BLUE NILE, Ethiopia – Can a massive dam on Ethiopia’s Blue Nile River become a “platform for peace” in the parched lands of Africa? Or will it instead spark new conflicts among neighboring nations? And what happens to the people whose homes will be submerged when the reservoir fills?
These are the kinds of questions Oregon State University Ph.D. student Jennifer Veilleux dug into during a five-month study along the African river where the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is under construction. Working with OSU Professor Aaron Wolf, an international expert on water conflict resolution, she was investigating the human dimensions of the dam’s development and, more broadly, the complex intertwining among peoples and waters the world over.
“Water is needed and shared by every sector of human society and by dependent ecosystems,” says Veilleux, who finished her Ph.D. in geography in June. “Water shapes the physical and human landscape. I want to find out how this resource can be cooperatively shared by different communities.”
To tease out the dynamics of water sharing among countries and cultures, the researcher interviewed both urban and rural Ethiopians, spending time particularly with the Gumuz people, a little-studied subsistence culture found mainly along the Blue Nile in Ethiopia and Sudan. Most of the 20,000 local people who will be displaced by the dam project are Gumuz, artisanal gold miners who trade with nearby communities. From the river they draw not only material sustenance, but also their very identity as a people.
So Veilleux was surprised at the flexibility, resolve and general acceptance voiced by the people she interviewed — a finding that runs counter to prevailing predictions of worldwide water wars as Planet Earth heats up and human populations mount. “I think the people had a very keen sense of being river people, meaning they are very adamant about staying near the water because it’s their everything, their life,” she says. “But I was surprised at how flexible they were about moving.”
Averting Water Wars
Two years ago, the online newspaper Aljazeera ran a stark headline: Almost half of humanity will face water scarcity by 2030. Similar stories have splashed across the front pages of major newspapers for nearly 20 years, with many predicting global water wars.
As a powerful new force in the ancient, life-sustaining relationship between people and water, the African dam presents huge opportunities as well as grave challenges for Ethiopia. On one hand, it will provide reliable power. “Only about 40 percent of Ethiopia has electricity,” notes Veilleux, who manages the “transboundary freshwater dispute” database at OSU. “When complete, the massive, 6,000-megawatt dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, expanding electricity coverage in Ethiopia and neighboring countries.”
It’s also a source of pride for Ethiopians, who are eager to shed the perception of being a famine-prone country in need of international aid, rather than an African leader with a middle-class economy, says Veilleux. “Dams are really big power symbols, not just for their capacity to harness energy, but as symbols of modernity and identity,” she says.
But while the Ethiopian government has a comprehensive resettlement program for the Gumuz, Veilleux’s research raises many important, and as-yet unanswered, questions: What will replace gold as a new source of cash economy? How will farming change without seasonal flooding? Will malaria rates increase with a stagnant reservoir? How will the dam change native fish stocks and the equipment needed to catch them? How will the Gumuz stay connected to other villages when the now-navigable river becomes an expansive lake? Will moving to an urban area lead to increased social problems related to modern life, such as a loss of cultural identity?
“If the dam project is done correctly, the Ethiopian government can greatly improve some of the challenges that the Gumuz communities face from malnutrition, disease or lack of access to secondary or higher education,” the researcher says. “Resource sharing will also improve the lives of Ethiopians who benefit from expanded electricity.”
But the cultural costs should not be ignored, she cautions. People’s ancient connection to the river has led to deep understandings about natural resources in the region — understandings that social scientists call “traditional ecological knowledge” or TEK— that can and should be tapped for the benefit of all.
“More attention needs to be spent on identifying the strengths as well as the vulnerabilities of local communities, to buffer possible threats to these areas, and to make sure that the benefits outweigh the costs.”
Find out more about Professor Aaron Wolf’s international conflict resolution work here http://ceoas.oregonstate.edu/profile/wolf/.
–Story by Abby Metzger, OSU College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences