Thursday, March 8, 2007

The First Water War?

The First Water War?
“…and We made from water everything that is alive.” Surat ‘The Prophets’, Verse 30, The Koran

Just over a year ago today Uganda awoke to the stunning news, from the CEO of the Ugandan Electrical Regulating Authority, that “[E]ffective Monday 6 [February] in order to save the Lake [Victoria], generation is going to fall from the current 170 MW to 140 MW.” From that day to this Uganda has endured constant power outages - euphemistically called load-shedding - of between 12 and 24 hours in duration. This time of year is the height of the dry season and stunningly hot. The town’s [Lira] piped water supply, which we are lucky to be tapped into, is powered by electricity and the little water left in the reservoir is not being pumped out. In sum, I spend a great deal of the time sitting in the dark with warm beer and smelling ripe. If it wasn’t for our overworked generator I would be writing this on parchment by the light of a candle.

How it came to pass that Lake Victoria is drying up, is a tale of incompetence, corruption, environmental destruction and nemesis in the form of Mother Nature. First though, I am beginning to suspect my recent interest in hydrology may be the cause of friends going home early, so in the interests of brevity and comprehension, I will keep the story short. A few facts: Uganda, owns half the surface area and two thirds the shoreline of Lake Victoria, the biggest lake in Africa, about the size of Ireland. It has the only natural outlet from the Lake, Owen Falls at Jinja, the source of the [White] Nile. The Nile runs for hundreds of miles north through two large lakes before leaving the country into Sudan. For almost its entire length within Uganda, it has what a US Department of Agriculture report calls “..[e]normous hydro-power potential.”

The country’s first hydro-electric powerstation and large scale source of electrical power was built between 1954 and 1969 at Owen Falls - renamed the Nalubaale dam - producing 180 Megawatts of power. During the 90’s, as the Ugandan economy blossomed, demand for electricity surged and a second dam, the Kiira, was opened in 2002, producing 200 Megawatts. It seems today’s crisis began at that point, resulting from political hubris, craven technical advice and a liberal dose of corruption. Engineers thought the Kiira dam was to replace the aging Nalubaale and advised accordingly. The advice was either whispered to or ignored by government and the now-privately-owned electical power company and both dams, close together, continued to run, supposedly producing 380megawatts of power. Someone failed to notice or else hid the fact that the dams were competing with each other, could not generate the expected total power and were drawing extra water from the lake.

Desperate for yet more power to grow the economy and achieve Museveni’s grand plan of rural electrification, the Government, together with the World Bank and a US-based constuction company drew up plans to build a third hydro-electric dam, the Bujagali, just down-stream from the other two. The project was contentious, hugely costly and riven with corruption. It also threatened an area of outstanding natural beauty. This attracted a Berkley-based ‘eco-NGO’, the International Rivers Network (IRN) which combined with local environmental groups and forced a public investigation. The environmentalists won, the US company pulled out and the World Bank tore up the check. But, the current crisis has put the Bujagali project back on the agenda, this time funded by an international consortium and [President] Museveni has stated he will not to allow ‘foreign interests’ to intervene. I can see his point. It is a bit rich for an NGO based in a country where the average individual flushes 100 liters of water down the toilet every day and uses more energy in a day than an African does in a year, to lecture Africans on environmental degradation and government hubris.

Early in 2006, in a desperate attempt to reverse an impending economic and social crisis, Museveni and what one wag called the ‘Minister of Darkness’, announced a two-part strategic energy plan. The short term plan is to establish two thermal power generators, capable of producing 150megawatts, to supplement hydro power. The long-term plan is to build three more dams on the Nile. The flaw in Plan A is thermal power uses heavy fuel oil. The stuff is expensive and costs are at the mercy of the global energy market. It also has to be imported, all the way from the Kenyan port of Mombasa and almost all by road. A thermal power generating plant already exists in Kampala, designed to supplement the hydropower supply. It uses huge amounts of diesel every day ( imported via Kenya) and costs a colossal $110m a year to run.

The Mombasa/Kampala road, Uganda’s aortic artery, is truly “the Road to Hell”, in places so neglected and over-used it looks as if it has been carpet bombed. The cost of moving a truck-load of fuel along its length has been estimated, by Jeffery Sachs and his ‘Jedi Knights of the Aid world’ at $2,500 and movement along the 1,000kms is an average of 5kph. Plans to enhance fuel delivery by pipeline from Kenya have stumbled along for years and even immediate implementation would mean years before completion. The same is true of plans to regenerate the old Mombasa/Kampala railway. Fuel shortages are already endemic in Uganda and costs have shot up 100% in twelve months. Huge gas-guzzzling generators will push up the cost of electricity and add to the burden of getting fuel into the country. The problem with Plan B is it will be four years before the first hydro-dam comes on line and it assumes Lake Victoria will fill up again, or at least not drop further.

The immediate effect of the power crisis is to stop the Ugandan economy in its tracks. Kampala’s commercial and industrial businesses, critically dependent upon electricity are limping along. Supermarkets have limited frozen food and fresh food. Bank ATMs work every other day etc. Significant improvement in power supplies without huge additional costs seem at least four years awa

A concatenation of events has brought Lake Victoria to its lowest levels in 80 years; it’s down by almost 2 meters and the shoreline has retreated by 40m in some places. First, the Great Lakes Basin is one of the most highly populated regions in the world, there are over 30m people living close to the lake, the numbers are growing and the area is intensely cultivated; pollution and water abstraction have risen accordingly. Second, there seems little doubt that the Ugandan power stations were emptying the lake at an unnatural rate. Before they were built it was agreed that the amount of water flowing through the turbines should mimic the amount that used to drain over the falls. The formula known as the "agreed curve", established under the 1959 Nile Waters Treaty between colonial Britain and Egypt - the ultimate user of most of the Nile's water - sets a maximum flow at between 300 and 1,700 cubic metres a second, depending on the water level in the lake. A recent independent study shows that the dams have been exceeding the ‘agreed curve’ by over 50% for the past two years at least. ( Now you know why our friends go home early!)

Third and most worrying is that the lake is not filling up at anywhere near the normal rate. This may be due in part to the regional drought which lasted over three years until late 2006, affecting the whole of East Africa, causing starvation in Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia and Ethiopia. If so, history shows such droughts are common and pass as this one has. But there seems a more insidious problem and its man-made. Almost half of the water flowing into the Lake and the [White] Nile comes from the highlands of Kenya. Over the past thirty years, population pressure and unchecked industrial deforestation have reduced the forest cover in the highlands by about 98%, with consequent considerable reduction in rainfall, silting of feeder rivers and reduction in flow of water to the Lake. Without urgent action by Kenya, water levels will continue to drop, with drastic effects on those living around the Lake and along the Nile from Uganda, through Sudan to Egypt.

It is Egypt which, will be most worried by current events, for the Nile is its very existence. Though it only receives about 15% of its annual water from the White Nile and 68 % from the Blue Nile, originating in Ethiopia; the latter is seasonal and from January to June - this time of year - the White Nile provides more than 80% of Egypt’s water. Before Egypt’s Aswan High Dam was completed in 1971, the White Nile watered the Egyptian stretch of the river throughout the year. The Blue Nile, carrying seasonal rain from Ethiopia, caused the Nile to flood, which in turn dictated the size and shape of Egypt’s agriculture and food supply. The Aswan allows Egypt to cultivate its land throughout the year and cope with a demographic explosion, which has seen its population rise from 20 million people 50 years ago to 70 million today.

. …[T]here will come a time when the people of East Africa and Ethiopia will become too desperate to care about these diplomatic niceties. Then, they are going to act." Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister, Ethiopia
The current crisis of Lake Victoria and in turn my [lack of] electricity, is only part of a much bigger regional crisis, which has simmered for fifty years and now threatens to boil over. Whereas Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania are bit players, the key actors are Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. Ethiopia is the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana, yet it is prevented from exploiting the river to develop its medieveal agricultural system - long since overwhelmed by population pressure and poor governance. All attempts to use even a small precentage of the Nile’s water are thwarted by a combination of the out-dated 1959 Nile Waters Treaty, inexplicable lack of enthusiasm from aid donors and veiled threats from Egypt. Consequently, every few years Bob Geldorf and the World Food Program have to come to the rescue and Ethiopian dignity is ground in the dust. The current regional drought and famine, which prompted the above comment from Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, may be the events that force the people to act.

Sudan too, has long had issues with Egypt about how much water it is allowed to take from the Nile under the Treaty. The capital, Khartoum, is on the confluence of the Blue and White Nile and a new Sudanese dam, the Merowe, is under construction north of the city. What the Egyptians think about this is unclear. Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda too have complained for years about the unfairness of a ‘colonial era treaty’ which prevents them taking water from Lake Victoria or the Nile and they are clamouring for change.

Viewed from Cairo, Lake Victoria’s disappearing water, combined with Ethiopia’s desperate need to use its own water to drag itself out of the Middle Ages and Sudan’s clear intention to expand an oil-based economy which in turn will require more use of the Nile’s waters, must seem a clear and present danger.

Almost twenty years ago, when I was teaching at the British Army Staff College, I remember the Egyptian Ambassador lecturing on Middle Eastern issues. He spoke mainly about Arab/Israeli affairs but culminated in a discussion of the Nile as the life-blood of his country. He warned that any attempt to interfere with the Nile would be seen as an act of war, “[T]he culprits would be bombed.” At the time, I thought his comments overheated to the point of being funny.
Today, I do not.

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