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Filling the Dam

Filling the Dam

Kevin Wheeler is an engineer and project manager with over 15 years of experience in the area of water resources planning and engineering, hydrologic and hydraulic systems modeling, water delivery system design and construction, and stakeholder education and capacity building. He also has an extensive expertise in the development and application of decision support systems for both long-term water resource planning and management as well as daily operations of reservoirs to meet multiple management objectives. Kevin focuses on facilitating stakeholder involvement in managing water resources by providing technical support with current modeling tools, facilitating community organization and promoting dialogue between water users to seek solutions to complex water management problems.  He has been working extensively on the Colorado River for over a decade, including the facilitation of the negotiations between the United States and Mexico over sharing the resources of the River. Starting with the Colorado River Interim Surplus Guidelines, he played a central role by developing the tools necessary to bring stakeholders together throughout the basin to understand and interpret proposed policies. Currently, Kevin supports the ongoing development of the Eastern Nile Region through model development, stakeholder training, and exploring alternatives for cooperation and coordination of river infrastructure. He has completed his PhD at the Environmental Change Institute in 2017, while collaborating with research institutions in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Khartoum Sudan and Cairo Egypt. In 2016, Kevin has published a scientific study about the water filling mechanisms of the controversial dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile. Last week, he presented this scientific research entitled, "Cooperative filling approaches for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam" to groups of journalists gathered in the city of Alexandria, Egypt to attend a media workshop organized by Swedin International Water Institute. Yohannes Anberbir of The Reporter has attended the workshop where he got a chance to sit down with Kevin Wheeler for brief interview. Excerpts:

Filling the Dam


The Reporter: What is your understanding of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)?

Kevin Wheeler: The GERD is the first critical opportunity for coordination among countries of the Eastern Nile Basin: Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and Egypt; more importantly between the upstream Ethiopia and the dawn stream Egypt. The GERD is not free of risks. There are risks; but they are 100 percent manageable risks. How to manage the risk is the most critical question that needs coordination and trust between the countries involved. Ethiopia has been repeatedly saying that the GERD is exclusively for the generation of electric power. 

The joint technical committee of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan has been negotiating for years on the filling of the dam. However, the committee couldn't reach an agreement so far. What approach you think is amicably right for both Ethiopia and the two downstream countries?

Ethiopia is said to have tabled its own water filling proposal for discussion. And the France based consultant BRL which is hired by the three countries has been assigned to do the technical analysis on the same subject including social and environmental impact assessments. I don't want to interfere on this, but, as far as I am concerned, on the technical aspects of the filling process, I can say that it is feasible for Ethiopia to fill the dam within three years of time. However, I don't think Ethiopia will do that given its intention, expressed on its official statements, not to significantly harm the downstream countries. Ethiopia is also showing flexibility on the filling process which I believe is a good thing for coordination. Concerning the filling process, I am hearing a lot of numbers from the media suggesting that Ethiopia should fill the dam within three years, five years, eight, fifteen and more. But, that is not the right way to think about the filling process. As far as my assessment is concerned, there are two approaches to fill the GERD. The “Agreed Annual Release” is the first approach to fill the dam. How much water Ethiopia releases every year during the filling process is the key aspect this approach deals with. This approach will enable Ethiopia to hold much water during the wet season and hold less water during the dry season. "A fixed annual increase" is the other approach to fill the dam. This approach allows Ethiopia to fill the dam with same amount of water every year regardless of rainfall. That means no guarantee on the volume of water that Ethiopia will be releasing downstream during the filling years. Hence, the water release during the filling years couldn't provide downstream reliability. Given the limitations of the second approach, I suggest the negotiating countries to consider the “Agreed Annual Release” approach certainly provides water reliability to downstream countries during Ethiopia's filling time and provides for Ethiopia to fill the dam faster during the wet years. 

Apart from the surplus power planned to be exported from GERD to downstream countries, Ethiopia has been trying to convince downstream nations of the multifaceted opportunities that GERD will be providing. What is your assessment on this?

That is true. The GERD will provide clean, reliable and inexpensive electric energy to the downstream countries. Apart from this, GERD is beneficial in terms of reducing the variability of the water levels that flows downstream, thus benefiting both Sudan and Egypt by providing a reliable regulated flow of water. The GERD will also be significant in reducing the staggering sedimentation challenges, particularly for Sudan. Sudan has been spending several millions of dollars to clean sediments from its reservoirs. For instance, it has been spending 10 million dollar per year just to clean the sediment loaded at the Gezari canal. Only in 2014, about 130-167 millions of tons of sediments have been loaded at the El Diem reservoir. Additionally, the sediments loaded at the Sennar dam has reduced the water storage capacity of the reservoir by 60 percent, similarly it has reduced the Rosaries dam storage capacity by 34 percent. Ethiopia's GERD, however, will reduce the increasing obstacles of sedimentation to the downstream countries by up to 86 percent. This consequently allows Sudan to operate its reservoirs with greater efficiency. It also increases the volume of water to Sudan enabling the country to maximize its agricultural activities, unless it is limited by the 1959 water sharing agreement signed with Egypt. The GERD is also beneficial in providing a drought safety net for Egypt. It provides reliability of flows and increases the volume in the dry season. 

Ethiopia has been asserting that the filling process of GERD will not impact Egypt; rather the filling will conserve more water by reducing significant loss of water that is evaporating from the Aswan Dam. What is your assessment on this and how the GERD itself is a concern for evaporation?

That is true. The evaporation rate at the Aswan Dam is very high. Every year, 10.9 billion metric cube of water has been evaporating from this dam. However, at the time when Ethiopia starts filling the GERD, the surface area of water exposed to evaporation at the Aswan Dam will decrease down resulting in less evaporation and an opportunity to save more water at the Ethiopian dam. But, after several years following the completion of the filling of the GERD and when the Aswan dam begins to refill, there will be reservoirs along the basin that are exposed to evaporation.

Ethiopia has always been assuring that it has no intention of harming Egypt; however, Egypt still believes that the GERD will have a significant impact. What is your assessment in this regard? Will the GERD have a meaningful impact on Egypt's High Aswan Dam?

It would only be a threat if there is not an agreed filling plan and when a very dry confession occurs. However, if there is an agreement between the countries that Ethiopia protects the level of the Aswan Dam and then there will not be any risk at all.

The three countries Technical National Committee (TNC) has been negotiating for close to two years to set an agreed filling approach, but no agreement has been reached so far. Do you think they will easily resolve the challenges soon?   

Technically, it is feasible to redress the disagreement points. Whether the countries will be able to agree on how the French consultant moves forward is the biggest challenge. However, I do have a faith that the technical committee can come to a sound solution if the consultant is able to proceed with the direction of the TNC (the committee).

There is still unresolved agreements between the countries on the issue of baseline from which the study would measure the impacts of GERD. Egypt is insisting on the 1959 agreement to be the baseline year for the data's. As an expert what do you suggest as a solution on this controversial issue?

I will decline on this, and will leave it to the countries as they are in the negotiation process to redress this issue. 

 Do you have anything to recommend for the countries to consider and reach an agreement as well as enter in to a new phase of coordination?

Time is now a critical component. Therefore, I advise the countries to settle their disagreements immediately and start the cooperation process fast. They should also build trust with each others. I advise them to build trust, but to verify with data because trust only follows a verified quality data. Additionally, the countries should plan ahead in managing future disagreements.