10 January 2013

Nile River Basin -- the review

The Nile River Basin: Water, Agriculture, Governance and Livelihood is edited by Awulachew, Smakhtin, Molden and Peden. The 316pp, $135 book has 15 chapters written by 50+ authors. The book is, in other words, a compilation of papers written for three overlapping projects for evaluating the current situation and potential future scenarios for the ten countries that share water in the Nile Basin (NB).[1]

As many of you know, the biggest problem in the NB is the current use of water, with Sudan and Egypt claiming most of the water for their own irrigated agriculture (drinking water and water quality are smaller problems that do not have significant transboundary components). In a reverse of the typical norm of power-politics (e.g., China and the Mekong), these downstream countries have claimed -- with success so far -- that they are the only ones entitled to NB water. That situation is about to change, as Ethiopia and other countries are now building dams that will hold and use water from the Nile -- sometimes for hydropower (meaning a low net reduction of flows due to evaporation behind reservoirs) or for irrigation. This latter use, according to the Egyptians, may increase regional tensions by reducing the water that Egyptian farmers have seen as their right since Aswan High Dam (AHD) went into operation in 1970.

I read this book with great interest, since Cornelia and I are writing an analysis of the costs and benefits of AHD. One crucial factor that has been missed by most is the way that AHD made it easy to direct hydropower, irrigation and fishery resources to select beneficiaries (e.g., the military) at the same time as it reduced access to those resources to the majority (e.g., the poor). More to come.

So this book comes at an opportune time, as it's important for both insiders and outsiders to understand what is going on in the NB and what potential actions and futures are possible.

This book delivers partial answers to both sides of this question, falling short mainly due to a lack of integration among chapters (a common problem with collections of papers) and failure to give a full picture of all relevant topics across all relevant places.[2] The book, instead, hits some topics in some places, which makes it hard to see the larger picture or know if the presented material is more or less important than the missing material.

But this figure underlines the basic fact: precipitation less evaporation leaves most of the NB in deficit, and institutions for managing water in the NB -- institutions that may have been established in a time of relative water abundance -- may not be able to cope with scarcity within countries or allocating transboundary scarcity.

Here are my marginal notes:
  1. Many chapters offer prescriptions ("should do") that sound nice, but the major problem is getting these ideas implemented. Nowhere in the 15 chapters did I see a discussion of HOW to get ideas implemented, e.g., how to share Nile water among ten countries! It's common to read "these ideas will require novel levels of transboundary cooperation." Such cooperation between, e.g., Sudan and Ethiopia are less likely than cooperation between the US and Mexico.
  2. Authors often apply various academic techniques to analyzing incomplete and imperfect data in relationships that may be mis-specified. That said, they establish a baseline for improvement in terms of data collection, analysis and feedback. 
  3. Chapters vary in quality. The worst are full of wish lists, non sequiturs, and unsubstantiated conclusions.[3]
  4. Technical chapters (on groundwater, soil erosion, etc.) provide useful information that is neither necessary nor sufficient for sustainability in the Nile Basin. (Locals can manage well, without knowing very much. It's outsiders that cause problems with policies and/or exploitation.)
  5. If you didn't know already, irrigated agriculture is not the only path to prosperity. Rainfed agriculture and pastured livestock offer relative and absolute advantages, but those sources are not as easy for central governments to understand or corrupt elites to control.
  6. Johnson's chapter 5 ("Availability of water for agriculture in the Nile Basin") was excellent and informative. She points out that Egypt is already using more than its quantified rights (even assuming you acknowledge them!)
  7. The chapters on governance are better at describing messy administrative structures than at highlighting failures, costs or paths to reform. I'd like to see some aid agencies tie their money to results instead of funding another Ministry of This or That.
  8. Ethiopian farmers are willing to pay to preserve the environment (PES), but only 1/1,000 of the cost proposed by the Ministry of Water Resources. That's not going to lead anywhere.
  9. The chapters based on simulations and models were worthless and unrealistic. I asked myself, many times, HOW are you going to get that result in reality?
Bottom Line: I give this book THREE stars for people engaged in research in this area. For others, I suggest googling for free academic papers on water, land, power and agriculture in the Nile Basin.

[1] I do not understand why this book -- an output of CGIAR research -- is not available for free download. Routledge's price is FAR too high to promote access to these materials. I would not have bought it (I had a review copy), and it's NOT WORTH $135 to individuals. It will be sold to libraries and government ministries. Maybe it will be read.

[2] This same critique applies to the book on Land Grabs in Africa in which one of my chapters appears.

[3] My favorite typo was "Discussions and concussions" (probably pretty accurate for some ideas :), but there were mistakes in emphasizing GDP (over GDP per capita), assuming that a large economy made investments in agriculture profitable, concluding that "classified wetland" was synonymous with area of environmental vulnerability, etc.

1 comment:

  1. Based on the figure it looks like there can not be a River Nile. That is why looking at annual figures is not enough to understand the hydrological system.

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