Tuesday, July 9, 2013

another view on the Nile : an interview with Jennifer Veilleux

Recently i have commented a debate on the Nile that was produced by Aljazeera, which I found too much Egypt oriented not giving enough space to the Ethiopian gouvernemental representative to discuss what seemed to me the very few truely problematic issues concerning the impact of the dam on Egypt.

The Ethiopian governement is known as very protective of the information it shares about the dam. However, as part of her PhD Jennifer Veilleux, is one of the few people who could visit the dam region and interview freely local people about the dam. You can find many discussions about the Ethiopian and other dams on her own blog.


Jennifer Veilleux

In order to get some first hand information about the Renaissance Dam she has accepted to answer some of my questions.

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam site, November 2012 © J.C. Veilleux 2012

Compared to other countries you have been doing research in, how difficult was it to get the authorisation to visit the grand renaissance dam area in Ethiopia?

This is an important question because this detail is the single hinge upon which rests the entirety of successful data collection. The simple answer is that it was not at all difficult, but took some homework and footwork to determine where I needed to go and who to ask for authorization. I have worked with governments in several countries to include Albania, Republic of Macedonia, and Laos, PDR regarding national level projects and have never experienced absolute blocks to my requests for access. In most places the process is just a matter of patience. The response of the Ethiopian government to my research inquiries and intentions was open and accepting, and they took things a step further to assist me with logistics. The officials I spoke with are clearly proud and excited about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project and other project-related development. They did not appear to me at all hesitant to have the project covered by a foreign researcher. In fact, one of the Ministers stated that he looks forward to learn something new from the interviews I collect and my analysis. When they said a car would pick me up, a car picked me up. When they said I would have a room at the site, I had a room at the dam site. There were no empty promises or misleading arrangements.

The reason that it is important that the Ethiopian government was not only agreeable to grant permission through various Ministries and the Ethiopian Electric Power Company (EEPCO), but the support and assistance that the government provided at the dam site is the reason that I was able to collect data successfully. The dam site is located in a remote region, Benishagul-Gumuz state, near to the Sudan border. The road there is not paved and there are only two ways in. Both require a commitment of about 17 hours from Addis Ababa. You can fly to Assosa and drive from there, but there is still about 5 hours of driving to the site from the city. And you would have to arrange to rent a car with a driver out there who could handle the roads (and change a tire if one pops). There are no guest houses or facilities anywhere near to the site, aside from the site itself, and that is where I stayed when I conducted field work with the local communities. There are three federal police check-points along the roads to the dam. I arrived in Ethiopia without an established network. I had support of an international non-governmental organization to apply through them for a business visa; the group also provided an office space, but could not support my efforts to make inroads with government officials or experts to interview. With the help of the local Catholic Church I was able to make contacts in the Ethiopian government and at Addis Ababa University. Without the help of Ethiopian people in many sectors, this project would have been impossible. And national level assets, like dams, must be approached through official channels.

Blue Nile River Valley to be flooded by GERD © J.C. Veilleux 2012

You have been interviewing locals about the dam freely (without the presence of a governmental representative), can you tell us what the locals in general think about the dam?

This is an interesting question. In general, I can say that I think the locals I spoke with, mainly from the Gumuz people ethnic group, expressed hope and curiosity about the dam project. I also spoke with some other ethnic groups who had moved to the region to get employment in the project who were also quite positive about the changes. The hope that was expressed is about a new way of living, changes to their society to include the possibility for education and health services. In almost every interview, locals expressed hope that the project brings something of benefit to them. The curiosity is that they are not completely sure what a dam actually is, though there is an understanding that it will cause the river to flood the valley. The locals had not seen electricity before the project came, and now they can see the place lit up at night (operations are 24/7). In general, people want to keep their lifestyle of fishing and farming, but know this will look different when the water changes from a river to a reservoir.
There was also pretty high confidence expressed about the government’s involvement. Local structure of communicating news is quite effective – local meetings as held in each village often as are necessary to include all people in the community. I witnessed this quite a bit while I was there. Although there is no television, few radios, and no newspaper for the Gumuz people, they are well informed about what to expect as each project phase plays out. The location is in a remote valley of the Blue Nile river, as it makes a final decent out of the Ethiopian highlands. The people living there subsist on the river and surrounding land. They have no electricity. They have never seen so much traffic as there is now with heavy machinery and vehicles going to and from the site. New people are coming through and buying from their markets, some of the local people have taken jobs at the site.

Gumuz women on their way to village council © J.C. Veilleux 2012

Can you tell us about one person who did not share the average opinion of the area? What where his/her arguments
?

If we are speaking about the local level, I spoke to some very old people who were not comfortable with moving. About three elders expressed that this way of life is all they have ever known. They expressed uncertainty and caution about change. They were not entirely sure that they would have a place in the future. Two farmers who were relocated downstream were happy with their compensated houses, but had not yet worked out land-rights for growing crops. There are no formal land-ownership agreements in a western sense, but land is claimed by someone, so relocation requires negotiation and cooperation between the new settlers and existing people.

New bridge across the Blue Nile downstream of GERD Project © J.C. Veilleux 2012

What are in your opinion the biggest impacts of the dam?

The biggest impacts of the dam are according to scale and sector – in my work this is highlighted. I can consider three scales here – international, national, and local and give you a general sense of what I mean, and these are only in my opinion:
In general at the national level, the dam is a symbol of modernity, hope, ending poverty, development, autonomy, a new era – Ethiopians are self-funding the dam and there is a great sense of pride that this is a home-grown project, that Ethiopians are doing this development for themselves. In the psychology of the Ethiopian people’s minds, this dam is very empowering and positive, regardless of political affiliation or ethnicity. The dam transcends existing divisive mentality – this has historic roots, but too complicated to get into. Ethiopia is a poor country; droughts cause food security issues and food aid is needed annually, malnutrition is high, there is high infant mortality, in some places 1 in 16 women die in childbirth, debilitating diseases is visible anywhere you travel. The infrastructure is building up fast – we saw this while we were there – new roads, buildings, hospitals, schools, telecommunication infrastructure, electricity grid – you can see these things going up all over the country. But, there is still little industry and without outside investment, these things would not be possible. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, as it’s name implies, gives hope to change that. And gives the first possibility for Ethiopia to use the Blue Nile River as a natural resource.

On an international level, if you go by the press, the dam is again a symbol. And currently it is causing tension for the region, mainly with Egypt and Ethiopia. For Egypt it is a symbol of water insecurity – and loss of control. If Ethiopia has the power upstream to turn off the tap, this would cripple Egypt. The Egyptian authorities, whoever emerges as consistent leadership after this most recent reorganization, are going to remain very keen about this. The people on the street are as well, seeing the Nile waters as crucial for their livelihoods and existence. In other riparian countries, such as Uganda, governments are calling for a new water sharing agreement to replace the outdated existing Treaty that ensures Egypt gets the majority of Nile River water use as tied with this dam project. The dam is an undeniable fixture that changes power dynamics in the Nile basin, but also offers the chance for these riparian countries to give an exemplary new integrated water resources management approach – to extend out to several other much needed regional sectors. What happens next remains to be seen.

At the local level the impacts are enormous. This dam is completely altering the landscape, both human and natural. And also we should take into consideration what local means.There are the immediate people, near to 20,000 people, who are being relocated internally in Ethiopia. These people have been systematically catalogued as to compensation packages. The Gumuz people strike me as highly adaptive and efficient at surviving in the face of change, especially if government support provides what is in the plans at present (regarding infrastructure and job training). But the 20,000 relocated people on the Ethiopian side of the border are not the only local level people to have impact. I have no idea about the people living just over the border in Sudan – especially the people living between the Renaissance project site and the Rosaries dam. An engineer told me that the hydrologic impact would probably extend all the way to the Morawi dam. Who are the people living on the river in Sudan that will indeed feel an impact on their way of life? How many people are we talking? The river will ebb and flow in an artificial manner in the future, this will surely disrupt normal planting and harvesting practices, change the fish patterns, and with the retained sediment, eliminate gold panning activities. These are questions that need answers – the responsibility here falls to the Sudanese government cooperating with Ethiopian government to figure out how to prepare for changes to the people living downstream. This is a clear reason for intergovernmental cooperation – the unexpected impacts that extend well beyond the reaches of the area where Ethiopian government has governing rights, but does have responsibility.


Fisherman with catfish harvested in Blue Nile River © J.C. Veilleux 2012

Who are the winners and who are the losers of the dam construction? and why?

I think some of the other questions point to this, and again, would venture to insist that this all depends on the scale and sectors considered, as well as the temporal nature of the project. There is the project now and the project 5 years from now and the project 10 years or more from now. I can attempt a simple listed answer, but really it depends on how things go.
If the dam is completed and operates in the way it is designed, the winners are the people who feel ownership of such a mega project, the recipients of 6,000 MW of additional energy into the grid, the Ethiopian government receiving revenue from the sale of energy across the borders (they have signed agreements with Kenya, Sudan, Djibouti, and South Sudan is in the works as far as I know), the government sponsored development projects slated for funding through said revenue, the people who receive these services, the local people’s quality of life improvements with access to health care, markets, education, people employed at the site, the local town of Bamza has economic gain, the entire basin’s stability improves with infrastructural improvements…these are some of the winning parties or entities that I can think of and I think that they are self-explanatory.
The losers are some of the same identified parties above. If the dam continues to cause tension which results in conflict in the basin, Ethiopia will lose face and lives and stability. So will the hope of a new water sharing agreement. So will general security in the region. Everyone looses in that case. Sudan will be caught in the middle of Egypt and Ethiopia. Who knows how this will manifest on the ground. The Gumuz people are losing a known way of life, which could have some serious psychological implications and cripple the communities, unless they are just that adaptive to change. The river itself looses, though no one really discusses this. The river is dynamic and I would venture to state a system that is very much alive. The dam may cause large parts of this system to die or disappear. This is typically the concern of environmentalists, that change can just be too great to overcome for some species or aspects of the physical dimensions of a natural system. Certainly the river will no longer be a river in this section, it will be an artificial lake. Much of the area where I walked and explored while staying at the dam will be underwater. The trees and birds and other biotic species just won’t exist in that space. The Ethiopian people are very aware of this and say it is a trade off. I agree it is a trade-off and it has been done all over the world with water for at least the last century. What the changes means to dependent species is unknown. I don’t believe anyone can measure that with transects in an EIA. I cannot say with certainty that I know there will be huge system alteration resulting in even immeasurable loss, but I can tell you what my gut says. There will be. But, realistically, what are the alternatives?

Blue Nile River after rainy season, upstream of GERD site © J.C. Veilleux 2012

What is the Ethiopian government doing for reducing the impact or compensate the losers?

I think the first thing is that the Ethiopian government has identified the people they consider losers in this process. As I stated before there is a solid plan in place for the relocated people. I saw the mapped out plans and was given the documents to read and review. The Ethiopian Electric Power Company got out and did a house to house survey. The people already relocated were happy about what transpired. They were given more than they expected in compensation, their things were moved for them, they were proud to show me the new houses that were constructed for them. The houses in this area are made of temporary material to begin with, so they must be reconstructed every few seasons. There are plans to build more infrastructure to improve quality of life as previously stated. Already the local people have access to the clinic at the dam site for free. This would all be in the realm of reducing impacts and compensation. I heard no talk of benefit sharing or other ideas that are popping up around the world in water resources management and dam dilemmas. Again, as far as over the border, I know nothing and think that this has not been yet considered.
As far as other identified potential losers from the answer above? There is a plan to maintain a 5 kilometres buffer zone around the reservoir – this is mainly for malaria control, but this could serve to compensate for some of the environmental loss. If the area could be maintained as an eco-zone for birds or wild animals. There are already zones in that area where hunting is not allowed, though there is little ability for enforcement. Upstream areas are slated for continual and increased erosion management, though when I left Ethiopia the new management plan for the entire basin was still in the works. I am not sure what holistic steps are going to be taken to ensure a healthy system upstream or downstream of the dam. I know environmental flows are part of the dam plan – flow is crucial for hydropowI would like to thank Jennifer for her amazingly detailed first hand information form the dam. Both of us are today living outside of Ethiopia, and therefore feel free to express our opinions. I  hope that both of us can spread some more differentiated views on the grand renaissance dam than the classical Ethiopia vs. Egypt debate. er generation, but what these are based upon, I am not sure.


Gumuz woman with harvested millet and grains from riverbed © J.C. Veilleux 2012

What is in your opinion the biggest challenge about this dam?

In my opinion there are several challenges about the dam, so it is hard to isolate one as the biggest. Most of the challenges about Renaissance have to do with technical issues and perception that comes from communication and trust. In my opinion, these issues are definitely workable issues given the right attention and flexibility. The Ethiopian government said to me and continues to say in the media that they are flexible to changing the design of the dam, just not flexible about building the dam – it will go forward.
Technical: Sediment is a huge issue – if left unaddressed it will render the dam useless in too short amount of time compared with the effort and money spent. Sediment traps – doors that allow sediment to move through the bottom of a dam – could be one answer. These were engineered into the new design of the Xayaburi dam in Laos when issues of sediment came up. Sediment is necessary for the river system and you need only look downstream to Sudan – they had to raise the height of Rosaries dam because of sediment fill, and spend money each year to clear out irrigation canals. Egypt’s Aswan dam prevents sediment transport and this has caused major issues in the delta – no deposition of sediment has resulted in salt water intrusion. Also sediment is a natural fertilizer and revitalizer of the riparian soils – without this farmers have to apply artificial chemicals to mimic.
Hydrologic flow is a question. How much is needed to support downstream communities? How much is needed to maintain current water use in Sudan? Does the impact of flow regime change manifest adversely as far downstream as in Egypt? If there is flood control from the dam, what does this mean in Ethiopia? Are all of the existing major dams going to be run together through an international system of planning, such as in other basins, like the Columbia River basin?
Malaria increase from stagnant water is an issue. The climate of the Blue Nile Valley is already quite full of tropical disease, but this tends to be seasonal dependent on the water. With water reliably present all year, this increases the ability for mosquito breeding. I am not a health expert, but I am sure malaria isn’t the only life threatening result of such water change.
When it comes to perception and communication – the Ethiopian government has good intentions with this project, but it seems that inside and outside of Ethiopia this is not well understood. The Ethiopian government could do a better job of communicating their intentions and actions to the greater international community in a way that reflects what they are actually doing. I know because I saw with my own eyes – and it is something I said more than once to Engineer Semegnew – you guys are doing great things out here for the local people, for the onsite workers, why not publicize it so people know? There is a sense – is this cultural or just typical governmental? I don’t know – but the sense is that of course we are doing good things and that should be assumed. There are of course going to be down-sides to a dam. They are monster structures that change natural systems to serve human needs. But knowing what the benefits are clearly may improve the current misunderstandings between basin countries and on the global stage.

The responsibility is not just a formality or but it is a need because the Blue Nile River is an internationally shared resource. And unfortunately, although Western powers are no longer the colonial masters of the region, they are still quite immersed in the politics and hold great influence. Western diplomats like information that they can then repeat and trust – so more clear communication would benefit Ethiopia greatly in this project. Accusations fly in the absence of clear, concise, transparent communication.

I watched the Al Jazeera interview you critiqued. Minister Barakat was not permitted to follow his thoughts through to their logical end. The mediator kept interrupting. To me this was apparent having spoken to the man himself and communicated in Ethiopia, where language and conversations are detailed, extensive, nuanced and artful. Words and ideas take time to build up to actually representing reality. The Ethiopian government may want to hire a public relations team to handle such communication. Again, citing the Xayaburi dam project as another such controversial dam project, they have hired a PR team to help organize media trips, are building an informational website, and have a team dedicated to describing the project plans. Although currently EEPCO does this, but maybe having a separate body handling this that allows not only for output of information, but ingestion of dialogue, could help. This isn’t a perfect solution, but it may help. All of this really points back to that big issue of trust in the region, and arguably in the world. For that, I have no answer.

I would like to thank Jennifer for her amazingly detailed first hand information from the dam. Both of us are today living outside of Ethiopia, and therefore feel free to express our opinions. I  hope that both of us can spread some more differentiated views on the Grand Renaissance Dam than the classical Ethiopia vs. Egypt debate as well as the most common prejudices about Ethiopia and its sometimes a bit clumsy government. 

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