sustainable solutions.
This includes various practical aspects of environment conservation and protection. It includes protection and rejuvenation of water towers or water catchment areas and indigenous forests, especially the vanishing Equatorial Forests of the Congo Basin.
Although overlooked Nile Basin countries face major negative environment impacts linked to the massive destruction of Equatorial Rainforests by some Western and now Asian timber companies. Rainfall in western Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and western Tanzania depend on winds picking moisture from the once dense Equatorial Rain Forests.
Nile Basin still has abundant water resources and adequate rainfall that seem deficient because of poor distribution and unwillingness to conserve excess rainfall causing floods. Nile Basin experts including engineers and agriculture experts are needed to deal with various aspects of water conservation, land use, increasing pollution, climate change issues, forestry and environment conservation, and other related skills.
The source of Nile is not only Ethiopia’s Blue Nile although it currently provides the bulk of water reaching Egypt. There is also the White Nile emerging from a spring in Lake Victoria. However, there is need to pay practical attention to all rivers flowing into it including a major one like Kagera that that has tributaries in both Rwanda and Burundi.
In short all the rivers that flow into Lake Victoria should also be at the centre of efforts to conserve water in the Nile Basin. Kenya and Tanzania, for example, should be encouraged to focus more on major flooding rivers that drain into the Indian Ocean thus easing the pressure to exploit those that flow into Lake Victoria. The currently flooded River Tana, for example, can clearly accommodate more huge dams. This is more so when Nairobi is one of word’s ten cities that are predicted to face dry taps soon.
There have been efforts to improve Nile water flow. There is need to recognize Sudan’s efforts to build canals to by-pass the Sudd- floating vegetation obstructing the White Nile. With the alleged UN predictions that Egypt will suffer water shortages soon, there are whispers that Egypt should also go for another huge dam to trap more water that empty into the Mediterranean Sea. Equally Egypt’s potential for solar and wind power from the deserts is unlimited. It also means that it may in future have the energy for desalination of the salty waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
However, there are various options to conserve water in the Nile Basin. There is room for food and cash crops that use water efficiently thus reducing the chances of large scale irrigation projects turning landscapes into shallow lakes that also spread diseases. Still water conservation increases with drip irrigation which is becoming more popular.
Still, Nile Basin countries, for example, need to intensify research on New Rice for Africa (NERICA), which does not need largescale irrigated or flooded farmlands. However, such important projects linked to water conservation are overwhelmingly left to donors. Both Egypt and Ethiopia could easily have important inputs especially because the rice has the potential to grow in various “dryland: agro-ecological zones. In short the region has a pool of skilled scientists who well placed to help entrench such sustainable water conserving technologies. These are more productive options than current war drums.
However, Ethiopia may not be the only nation going for major hydro-electric projects. The need for energy remains unlimited in Africa. The continent has much of the world’s hydro-electric power potential with claims that Congo DRC alone has a quarter of the global potential. It has to be noted that the emerging era of solar and wind power may in the long future reduce the need for hydroelectric projects.
Finally it has to be noted that the earth has its own disruptive activities that shape and reshape its physical and biological features. Peaceful use of Nile waters for sustainable development is the only way forward.