Who Loses in the "Win–Win" Scheme to Dam the Nile Basin?

Lori Pottinger
Tuesday, September 21, 2004

(Published by Development Today)

The Nile Basin Initiative, backed by Sweden, Denmark and Norway, proposes numerous large dams along the Nile. While there are sure to be beneficiaries of the programme, the emphasis on large hydro will heighten the region’s vulnerability to climate change, lead to widespread forced resettlement, increase foreign debt, and compound demands on an already overtapped river, while failing to help meet the energy needs of the poorest.

The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), a plan to bring development to and reduce conflict in the 10–nation Nile basin, is being hailed as a "win–win solution" by its proponents, including Norplan (see DT, 14/06/04). Norplan is now heading up studies for three hydropower dams in Ethiopia, as part of the NBI’s proposal to build as many as 13 large dams in Ethiopia alone, and more across the region. The programme could lead to the region being almost entirely hydropower–dependent. The NBI currently includes only modest investments in more sustainable energy supply or efficiency measures, despite the region’s high potential for new renewables, widespread rural poverty and limited reach of regional grids.

The NBI no doubt has the potential to reduce a number of problems in the basin, and its emphasis on basin–wide conflict resolution should be applauded. But its emphasis on large dams could create more problems than it solves. All would agree that Africa is underserved by modern electricity services. Yet, with so few development dollars available for so many serious problems facing the continent – AIDS, grinding poverty, widespread hunger, extremely low levels of safe water and sanitation – it is imperative to "get the most bang for the development buck" when addressing energy needs. The global record of large dams, as documented by the World Commission on Dams (WCD), reveals that poorly planned large dams can exacerbate problems of poverty, water inequity, regional tensions and environmental degradation. Dam projects now underway on the Nile – Merowe and Kajbar in Sudan, Tekeze and Gilgel–Gibe in Ethiopia, Bujagali in Uganda – are marred by serious social and environmental problems, corruption, secrecy and human–rights violations, and do not instill confidence.

Climate change further complicates the picture. At a time when global warming threatens to make Africa’s rivers even less reliable for economically feasible large hydro projects, and their waters more precious for other uses, donors and governments should be looking to diversify the energy mix. Already, more than half of NBI states get more than 90% of their electricity from hydropower, while another three are 70% dependent on hydro. Climate change experts believe that dry parts of Africa will see further reductions in precipitation. In the Nile basin, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there has already been "a reduction in runoff of 20% between 1972 and 1987" and "significant interruptions in hydropower generation as a result of severe droughts." A 1995 study of climate impacts on several major rivers worldwide noted that the Nile experienced the most severe change of the rivers studied.

The Nile Basin states could take another path, one that would protect the river’s ecosystem from further long–term harm, and provide needed energy and water supply less vulnerable to risks of climate change. A WCD–based process for evaluating options is critical to ensure that decisions are fully informed, fairly reached and balanced by citizens’ voices as well as those who hold the purse–strings. Thus far, this has not been the case.

The region has the potential to meet much more of its power needs (and especially the needs of the rural poor) with renewables. For example, Egypt has very high potential for both wind and solar power. Egypt intends to install 600MW of wind by 2005 and up to 750MW of hybrid solar–thermal/fossil fuel plants by 2010. Kenya, with an estimated 2,000–3,000MW of geothermal potential, is actively working to expand geothermal’s role in its energy mix to reduce dependence on hydro. Uganda has an estimated 450MW of geothermal that experts say could be developed more cheaply than large dams. Ethiopia, Eritrea and Tanzania also have large geothermal reserves. Sudan has an estimated potential for cogeneration with bagasse (sugar–cane by–product) equal to nearly half its total existing installed generating capacity.

But new renewables do not enjoy a level playing field in the hydro–heavy NBI plans. The programme’s emphasis on hydro undercuts the WCD’s strategic priority of undertaking “comprehensive options assessments.” And its lack of transparency and weak efforts to include civil society fails the WCD’s proposals for "gaining public acceptance." An office for civil–society participation has been closed for a lack of funds.

The NBI would have a much greater chance of success if it did not repeat the mistakes of the past era of unconstrained dam–building, and left a healthier Nile River – and Nile communities – as a legacy. There is still time for the programme to benefit from the lessons of the WCD. As a first step, it could follow the example of various countries (including South Africa) that have undertaken inclusive "multi–stakeholder dialogues" on the WCD, to discuss how best to incorporate the Commission’s findings into planning processes in the basin. Workshops to explain the WCD would be useful for local civil society groups.

By taking these steps before making concrete plans to build numerous dams, the NBI is more likely to find true "win/win" solutions to some of the seemingly intractable problems affecting the people of the Nile, and avoid having its development program turn into a "lose/lose" development disaster.

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