Blue Nile: From a resource curse to a resource blessing

By Tegist Chernet* August 21, 2020

For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction. – Marcel Proust –

Tegist
Tegist Chernet (Dr.Sc. (Tech))

As the construction work on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) progresses, more intensely during the year 2020 than previous years, we are also witnessing the attention of nations directed to the Nile River and the states on whose territories it cruises before disappearing into the Mediterranean Sea. The international media has also kept its gaze on this corner of Africa, tempting me to share my reflection on the resources that the Nile River Basin states must better appreciate, share and develop.

Egyptians undoubtedly believe that the Blue Nile is God-given gift of life and legacy of their ancient civilization. While Ethiopia shares the same mind, it emphasizes it should not only meet Egypt’s needs. Ethiopia has long been known as

the source country of the water. However, there is also little told story. This is the fact of Ethiopia being not only water provider but also other most important environmental resources such as soils and various minerals to upper riparian states.

Fresh water endowment

The Ethiopian highlands with chain of mountain peaks, sometimes called the ‘roof of Africa’, which enjoy the highest elevation in the continent, have significant importance as the origin of essential trans-boundary rivers. Of these, the Blue Nile (Abbay) contributes 86 percent of its water flow to the upper riparian countries of Egypt and the Sudan. This comprises the most important part of East Africa’s hydrographic basin, whose flows have made Ethiopia the ‘Water Tower of Africa’ (https://www.webuildvalue.com/en/reportage/the-water-tower-of-africa-web.html; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dams_and_reservoirs_in_Ethiopia).

The Blue Nile has a total length of 1450kms, of which the 800kms are within Ethiopia. Starting from Lake Tana in the North, the Blue Nile is flowing down to the south and then to the west across Ethiopia and continues northwest to Sudan, where it meets the White Nile at Khartoum on its onward journey to Egypt.

As one of the major tributaries of the Nile River, Blue Nile is commonly owned and utilized especially by the signatories of the Nile River Basin (NBI) countries, although the 2010 Cooperative Framework Agreement has not yet come into force. However, monopolized by neighboring countries for centuries, the Nile resources have only proved a resource curse for Ethiopia with no contributions to its citizens’ water needs nor to the nation’s food and energy security or in facilitating poverty reduction.

Fertile soils endowment

On its longest journey, the Blue Nile River has been collecting and carrying not only fresh water, but also other life upholding resources—soil and minerals. Thus, this mighty and meandering river since time immemorial has been transporting rich silt fertile soil from the Ethiopian highlands. This soil, which is a thick weathering product of the underlain bed rocks mainly of volcanic origin, is enriched with various types of minerals and nutrients.

The inorganic component of the soil is mostly composed of fragmented rocks and minerals that are sources of some plant macro- and micronutrients (e.g., iron, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, calcium, sulfur, zinc, copper, nickel, boron, etc.). These elements are essential for plant growth and play a vital role for increased crop production and human health.

Along its journey upstream, the soil that turns the water dark brown, has continuously been deposited on the rivers’ banks. This has endowed the Sudan and Egypt with cultivable lands for crops, enabling them to substantially increase their agricultural production that has supported millions of lives.

Minerals endowment

Resting on the top of this silicic and marine carbonate rocks, the Ethiopian highlands are constructed from a vast flood basalt forming plateau with series of basaltic lava piles and large shield volcanoes deposited on the surface of the plateau. With layers of basaltic and felsic volcanic rocks, these mountain ranges are mostly tholeiitic in composition. Shield volcanoes are sequences of alternating basalts, rhyolitic and trachytic lava flows, tuffs and ignimbrites.

In general, these rocks are composed of various types of important minerals, such as pyroxenes, plagioclases, olivine, iron and titanium oxides (e.g., magnetite, hematite, ilmenite and rutile) as well as essential accessory minerals (zircon, spinel, chromite, monazite, sulfides). As a weathering product of these rocks, the thick overburden and the vast overlaying soil is enriched with these mineral components and alteration products.

Moreover, the Blue Nile is part of the channels constantly supplying large quantities of fine sediments to the coastline of the Nile delta along the Mediterranean Sea. In addition to the rich black soil, there is a provision of an extensive black sand mineral deposits along the Egyptian Nile delta especially between Rosetta and Damietta coastal plains. Naturally sorted and concentrated by waves and currents, substantial reserves of heavy minerals of economic value stretches along the delta coastal sands.

The current heavy mineral sand production in Egypt includes extracting strategic and economic minerals like ilmenite and rutile (titanium), magnetite and hematite (iron), zircon, monazite (uranium, thorium) and gold substantially contributed from the Ethiopian highlands through the Blue Nile River. Such heavy minerals undoubtedly carry provenance signature where modern technology can easily identify the sediment sources and tracing transport paths.

Cautious optimism about the future

While holding such resources of global importance and sustaining the life of millions across the border, Ethiopians have been poverty stricken and unable to break out of their dependent on international aid. Yet, the world has hardly seen it as uncanny its keeping on spoon feeding Ethiopia instead of utilizing its critical thinking that could lead to enabling the country exploit its own resources.

Fortunately, Ethiopia seems to be turning a page in making its unique developmental history. Guided by the principle in the Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (https://legal.un.org/avl/ha/clnuiw/clnuiw.html) that has made ‘equitable and reasonable utilization’ of the water resources, the Blue Nile river endlessly flowing from the country’s topographic swell all the way to Mediterranean Sea is now being partly engineered into a vast reservoir for use of the Ethiopian people—a country of millennial generation that is confident, ambitious, and achievement-oriented bent on in transforming the hitherto resource into a blessing.

Apart from securing access to light and energy for millions of Ethiopians, the country can use hydropower to promote industrial and agricultural operations, developing the service sector, boost earnings from foreign export, with single-mindedness to eradicating poverty and the economic needs of a large population.

In spite of all the odds, the country is stepping up in developing its renewable energy resource, a hydropower that also contributes significantly to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Former project manager and chief engineer of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Simegnew Bekele, in his interview by TIME, pointed out GERD to a vision of African self-reliance and leadership in a world that has long seen the continent as little more than a place to plunder natural resources.” (https://time.com/4354767/ethiopia/).

Concluding remark

Indeed Ethiopia shall continue to be a blessing for the neighboring countries (..thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself — Matthew 19:19, KJV). However, the Ethiopian highland is considered one of the world’s most degraded areas, vulnerable for climate change advancing by rapid population growth and high levels of environmental degradation. For example, due to wastes, effluents, fertilizers and pesticides released in to Lake Tana, there is a threat in drastic reduction of water quality and invasion of water hyacinth. Not only is the Lake Tana important as a water source but also as a source of food in the form of fish for the downstream communities.

Hence, a joint effort for intense environmental rehabilitation (soil and water conservation of the highlands and Lake Tana region) by the Nile Basin states is required to combat the challenges threatening the common environmental resources. It benefits well our planet the World Bank and other international organizations seriously considering to engage in concerted support of restoring the Ethiopian highlands and developing the resources. Such a recommendation would also hopefully be considered by the development partners of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) to help achieve sustainable growth of the Nile riparian states.

With a more sustainable energy future in mind, it is worth noting to wait until Ethiopia awakens another structurally controlled giant: the Ethiopian Rift Valley with its large untapped geothermal resource potential – a clean and renewable energy resource!

Without the dark, we cannot see the light.
Without the silence, we cannot hear the music.
Without the possibility of its absence, we cannot feel the love.
– Lauren Fins –

*Dr. Tegist Chernet is Senior Research Scientist at the Geological Survey of Finland (GTK). As applied mineralogist and mineral processing engineer, Dr. Chernet has contributed in the study of several industrial mineral resources, pigment minerals, agro-minerals, gold and other base metal deposits. Dr. Tegist Chernet has participated in a number of research and development work for improved separation technology for its application in applied mineralogy, processing and environmental studies. In recent years, she has been active in international projects development (including in Ethiopia) related to capacity building programs providing expert services in industrial and agro -minerals and laboratory upgrading. She has represented GTK in several international conferences both in Finland and abroad.

 

Tegist Chernet, Dr.Sc. (Tech)
Senior Scientist
Circular Economy Solutions
Geological Survey of Finland (GTK)
Finland

2 Comments

  1. It is very informative regarding especially the minerals that Ethiopia is losing on top of the fertile soil and dear water that could have been used for multipurposes in our country. Maybe the finite minerals could have been mined if they weren’t washed away for millenia. Good read. Downstream and upstream words are mixed up erroneously, though.

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