In this episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Annalise Blum, a policy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Blum explores the conflict over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a hydropower project along the Blue Nile that is expected to double Ethiopia's power generation capacity. Blum notes that, while Ethiopian leaders see the dam as a potential unifier for a divided country, Egypt sees the project as a threat to its water supply—90 percent of which comes from the Nile.
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- The Renaissance Dam will be Africa’s largest source of hydropower: “When the dam is complete, it'll be the largest hydropower dam in Africa, and it's expected to be 509 feet high, just over a mile long, and to have a volume of 60 million acre-feet … The projected capacity from Ethiopia is 6,000 megawatts, which will more than double Ethiopia's current power generation capacity. And in terms of social and ecological impacts of filling the reservoir, it's been estimated that the reservoir will flood an area of over 700 square miles … So, Egypt is really concerned about reductions in Nile flow, both when the reservoir is initially filled and then during long-term operations that can negatively impact Egyptian agriculture and water supply.” (5:07)
- The dam could boost Ethiopia’s economy and unify the country: “The main motivation that the Ethiopian government has given for building the dam is power production to increase electrification, accelerate industrialization, and to sell power to neighboring countries. The Ethiopians feel the dam is essential to moving a lot of the country out of poverty … and seen as a point of national pride and self-determination … Ethiopia is a really highly divided country, so actually, this dam is a huge issue that is able to unify different ethnic groups.” (10:09)
- Strong opposition from Egypt: “Egypt has declared the dam to be an existential threat, including at a UN security council meeting a few weeks ago and … has warned that filling the reservoir will heighten tensions and could provoke destabilizing regional conflict … The real issue is: Egypt relies on the Nile for the vast majority of their water supply, and they're really worried about Ethiopia having greater control over that. In particular, Egypt is concerned about meeting water demands of their growing population, which is already a challenge and expected to become even more uncertain and difficult with climate change.” (11:37)
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host Daniel Raimi. This week, we get filled in on the grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam with Dr. Annalise Blum, a policy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Annalise has worked for years on technical and geopolitical aspects of hydropower. And we ask her about this controversial project on the Blue Nile river in Ethiopia. The Renaissance Dam, which could begin filling as soon as this week has been the subject of international negotiations for years, and even included some threats of armed conflict. It's a complex and important issue that's little discussed here in the US. To find out more, stay with us.
Okay, Dr. Annalise Blum, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Annalise Blum: Thanks so much for having me.
Daniel Raimi: So, Annalise, we're going to talk today about the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam, which I know very little about. But the little I know is incredibly interesting and intriguing, so I'm really looking forward to the conversation. But before we get into the details, can you just briefly give us a sense of how you got interested in working on environmental issues?
Annalise Blum: Sure. I think I've really been interested in environmental issues for as long as I can remember, but I think one experience that was really formative was I actually went to third grade in Monte Verde, Costa Rica. My mom was writing a book and she wanted me to learn Spanish. And I went to the Cloud Forest School there, which has a mission to nurture ecologically aware bilingual students. But when I arrived, my friends who were Costa Rican had actually already become fluent in English. And so I didn't end up learning as much Spanish as I had hoped, but I did become really interested in environmental protection. And then in high school, I became really interested in water issues, writing a paper about the Ganges River, and I found the ways culture and politics and science and economics and religion intersected. So fascinating. Yeah, there are a lot of similar intersections working on the Bay Delta in California.
And I worked in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Barbones, Ecuador on some projects related to drinking water and sanitation. And all of those experiences really helped me realize the ways that environmental protection and human welfare are connected. And that's really been the focus of my work and trying to inform, improve policy to make sure that people in the environment have enough water and are protected from floods. So my PhD was in Environmental and Water Resources Engineering and I focused on characterizing stream flow variability and ecological impacts, and then did a post doc at Johns Hopkins. And there, my advisor Ben Zaitchik, really got me started working on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. And it was a really interesting topic that got me excited about all of these complicated issues.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. So the dam that we're going to talk about today is a dam that is being constructed or potentially being constructed on the Nile River. I think we all know that the Nile runs through Egypt, but certainly for me who's not a great geographer. I think it's the world's longest river? You can correct me if I'm wrong, but can you just give us a basic understanding of the importance of the river in terms of sustaining livelihoods and agriculture in northeastern Africa?
Annalise Blum: Sure. Well, it seems there's some controversy over whether the Nile River or the Amazon is longer, but we don't have to get into that. It's certainly one of the longest in the world, probably the longest, and extremely important to the countries it flows through. Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia in particular, all really rely on Nile River flows for water uses like agriculture, human consumption, and industrial use. And Egypt doesn't have many other sources of water. Depending how you count it, they might get 90 percent of their water from the Nile. And most of that comes from the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia. So once the Blue Nile flows from Ethiopia into Sudan, it combines with the White Nile and Khartoum to become the Nile. And from there, it flows north into Egypt.
Daniel Raimi: Great. I mean, it just sounds like it's central to life, particularly in Egypt, but also in the regions where it flows through in Sudan and Ethiopia.
Annalise Blum: Yes.
Daniel Raimi: So the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam, let's start talking about that. And I think I might call it the Renaissance Dam just for simplicity, but you can correct me if that's a problem. It's a really controversial issue that I hadn't known about until just a couple of months ago. And it's a project being developed in Ethiopia primarily to generate electricity. So can you give us just some basics of the scale and scope of the dam itself, for example, how much electricity would it generate? How big would it be and what are some of the ecological and social impacts that could occur from filling the reservoir behind the dam?
Annalise Blum: Sure. So when the dam is complete, it'll be the largest hydropower dam in Africa, and it's expected to be 509 feet high, just over a mile long, and to have a volume of 60 million acre-feet. And their range of different estimates of the electricity that is expected to be generated. The projected capacity from Ethiopia is 6,000 megawatts, which will more than double Ethiopia's current power generation capacity. And in terms of social and ecological impacts of filling the reservoir, it's been estimated that the reservoir will flood an area of over 700 square miles. And according to the Ethiopian government, 3,700 households will be displaced. For context, the Three Gorges Dam in China displaced over a million people. So Egypt is really concerned about reductions in Nile flow, both when the reservoir is initially filled and then during long-term operations that can negatively impact Egyptian agriculture and water supply.
Fortunately, reservoir filling during wet years can be felt less acutely downstream. And so that's the work that I helped with on the dam in particular forecasting inflows to the reservoir to provide a shared understanding of likely conditions each summer. So most of the rain in this region of Western Ethiopia falls during June through September. And so during the summer months is the best time to fill the reservoir. So working with colleagues at University of Wisconsin Madison, UC Santa Barbara, and Johns Hopkins, where I did my postdoc, we created what we called the Ad Hoc Blue Nile Forecast Group and have been doing seasonal precipitation and stream flow forecasting into the reservoir for each year, starting in 2018.
And that was a year people thought that the reservoir might begin to be filled by Ethiopia and it didn't happen, so we've been doing forecasts each year. And really a common regional understanding of how much water is available is a first step towards cooperatively managing the river. But making these seasonal predictions is particularly challenging scientifically, just because of the timescale. And then making it even more challenging, there's evidence to suggest that relationships that we've been using between climatological predictors of precipitation in the region might have begun to change starting around 2000.
Daniel Raimi: And is that potentially an impact of climate change, or not sure?
Annalise Blum: Yeah, potentially.
Daniel Raimi: Interesting. So you mentioned a couple times the sort of timeline during which the reservoir could begin to fill. Can you give us a sense of the current status of the project construction? I read news reports just in the last week or so that suggested the reservoir could start to fill as early as this week because it's the rainy season right now in Ethiopia.
Annalise Blum: Yeah, that's a good question. They expected the dam to be completed by now, originally I think 2017 was the year they thought it would be done, but there have been a number of delays. But even with the dam not completed, Ethiopia can start filling the reservoir. And so actually in previous years, the builders worked on sides of the dam and now the middle section is complete. Nile River flow goes through bypass channels at the foot of the structure. And as you mentioned with the rainy season, there's increased river flows and it's turning out to be a wet year.
And so you'd expect water to start backing up behind the dam, even with the bypass channels open. So not surprisingly, there've been a number of news stories the past few days, they have satellite images showing that water is backing up behind the dam. Ethiopia has confirmed the images, but they said that this buildup is just due to heavy rains and that they haven't taken any action to close the sluice gates, which would lead to permanent impoundment of the water. But then, Sudan's irrigation minister has said that water levels on the Blue Nile below the dam have begun declining, suggesting that Ethiopia has closed the gates of the dam.
Daniel Raimi: Interesting. And we should point out that this is very much an evolving issue, right? It's like day to day, we're getting updates and news stories. So it's possible that some of the information we're talking about today could be a little bit out of date. Is that fair?
Annalise Blum: It's definitely happening right now, yeah.
Daniel Raimi: Interesting. Well, we're going to focus more on the big picture now, rather than trying to understand the snapshot of what's happening at this very moment. Can you give us a sense of what are the main motivations for the Ethiopian government in building this dam? Obviously the generation of electricity, doubling their power capacity. That's got to be a huge motivator. But are there other major factors at play for the government? And also what's the perception of the project inside Ethiopia? My, again, casual reading on the topic has led me to think that it's a very popular project and that it's sort of seen as a patriotic endeavor by many Ethiopians.
Annalise Blum: Yeah, I think you're really right on that. The main motivation that Ethiopian government has given for building the dam is power production to increase electrification, accelerate industrialization, and to sell power to neighboring countries. And the Ethiopians feel the dam is essential to moving a lot of the country out of poverty. And as you mentioned, extremely popular within the country and seen as a point of national pride and self-determination. And the dam has been estimated to cost more than $4 billion, but it was self-financed by Ethiopia. So they sold bonds, and there's reporting to suggest that some workers contributed a fixed portion of their paychecks every month to fund the dam. Also interesting to know, Ethiopia is a really highly divided country. So actually this dam is a huge issue that is able to unify different ethnic groups across the country.
Daniel Raimi: That's interesting. So within the country, there are considerable divides along ethnic lines or maybe political lines, but there is a strong unification behind this project. That's maybe a little bit of information from the Ethiopian perspective, but when we think about the perspective from Egypt or Sudan, the dam might be seen quite differently. So can you talk a little bit about some of the concerns that those other countries and maybe Egypt in particular have voiced with regard to the project?
Annalise Blum: Sure, it's been very contentious. Egypt has declared the dam to be an existential threat, including at a UN security council meeting a few weeks ago. And there are lots of news stories with reporting that. And Egypt has warned that filling the reservoir will heighten tensions and could provoke destabilizing regional conflict. And actually back in 2013, the Egyptians were in a government meeting and didn't realize that they were on live TV and were recorded proposing military action against Ethiopia over the dam. But the real issue is Egypt relies on the Nile for the vast majority of their water supply, and they're really worried about Ethiopia having greater control over that. In particular, Egypt is concerned about meeting water demands of their growing population, which is already a challenge and expected to become even more uncertain and difficult with climate change. Specifically Egypt has expressed substantial concern over how the dam is going to be managed, and whether it'll be detrimental to water supply, particularly during droughts. That's something that is a contentious issue.
How will limited available water be managed and how will hardship if there is a drought be allocated across Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, are some big issues that haven't been resolved. But they are also impacts on Sudan, both positive and negative. And Sudan's kind of caught in the middle, both literally geographically and figuratively with all of this. Sudan relies on flood recession agriculture and changing the variability of the Blue Nile flows into Sudan is likely to have big impacts on that. It could also be detrimental to fish populations, which are really sensitive to temperature. So if water is released from the dam only from the bottom gates, that water could be really cold, which can be problematic for fish. But there are also benefits to Sudan of the dam that have been raised. It could mitigate harmful flooding, control sediment, and possibly even expand irrigation opportunities in Sudan.
Daniel Raimi: That's interesting. You mentioned one term that I wasn't familiar with, which is flood recession agriculture, I'm guessing in my head what that means, but if you could just explain it that would be useful.
Annalise Blum: Yeah. I also am not an expert, but from what I understand, pulses of floodwaters is key to the productivity of those crops.
Daniel Raimi: Right. Yeah, I'm sort of imagining like the Mississippi Delta in the US, and before it was as levied and dammed as it is today there would be kind of regular floods that would help nourish the soil. Is that kind of the right concept to be thinking about?
Annalise Blum: Yeah, I think that's a good explanation.
Daniel Raimi: Okay, great. Certainly, listeners, please don't quote me on that because I'm the furthest thing from a hydrologist or a soil expert, but hopefully that at least it gets us in the ballpark. So now that we have a sense of kind of the geography, the pros and cons from different parties perspectives, can you tell us a little bit more about the negotiations that have been going on for a number of years? In particular, just give us a sense of what the current status is today, who some of the intermediaries are and what some of the major steps on the timeline have been.
Annalise Blum: Yeah, so it's been a long process. Ethiopia announced the project in 2011 and over almost the last decade, they've had tripartite talks between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan. In 2015, the countries signed a Declaration of Principles, which included ones on cooperation and not to cause significant harm. And at the time Ethiopia's Prime Minister said he wanted to reassure the other countries that the dam wouldn't significantly harm downstream users' water rights. And the talks have really ramped up in the last year as there are concerns that the reservoir would begin to be filled. Talks have been hosted recently by the US, the World Bank and the African Union.
And as I mentioned, there was this discussion about the topic at the UN Security Council. They've made a lot of progress, so 90 percent of the technical issues have been reported to be resolved. And these include things like first filling of the reservoir, dam safety, environmental and social issues and exchange of data. But there are still a number of issues that haven't been resolved on how the dam will be operated during droughts, as I mentioned, or the binding nature of whether the legal agreement will be binding, dispute resolution mechanisms. And so the African Union is actually continuing to lead talks, I think, as we speak.
Daniel Raimi: Interesting. And the US is participating as an observer in that process or a participant, or can you characterize kind of the US role?
Annalise Blum: Sure, so the US hosted talks back in January and February. I think it was the US and the World Bank together.
Daniel Raimi: Great. That's helpful. So if we think about what's going to happen in the next few weeks, or perhaps the next few years, can you talk a little bit about the potential consequences in geopolitical or other terms if Ethiopia were to begin filling the dam before an agreement is actually reached?
Annalise Blum: Yeah, it's hard to say. And I'm a little hesitant to speculate. But someone I've had a lot of interesting conversations about the dam with and about this topic is Aaron Salzberg, who's now the director of the Water Institute at UNC and has talked a lot about some of the ways more generally to approach thinking about these sort of questions. So you can think through possible consequences as four options. A country that's concerned about threats to its national security might respond. First they can try to resolve it diplomatically, which has been happening with the tripartite talks in 2011 through international organizations, like going to the UN security Council, which happened a few weeks ago. And then if neither of those work, two remaining options are to engage kinetically or engage covertly.
Obviously the ideal is countries find a cooperative solution and I'd expect a country in Egypt's place would respond in a way to defend their national strategic interest. But really I should mention historically tension over shared water bodies between countries has more often led to cooperation than to conflict. And I really recommend research by researchers, like Aaron Wolf at Oregon State University, have done a lot of interesting work on these topics. But still there's no question that it would be better if there was a completed agreement in place before filling of the dam began.
Daniel Raimi: Right. And just to make sure I understand the terminology, when you say kinetic engagement, that's sort of overt military engagement, is that right?
Annalise Blum: Yeah.
Daniel Raimi: So obviously something that one would want to avoid.
Annalise Blum: Yes.
Daniel Raimi: So last question now, before we go to our Top of the Stack question, which is kind of big picture and also hits on the comment you just made about historic international examples of cooperation. So obviously there've been lots of dams developed over the years that have cross border consequences, both for, let's say states in the US and for different nations around the world. Are there precedents that you look to or think of that can help provide models for good cooperation that can lead to satisfactory outcomes for both parties, that kind of can help guide this discussion, and that however difficult it might be can at least provide some reference for good outcomes in the past?
Annalise Blum: Yeah. I mean, at this point, really any agreement would be a good one, but there are a few examples. The US and Mexico signed a treaty on the Colorado River back in 1944 and give an example of how countries can work together against constraints of infrastructure and institutions that were built decades ago and how they are adapting to changing conditions. So the countries have built on the original framework with additional agreements that address salinity issues and have taken steps to benefit ecosystems. And then last year finalized an agreement on how to handle potential water shortages on the river in the face of severe drought, which experts predict will become increasingly likely with climate change unfortunately.
And then another example often cited is the success story, at least when it comes to cooperation between upstream and downstream countries, is the 1964 Columbia River Treaty between the US and Canada. And the treaty coordinates flood control and optimizes electrical energy production in the Columbia River Basin. And reports say that it's increased both of the benefits for both countries. It's seen as somewhat of a success story in that respect. But one aspect that isn't helpful for this lesson that may have been helpful is the US and Canada then we're discussing this agreement before construction of the three dams governed by the treaty actually began. And some other places that had some successes include in the Mekong where the states sharing the river have shared information, and some upstream users have tried to modify dam operations to appease downstream countries.
Daniel Raimi: Great. So Annalise Blum, thank you so much for telling us about the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam. It's such a fascinating project, so complex. There's such an amazing history that I know very little about, but I've scratched the surface and I can kind of see how deep it goes. So I would encourage others to learn more about it as well. So let's ask now our final question that we ask all of our guests, which is what's at the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack? And I'll get us started with something that's actually probably, it's on the bottom of my reading stack. It's something I read maybe 10 years ago when I first moved to Los Angeles in a previous phase of my life. The book is called William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles. It's written by his granddaughter, Katherine Mulholland.
For those of you who had never heard of William Mulholland, he was a engineer who worked to help provide Southern California with a water supply coming from Northern California and elsewhere. And there's a lot of really fascinating history around that, really troubling history in some cases. But the book is kind of a history of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley and other Southern California. Parts of William Mulholland's life are kind of fictionalized in the movie Chinatown, which is one of my favorite movies. And it's just a fascinating book to learn about the development of water resources in the American West. So I was thinking about that in preparation for our conversation today, but Annalise, how about you, what's on the top of your stack?
Annalise Blum: Well, that sounds really interesting, I'll have to look into that. For me, I recently watched a movie called Timbuktu, which focuses on the occupation of Timbuktu, Mali by an Islamic group, but is also really about the challenges of managing scarce water resources between different groups, including herders, farmers and fishermen. And I saw it recently, but it's from a few years ago and actually was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, I think back in 2015. And it's fiction, but I found that I really enjoy historical fiction. I know earlier I mentioned how competition over shared water bodies has more often led to cooperation than to conflict, but that's at the country level and exploring this issue at the sub-national level is really complicated as well. And often that's where you see more of this conflict over scarce water resources. And it can be a real problem especially in places highly dependent on agriculture, like in Mali and where there are also nomadic herders who need somewhere for their animals to drink.
So determining water rights and allocation of resources between the two groups can get really complicated. And then bringing in these extremist groups who can take advantage of natural resource challenges to strengthen divisions between the groups and try to recruit new members. And so it's something I've been learning more about. And I found the way the film explored some issues really insightful and personal, and it was nice to get this kind of human face to all of it and better understand how competition over scarce natural resources might contribute to conflict. And it seems like sometimes environmental challenges are a little impersonal and having that human face on the ways that environmental stressors potentially accelerate instability and risk of conflict was really interesting. And just showing how consideration of these topics, thinking about water security and environmental security, are really essential to ensuring human and even national security as well.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that sounds fascinating. And so the movie's called Timbuktu, is it available on streaming services?
Annalise Blum: Yeah, I think I watched it on Amazon.
Daniel Raimi: All right. So we'll make sure to put a link to it in the show notes. And one more question, you said it was a fictional film, but if memory serves, it is true that there was an extremist takeover of the city of Timbuktu a number of years back, right?
Annalise Blum: Yeah. So it's historical fiction, it's based on a true story. I think the actual individual people are not real characters. but yeah, based on a real event.
Daniel Raimi: That's fascinating. All right. Well, that's going right in my movie queue for the next week or so, so thanks for that recommendation. Great. Well, one more time, Annalise Blum, thank you so much for joining us, talking to us about hydropower geopolitics and so many other fascinating issues around this particular dam. We really appreciate it.
Annalise Blum: Thanks so much. This has been fun.
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