Tackling the challenges of the Eastern Nile Basin with nexus solutions

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Perhaps no other place highlights humanity’s dependence on water as clearly as the Nile Basin. Shared by 11 countries in which over 500 million people currently reside, this river basin has sustained civilizations in East and North Africa for millennia. However, the basin’s water resources are under increasing pressure from a combination of social, political, and climatic threats.

The latest webinar from the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains – “Integrated water resources management for water, energy, and food security in the Eastern Nile Basin” – explored how nexus thinking can help address these growing threats.

“Given the growing impacts of climate change and extreme weather events on water, energy, and food security and ecosystem health, we need to double down on better management of water resources,” said Dr Claudia Ringler, NEXUS Gains Co-lead and the event’s moderator. “There are few places where it is more critical to do this than the Eastern Nile Basin – due to both the enormous importance of the Nile as a water source and the political tensions in the region.”

Modeling the socioeconomic impacts of large dams

The webinar’s first presentation was from Professor Mohammed Basheer of the University of Toronto. Professor Basheer shared findings from an integrated impact assessment, created with NEUXS Gains’ support, investigating the potential effects of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on Sudan, downstream of the nearly completed dam. He and his team were able to capture data for three potential benefits – increased hydropower, improved flood control, and more reliable irrigation and food security – as well as one possible risk: the loss fired clay brick production, a traditional industry along the Sudanese banks of the Nile.

The data were fed through a river system infrastructure model, a two-dimensional flood model, and an economic model to produce multisector socioeconomic impacts. “Models inherently contain uncertainties,” cautioned Professor Basheer, “and there are additional impacts not yet considered in this analysis.” Nevertheless, the modeling confirmed that GERD is likely to have a positive impact on hydropower generation and flood control in Sudan, with 1–2.5 percent increase in built-up areas no longer at risk of riverine flooding, notably in Khartoum. GERD’s impact on existing irrigation in Sudan is predicted to be mild, because much of Sudan’s existing irrigation demands are already met by the recently heightened Roseires Dam and therefore unlikely to change significantly, as long as climate change does not result in dramatic changes in the Blue Nile flow and temperature.

However, Professor Basheer’s modeling indicates that GERD will likely eliminate traditional fired clay brick production along the Blue Nile and the Main Nile, as the industry relies on seasonal deposits of sediments that will now largely accumulate in the GERD reservoir. Despite this, simulation results suggest that Sudan’s gross domestic product would increase by 0.1 percent in 2025 due to the combined effects of GERD.

Trust and cooperation essential

Mekdelawit Messay, a PhD candidate at Florida International University, complemented these technical findings with a presentation on the social and political aspects of nexus action in the Eastern Nile Basin. Characterizing the complex challenges gripping the basin as a “wicked problem,” she warned that such problems “are rarely solved without taking a systems approach that capitalizes on interlinkages and co-benefits and minimizes trade-offs and unintended consequences. This makes nexus a no-brainer for the Eastern Nile Basin.”

To make this a reality, however, Ms Messay listed several prerequisites. These include the provision of a baseline for scientific analysis, the need for transboundary agreement on the goal of basin management, and a willingness for countries to reconsider entrenched ways of thinking about water resources. Especially important is the need for governments to trust and cooperate with each other. “Without this trust, our scientific approaches won’t have a chance of succeeding,” explained Ms Messay. “Experiences from other politicized river basins, such as the Indus and the Jordan, show us that, where trust is an issue, you get uneven cooperation and sub-optimal solutions.”

Benefits beyond water

These two presentations sparked a wide-ranging panel session and set of audience questions in the second half of the webinar. Professor Yasir Mohamed, Associate Professor of Hydrology and Water Resources at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, stressed the importance of promoting political stability in the Eastern Nile Basin. For this reason he commended Professor Basheer’s work, and particularly his modeling of economic benefits. “If you can show some benefits for the people – whether in food, trade, or industry – that could be an entry point for better geopolitics in the region,” he said. “But it’s also important to look beyond water, food, and energy. International cooperation along the Nile, such as data sharing and transboundary agreements, will benefit far more than these three sectors.”

Dr Biniam Iyob, a Senior Policy Advisor at the United States Agency for International Development, noted the importance of policy in the Eastern Nile Basin. “We need to create a prioritized policy agenda and develop systems that help implement policies,” he advised. “Accountability is another important factor. How do we make sure there are mutual accountability processes to build the trust and cooperation we’ve acknowledged is so important for this basin?”

As the webinar concluded, there was broad agreement among presenters and panelists that the Eastern Nile Basin, although presenting a particularly complex set of political and environmental challenges, would benefit greatly from practical, actionable nexus solutions. The hope is that nexus thinking will help ensure that this network of rivers, lakes, and dams – so long the lifeblood of the region – continues to support lives and livelihoods for many more years to come.

Didn’t catch the webinar? A podcast will also be available soon.

View the presentation slides by Mohammed Basheer

View the presentation slides by Mekdelawit Messay

Learn more about all the webinars in the series on the NEXUS Gains Talks landing page and subscribe to the NEXUS Gains newsletter to be the first to hear about upcoming webinars.

This work was carried out under the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains, which is grateful for the support of CGIAR Trust Fund contributors: www.cgiar.org/funders


Banner image: IWMI Researchers examine river gauge in a tributary of the Blue Nile Basin. Photo by Prue Loney/IWMI.

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