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New study offers potential solutions to avoid conflict over Nile River dam

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Manish Saini
Manish works as a Journalist and writer at Revyuh.com. He has studied Political Science and graduated from Delhi University. He is a Political engineer, fascinated by politics, and traditional businesses. He is also attached to many NGO's in the country and helping poor children to get the basic education. Email: Manish (at) revyuh (dot) com

According to recent USC study, rapid construction of a massive dam at the headwaters of the Nile River, the world’s largest waterway that sustains millions of people, may cut water supplies to downstream Egypt by more than one-third.

If left unchecked, a water shortage of that size may destabilise a politically sensitive region of the world by decreasing arable land in Egypt by up to 72 percent.

Agriculture’s economic losses are estimated to be $51 billion, according to the research.

The drop in GDP would drive unemployment to 24%, displacing a large number of people and destabilising economies.

Our study forecasts dire water supply impacts downstream, causing what would be the largest water stress dispute in modern human history

said Essam Heggy, a researcher from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and lead author of the study.

Averaging losses from all of the announced filling scenarios, these water shortages could nearly double Egypt’s present water supply deficit and will have dire consequences for Egypt’s economy, employment, migration and food supply.

Despite international discussions, no progress has been made in the decade-long conflict.

The $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is nearing construction at the Nile’s headwaters, is at the centre of the debate. It will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric project, with a reservoir holding 74 billion cubic metres of water, more than twice the operating capacity of Lake Mead on the Colorado River. It is now in the second phase of construction.

It will take years to fill since it is so large, and depending on how long it takes, the water diversions might have disastrous downstream consequences. Egypt and Sudan have water rights on the Nile, but Ethiopia has been given no specific allocation. However, as the Nile River basin’s water and energy demands rise, Ethiopia is expressing its need for hydropower and irrigated farmland to support growth.

The USC study looked at several dam filling scenarios and the effects on Egypt’s water supply. According to Ethiopia’s current short-term filling plans of 3 to 5 years, Egypt’s water deficit may nearly treble; 83 percent of the increased water loss would be due to dam restricting flow and evaporation, and 17 percent would be lost owing to seepage into rocks and sand.

“There is a real need for sound science to resolve the ambiguity surrounding this controversy,” Heggy said.

“Our analysis doesn’t point fingers, yet it shows a dire water situation that will result downstream, which is forecasted as the largest water stress dispute in human history. It can be avoided if proper support is made to the water, energy and environment research in the Nile basin.”

The report comes during a ten-year standoff between Egypt and Ethiopia over Nile River water supplies. The parties want an international solution, but four years of discussions coordinated by the US State Department and involving the European Union and the United Nations have yielded little progress.

As climate change impacts developing countries experiencing fast expansion, the conflict is symbolic of broader water scarcity disputes. Political instability and violence are possible along the Mekong, Zambezi, and Euphrates-Tigris rivers, among others.

Based on the policy alternatives identified in the study, Heggy believes a win-win solution for the Nile River may possibly be reached. However, progress has been hampered by a scarcity of reliable data on downstream water availability and economic consequences. Better data and projections on the consequences on human civilization as well as ecological effects along the Nile River would almost certainly be required to reach an agreement.

The results of the study were published in Environmental Research Letters.

Image Credit: Getty

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