Pending talks on Ethiopia’s Super Dam, or Why transboundary water transcends geographic scale

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Blue Nile Falls, Ethiopia
(Photo courtesy of Jialiang Gao via Wikicommon’s Creative Commons)

I like to think of transboundary water conflict and cooperation as something that occurs at all scales. While traditionally applied to the study of international basins, I think the discourse can also be useful in understanding intra-national, regional, and even sub-regional contexts, all of which exists across political and jurisdictional boundaries.

But let’s be respectful of tradition and start off our exploration of transboundary water conflict and cooperation with a timely international example. Today’s Circle of Blue newsletter features a piece by Joanne Yao on possible negotiations between Egypt and its upstream neighbor and Nile River-buddy Ethiopia. Since 2011, Ethiopia has been constructing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), one of the largest hydropower projects in the world. Its leaders hope it will incite a huge political and economic boom for the country. Egypt, on the other hand, is not as excited about the mega dam. It relies on the Nile for roughly 95 percent of its water supply and is worried about possible decreases in streamflow caused by the project. Thus far, the two countries have failed to enter into official negotiations to come to an agreement that would leave both feeling more secure.

This story is a familiar one, as all across the developing world more and more dams on internationally-flowing rivers are being built to accommodate a growing need for power generation and water for irrigation. As Yao writes,  a diplomatic strategy, designed to manage disagreements and ease tensions between these two countries, could “demonstrate how shared river resources have the potential to foster cooperation rather than confrontation.” So far, the opportunity is a missed one.

Both countries have shown past diplomatic efforts in the region’s battle for water security, however. Egypt has previously participated in the Nile Basin Initiative, a platform for discussing cooperation in the Nile River Basin established in 1999. Ethiopia is one of 10 signatories to the “Entebbe Agreement,” the Cooperative Framework Agreement of the Nile Basin (an agreement that Egypt will not sign without some key modifications). Yet on the topic of the Renaissance Dam, the two have yet to sit down and hash out their differences.

Yao notes that there is ample misinterpretation and misunderstanding surrounding the Nile’s flows and historical agreements, largely at the hands of false media reporting (and my sources suggest that she too is furthering this tradition…sorry Yao).  A “lack of shared knowledge” has fueled political mistrust and fear.

 “Rather… if the countries work together to identify development opportunities, including agreeing on operating rules for filling and managing the new GERD and any other future dams, this would minimize the harm and maximize the benefits for all.”

Of course, only time will tell what kind of diplomacy is in store for these countries, but Yao is optimistic that cooperation remains a real possibility. And I am too. As my former professor and transboundary water superstar Aaron Wolf teaches us, we have history to back us up! The thing that is certain now, however, is that these very themes — of mistrust, of currently unmet potential to identify opportunities to maximize benefits for all, of the lack of collaboration leaving would-be partners more vulnerable in the face of uncertain outcomes  — prevailed in my research of very small  communities and drinking water systems along  the Oregon Coast. The challenges we as humans face in governing water transcend geographic scale.

Read Yao’s  article here, and check out fellow OSU graduate student Jen Veilleux’s blog, all about her PhD research on this topic.

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