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Beyond dams and pipes: domestic water politics in Ethiopia

Written by Beatrice Mosello

International disputes over water make the headlines; they tend to translate into grim prospects of countries fighting each other for increasingly scarce water resources. But the danger is that they distract from states’ critical domestic responsibilities to manage water equitably and sustainably.

Take Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. Already 40% complete, it will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa when it’s finished in July 2017, supplying desperately needed electricity for Ethiopia, and other countries too.

Politically speaking, it is not a straightforward project. Thanks to a 1959 British-brokered treaty, Egypt and Sudan have enjoyed near-exclusive rights to the Nile’s waters for decades. A rapidly growing, powerful Ethiopia is now challenging this, and while Sudan has reacted by taking a neutral stance aimed at maximising its gains from the dam, Egypt has been less conciliatory. After eight months of bitter statements and mounting tensions with Addis Ababa, it agreed to go back to the negotiation table only last August; the three countries concluded their latest round of negotiations this month.

For its part, Ethiopia has shown ample willingness to cooperate with its neighbours, though as the upstream player it holds the cards. The country is currently pursuing an ambitious development plan aimed at achieving middle-income status by 2020 – investment in hydropower, as well as new irrigation and water supply, is seen as essential for growth.

But unconstrained water development and weak management can undermine the resource base and squander opportunities for responsible growth, as India and China have demonstrated (pdf). Here, decades of investment in new infrastructure failed to adequately account for the environmental and social impacts of big projects.  As Ethiopia’s investment in irrigation, energy and water supply ramp up, will it fall into the same trap?

As well as thinking internationally and investing in new infrastructure, Ethiopia needs to focus on local issues, and invest in the ‘softer’ elements of water resources management. It has to develop a framework, based on clear rules, that manages the needs of competing uses and users. This should be adaptive, so that decision-makers and users can respond to the challenges posed by climate, economic and demographic change. And, above all, it should meet the basic needs of the poorest and most marginalised people, and protects the environmental services they depend on.

Building institutions – not dams and pipes – is the biggest challenge facing water managers in Ethiopia today. But where to start? First of all, it is important to recognise that you can’t separate the technical from the political when talking about water resources management (see ODI’s work on ‘thinking and working politically’). You need to put in place the systems needed to measure water extraction and monitor water quality, and to negotiate and allocate water use. 

This means investing in data collection and analysis, and producing scenarios and projections to address the uncertainty of the near and far future. It also means considering all the other sectors and users that need water to function and survive (or what is sometimes referred to as ‘the water-energy-food nexus’ in development jargon). Water managers should engage in an open and continuous dialogue with other governmental, civil society and private sector actors, as well as those with a stake but no voice in water resources management. 

Putting in place the right institutional framework to harmoniously perform all these tasks – and allocating the financial, technical and human resources to operate it – is today the real challenge facing Ethiopia (and other countries that, like Ethiopia, are entertaining ambitious economic growth plans). This is no less daunting than agreeing how to share the waters of the Nile between powerful competing economies. We must not let headlines on future water wars distract us from this essential obligation to manage water resources responsibly, in a way that fuels positive socio-economic development, without leaving anyone behind.