Egyptian Professors Stuck in Pseudo-Science at the Age of Nile Cooperation


Hailu Simon (PhD)
July 16, 2013

There were signs of progress in the past week. The Ethiopian Prime Minister re-assured Egypt in his public remark saying:

“We are committed to continuing peaceful and mutually beneficial relations with the Egyptian people, and fully supported their aspirations for democracy, development and dignity”.

“Ethiopia believes, as it has demonstrated on numerous occasions, that dialogue and discussion provide the necessary way forward to resolve disputes whether external or internal.”

“It is also a near neighbor and deeply involved in the development of a mutually beneficial relationship with all the states in the Nile Basin including Egypt. It believes that all the riparian states will continue to work together to provide peaceful solutions to all current problems”.

It was also in the past week that Sudan’s Agriculture and Irrigation Minister, Dr. Abdulhalim Al-Mutaafi re-affirmed Sudan’s support for the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which he called “a model of development for the region”.

The Minister noted that resistances from Egyptian over the dam is political issue and a technical one. He explained:

“Some Egyptian politicians have used the issue as a political instrument to pressurize their opponents.” Otherwise it is known that the building of the dam is beneficiary for downstream countries as it enables them to receive regulated free water”.

The Minister advised that that the dam construction should be executed with a sense of cooperation and mutual benefit for Sudan and Egypt which badly need the Nile water for agricultural development and on the other hand, Ethiopia needs it to generate electric power. Otherwise, nobody will benefit from individual utilization of the waters.

Given the fact that this statement came from top man of water issues in Sudan, a country heavily reliant on Nile river, one may hope Egypt will follow similar cooperative approach.

Indeed, there are reasons to hold such a hope. Egyptian officials learned from last month that escalating tension on the Nile issue didn’t help much for domestic political consumption nor did it intimidated Ethiopia.

The root of the problem, however, lies in the politicization of science among Egypt scholars. Professors who should lead politicians into rational and science-based approach are often found misleading the governments of Egypt.

A demonstration of such flawed role of some scholars in Egypt is the recently published a statement titled “Cairo University’s report on Ethiopia’s Great Renaissance Dam”.

It was first posted in Arabic on Facebook by Dr. Nader Noor El Din, then translated and published on several websites of Egypt. Dr. Nader Noor El Din is a member of “Group of the Nile Basin” (GNB) formed by professors from the Department of Irrigation and Hydraulics, Faculty of Engineering, Cairo University.

The purpose of the “Group of the Nile Basin” (GNB) is stated as “to support the effort of Government and the decision makers facing these serious escalating water threats” by conducting “analytical studies of the Ethiopian Dams, prepare and implement numerical water models to study the side effects of these dams and collecting all recent scientific studies in this field”.

Despite these noble objectives, the 3-pages long statement parrots the usual misconceptions and unscientific fears and demands that are usually writing by laymen on Egyptian newspaper and websites.

I.       The statement begins with basic factual and conceptual flaws that leaves little hope in the rest of the report.

On its introduction the statement claims that:

“A series of external challenges have suddenly appeared on the surface forming major threats to securing the water supply to Egypt. The sources of these threats are the new plans by the Ethiopian Government to construct four dams on the Blue Nile.

However, the major threat was the sudden unilateral announcement of the Ethiopian Government to divert the course of the Blue Nile marking the actual start of construction of the Great Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) without consultation with the downstream countries; Egypt and Sudan. This act in the eyes of the majority of Egyptians amounts to a flagrant assault on all the basic fundamental laws and the international norms.”

Firstly, Ethiopia has no treaty obligation to seek permissions from Egypt and Sudan.

Second, the impacts of dams on downstream countries have been a subject of study and discussion for at-least a decade in the context of successive Nile basin initiatives and annual conferences.

Thirdly, prior notification is an act of good will gesture based on reciprocity. As Egypt and Sudan never consulted Ethiopia on studies prior and after building dams and related projects on Nile, they can not demand that from Ethiopia.

As we will see below, Ethiopia’s plan to build dams are not “sudden” or unheard of.

In fact, it is worth noting that, according to a recent piece on the issue, in the mid 1940s Egypt itself came out with its “century storage” plan aiming at building water storage dams in the lakes of the equatorial regions and the Ethiopian highlands.

II.      The Cairo University Professors’ statement, however, proceeds with its flawed analysis by citing what it claimed “major Comments from the Trio Committee”.

They are referring to the International Panel of Experts on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam that was proposed by the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as a good will gesture to assure Sudan and Egypt.

The Panel  consisted of 10 members; two from Ethiopia, two from Sudan and two from Egypt and four international experts selected jointly by the three countries.

The Panel concluded its almost two-years long study and submitted its report for the three countries. Though the Panel’s report has not been made public until now, we have heard its conclusions from several sides.

Ethiopia’s Ministry of Water and Energy disclosed at the time that:

“the report indicates that the design of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam (GERD) is based on international standards and principles….and showed that the Dam offers high benefit for all the three countries and would not cause significant harm on both the lower riparian countries.”

Similarly, Sudan’s Agriculture and Irrigation Minister pointed out that:

“the tripartite dam investigative committee established by Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt showed that the dam construction in its report presents positive developments of the dam construction”.

However, the Cairo University professors came up with their own fictions in their statement claiming that the Panel concluded in its report with that:

“There are no sufficient structural studies, There is a lack in the hydrological investigations, There are no environmental impact assessments on the two downstream countries; Egypt and Sudan.”

The Professors do not explain the nature and specifics of the deficiencies. However, we can tackle the points one by one.

III.    “There are no sufficient structural studies”.

It is hard to imagine how a mulch-billion dollar dam could be planned and contracted the internationally renowned dam builder Salini Construction Company without sufficient structural studies.

As Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently noted, “the GERD is being constructed under an Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) contract arrangement following the highest known standards and technology with great professional care, responsibility and detail.”

Moreover, records show that most of the issues pertaining to the dam project had been the subject of intense study as far back as 1935 and include companies from USA, Sweden and others.

A US and Ethiopian joint project, titled: USA-Ethiopia Cooperative Program for the Study of the [Blue Nile] Basin, (1959 – 1964), produced a comprehensive report on the hydrology, water quality, hypsography, geology, sedimentation, mineral resources, land resources, ground water and the local socio-economic situation.

That study proposed four dams downstream with a total holding capacity of 51 bcm as the annual rate. The master plans for the Blue Nile[Abbay], Tekeze[Atbara] and Baro-Akobo basins were completed in the 1990s, according page 166 of the same book.

Recent planning activities include: In October 2008 ‘extensive surveying had been conducted; in September 2010 studies for a Hydroelectricity plant had been completed; in Nov. 2010 the final study was completed and submitted to government.

Several reviews had been conducted on the study and ascertained the project is financially feasible and less costly compared to international Hydroelectricity project costs.

IV.    “There is a lack in the hydrological investigations”.

Another baseless claim by the statement of the Cairo professors was that “there is a lack in the hydrological investigations”. Here again, Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs debunked such claims and explained the hydrological aspect as follows:

The Abay/Blue Nile flow at the border with Sudan has been consistently recorded for more than 93 years. It is also measured again at Eldiem in Sudan. The hydro logic data over the period 1911-2003 includes the wettest years of 1916, 1917, 1929 and 1988 and the driest years of 1913 and 1984. Having such consistent reliable hydrologic data at a dam site is rare.

Other key inflow data, provided by the White Nile at Morgen and Atbara at Nile Junction, have been also used to simulate GERD’s impact on Egypt’s Aswan dam.

The evaporation and rainfall estimates over the GERD reservoir have also been fully considered. The spillway design flood, the Probable Maximum Flood and diversion flood estimates fulfill the highest safety requirements that International Commission on Large Dams recommends.

The evaporation loss that GERD will incur is significantly lower than the amount of water that the GERD will save from evaporation loss. The difference is positive. The saving will come from preventing flooding during high flood seasons and limiting the seepage or dumping of water into the desert through spillways. The storage will brings over 5 to 10% savings.

V.     “There are no environmental impact assessments on the two downstream countries; Egypt and Sudan.”

The Cairo professors claim that  “there are no environmental impact assessments on the two downstream countries; Egypt and Sudan” is an intellectual dishonesty at its worst form.

Firstly, it is known that social and environmental impact studies can not be fully complete without participating the residents and officials of the concerned area. Ethiopia did its best to gather the opinions of Egypt officials and experts in the ten years of Nile conferences.

Ethiopia also efforted to gather and analyze all relevant studies on Egypt. However, in the absence of any cooperation from Egypt on dam related issues, Ethiopia can not send experts and consult Egyptians who live on the sides of Nile and elsewhere.

Secondly, there are several non-debatable indications that the GERD will have positive impacts downstream. Sudan’s Agriculture and Irrigation Minister underlined that:

“The level of evaporation in Sudan is higher than in Ethiopia and dam water reservoirs in Sudan and Egypt would be exposed to a higher temperature as they would be in flat lands while in Ethiopia reservoirs are built in deep gorges.”

Thirdly, it is known that  Egypt’s Aswan High Dam often gets blocked by silt and mud, which amounts to around 110 million tons each year. Cleaning the blocked silt and mud is expensive while creating diseases in the area.

Moreover, the water loss from the reservoir of Aswan dam is often labeled by scholars as “one of the national problems of Egypt” because “the evaporated water range between 10 to 16 billion cubic meter every year, which represent 20 to 30% of the Egyptian income from Nile water”.

VI.    The Cairo Professors made further misleading remarks saying:

“The current design capacity of GERD of 74 Billion cubic meter will have harsh negative impact on the share of the water reaching to Egypt and also on the production of electricity from the High Dam and the Aswan Dam during the filling period of the lake of GERD and during its operation. This negative impact shall escalate during the drought period wherein the water supplies to both Egypt and Sudan shall conflict with the water needed to produce the electricity from the GERD.”

However, the allegation of the Professors have no scientific or factual basis, as Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs pointed out.

The GERD will have 74 billion cubic meter (BCM) storage capacity and about 60 BCM live storage. 14 BCM is reserved to be filled by sediment. The 60 BCM is mostly made up of renewable water sources that will be released every year. If the GERD filling coincides with wet years in sequence there can be no concern for anybody.

If, on the other hand, the GERD filling coincides with a dry year sequence (as during the drought of 1984), then the filling strategy will be revised to minimize downstream impact.

In any case, there is no reason to worry that farmers in Egypt will be adversely impacted, even in the case of dry years. In the event that the Aswan Dam water level reached an historic minimum, a negative effect could occur during consecutive drought year filling conditions.

However, the giant Aswan Dam, with over 130 BCM live storage, is designed to sustain two years water needs in Egypt without having any inflow. An evaluation of the risks needs to factor in the Aswan Dam’s ameliorating potential.

The planned robust filling strategy of the GERD will not lead to any appreciable harm during the filling period even under a worst case combination of the Aswan Dam reaching minimum level and dry year occurrence during filling.

The existing storage volume of Aswan Dam (twice the annual volume of Nile flow) has the capacity to absorb any potential mulch-year shocks caused during the infilling phase of the GERD.

VII.  The Cairo Professors  had alarming doomsday scenarios.

They claimed that:

“Collapse of GERD will result in catastrophic effects in both Sudan and Egypt.  This includes failures of dams, drowning of major towns and villages and exposing millions to the dangers of death and relocation”.

As indicated above, the Blue Nile has been a subject of decades of studies and the GERD is being constructed under an Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) contract arrangement based on the highest known standards and technology.

Therefore, if there is a danger of collapse, it could only be due to earth-quake or ‘reservoir induced seismicity’.

However, it is a common knowledge that the Renaissance dam is located hundreds kilometers away from the westernmost edge of the Rift Valley. Moreover, there is no report of significant seismic activity in the vicinity of the GERD project.

The ‘reservoir induced seismicity’ hypothesis is extended by some experts to explain an earthquake nearby the Chinese Zipingpu Dam in 2008. While the hypothesis is contested by many experts, it is almost irrelevant to the GERD.

The Chinese dam was built in seismically active area, close to the fault lines. Not only the Zipingpu Dam is larger than the Renaissance dam, it inhabits the vulnerable zone alongside another 400 hydropower dams. Thus, even if the ‘reservoir induced seismicity’ hypothesis was true, it is hardly applicable to the Ethiopian dam.

In general, as the Foreign Ministry pointed out: Ethiopia should worry more than anybody else about the safety of the Dam as the country and its people are investing billions of hard earned money and as a responsible member of the international community Ethiopia is entirely unwilling to risk the safety of its neighbors.

VIII. Selfish suggestions

The Cairo Professors correctly observed that:

“[preventing the construction of GERD] is no longer a valid option considering the current circumstances….[Since] Ethiopia has managed to place the dam as a fact and no longer a theory.  As such, the purpose of the negotiation at this stage would be aiming at mitigating the damages.”

Unfortunately, their idea of  “mitigating the damages” is hardly in line with scientific basis and due consideration of Ethiopia’s interests. The Professors recommended that:

“The minimum requirement for the Egyptian Government should be the maximum size of the Dam not to exceed 14 billion cubic meter……This capacity would enable producing 60% of the proposed electricity from GERD…

In addition, the proposed design of 14 cubic meters would fulfill most of the advantages of Sudan from GERD and as such, unifies the points of views of both Egypt and Sudan.”

This must be a textbook example of selfishness devoid of any spirit of neighborliness and mutuality.

The Professors recommendation of downsizing of the GERD to about 3,000MW (60% of 5,250MW) which means Ethiopia’s hydro-power generation capacity will fall by almost 50% below the target set for 2016. That would be a set-back on the rural electrification plan, the industrialization process and the expected power-export revenues.

However, at the same time, the Professors were careful to ensure “the proposed design of 14 cubic meters would fulfill most of the advantages of Sudan from GERD and as such, unifies the points of views of both Egypt and Sudan”.

In other words, the Professors were not acting like a scientist rather a shrewd politicians concerned on strengthening the old reactionary alliance that stands on the way of fair utilization of the Nile waters.

IX.    Hydro-hegemonic mentality

It seems the Professors pseudo-scientific analysis was flawed due to a hydro-hegemonic mentality that permeated Egypt’s Nile policy for decades.

The following two quotes from their statements evidences that:

“The design of the GERD to be reviewed thoroughly by Egyptian Experts after amending the technical dimensions to ensure its structural safety”.

“Ethiopia to commit officially not to use the water behind the GERD for the agricultural purposes as previously announced”.

“Ethiopia to commit for the advance notice for any future projects including their executing procedure”.

These may not be bad suggestions if there was an agreed framework of fair utilization of the Nile waters. After all, the Nile Basin Commission, that will be established as per the new Cooperative Framework on Agreement on Nile Basin, is expected to facilitate this kinds of communications and transparency and trust among the Nile basin countries.

However, what the Professors want is that to sneak the colonial-era treaties through the back door. They are asking Ethiopia to give Egypt the power to control and veto Ethiopia’s current and future projects.

X.     Fortune telling?

Unsurprisingly, the Professors engage in a sort of fortune-telling by the end of their statement. They claimed that:.

“The people in Egypt should be aware that focusing the negotiation on the number of years to fill the lake of the dam or the operation policy of the dam including participating with the operation of the dam are of no prime importance. The major threat is the result of the magnified size of the dam. Without reducing the dimensions of the dam itself, the major negative impacts as indicated above are unavoidable”.

This is the 21st century, when engineering is at its best. The world have seen successful construction of sky-scrappers several meters deep into ocean. A bridge has been successfully installed connecting cities separated by a hundreds of kilometers sea. Moreover, there are several dams bigger than the GERD across the world.

What kind of scientist would argue without reducing the dimensions of the dam itself, the major negative impacts are unavoidable”?

XI.    Absence of Intellectual integrity

The issues discussed in this article are plain and clear for a careful and interested reader. But it is possible that some of the issues could look technical to an un-informed reader. Some neutral readers may also find it difficult to decide which side is telling the truth.

However, the last part of the Professors statement is a blatant misrepresentation of facts observable by anyone.

The Professors claimed that:

“It is not a secret that throughout the history, Egypt has never been an obstacle preventing the development in the African Nations in general and the countries of the Nile Basin in particular.  Egypt has always been supporting the projects of common benefits to the people of the Nile Basin has shown no objection for building Tekeze Dam and Tana Beles in Ethiopia.”

There is no need to go into long history of Egypt’s sabotage on Ethiopia. It was just about 100 years ago that Egypt, under Kediv Esmael, had conducted repeated invasions with the explicit intent to control the source of the Nile.

The claim that Egypt “has shown no objection for building Tekeze Dam and Tana Beles” can not be farther from the truth. Just to mention one: In 2008, when Ethiopia launched the Tana Beles project, the then President Hosini Mubarak asked Italy’s her company to stop work and aslo summoned the Eritrea President for “discussion”.

The fact that the Professors tried to cover-up these widely-known events demonstrates the lack of intellectual integrity of  their statement.

In conclusion: These Professors and their statement is not the first nor would be the last reiteration of the unhelpful chorus that impeded cooperation on the Nile.

However, it is sad that a group of Professors are still stuck to the old mindset and flawed perspective, at a time when the government of Egypt is displaying increasing signals of good will and rational approach.