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Sound Engineering: Water wars and the big picture

As Civil and Environmental Engineering Assistant Professor Paul Block researches the finer points of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, he can’t help but think about the larger controversies surrounding the project. Block’s research group is focusing on how the Ethiopian government might go about diverting water from the Blue Nile to fill the dam’s enormous reservoir. These are technical choices that, one way or another, will profoundly affect Egypt and Sudan, who rely on the Nile’s downstream waters for agriculture and hydroelectric power. In this edition of the Sound Engineering podcast, Block talks about the experience of researching what will be the largest dam in Africa. 

Scott Gordon: For about 10 years, Paul Block has studied how Ethiopia handles water resources, dams, and hydropower on the Blue Nile. As an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison, Block leads the Water Systems and Society research group, which means he doesn’t look at hydrology and water resources as isolated technical matters. Lately he’s been focusing on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. When it’s finished, it will be the largest dam in Africa, and the Ethiopian government is building it right on the Blue Nile, which means that it has a huge impact on water that flows on to Sudan and Egypt. From Block’s perspective, one of the most significant factors will be how Ethiopia goes about filling the dam’s reservoir.

Paul Block: They have this massive, massive reservoir that needs to be filled, on the order of 74 billion cubic meters. If they fill it slowly, what does that mean? That means there are less effects on downstream livelihoods, so more water will pass, right? So Egypt and Sudan are less affected. How does that affect Ethiopia?  If they’re only able to impound water at a slower rate, that means they won’t be able to generate as much hydroelectricity early on. Effectively, that means their benefits are going to be less.

Scott Gordon: Just like researchers in other fields who are looking at the dam, Block and his grad students want to make sure that leaders in that region have good information to go on as they debate the project. The research group is building a computer tool that will predict how the dam might behave based on different filling policies, as well as the many different environmental variables that come into play.

Paul Block: So you can go on and you can change a few of these factors. If climate change comes to bear on this, you can select a level of climate change that you think might be appropriate—increasing precipitation, decreasing precipitation etc. So we have a few of these buttons that you can select. And then it gives you an outcome of likely hydropower generation, downstream flow, etc. So I think that’s a nice tool. We’re still trying to get that into the hands of people that would use it in-region. The idea there is to give them something simple that helps to quantify this a little bit.

Scott Gordon: But again, Block sees the technical questions in a bigger context, and in this case, it’s fraught with political, economic, and environmental issues. The Ethiopian government kept the project secret until 2011, and it hasn’t given the outside world a lot of detailed information to work with. 

Paul Block: So there’s another group that I’m loosely connected with now, that we have social scientists, lawyers, people that are looking at this from a legal perspective, policy perspective, from a hydrology and a very technical dam-construction and water-management perspective.

Scott Gordon: Given that, Block says his job isn’t to advocate for one particular solution, but to help leaders and stakeholders in Africa figure out what their options are—and he tries to keep in mind that engineering is deeply tied in with all the other issues involved.

Paul Block: And everybody preaches interdisciplinary work, but in this case it really is, as much as anything, figuring out the social and political piece.

Scott Gordon: For more information on Block’s research, visit wss.cee.wisc.edu.

Scott Gordon
11/19/2013