Egyptian space scientist Essam Hajji has said that Egypt will face an unknown water future, even if it overcomes the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam crisis. He is convinced that with the country more vulnerable to any other water and environmental crises looming on the horizon, "science is the only solution to the growing water deficit crisis."
Hajji explained all in an exclusive interview with Arabi21.
Taha Al-Essawi: How did you initiate the idea of the research that you supervised regarding the water deficit in Egypt and the effects of the Renaissance Dam?
Essam Hajji: The idea came to mind in 2017 when we developed a model to calculate the current and future water deficit in groundwater for all North African countries and the Arabian Peninsula in light of climate change. The model simulates the amount of water used, the amount of water that exists, and the deficit that will occur over the next 35 years; we divided it into five climate and economic scenarios based on population. The research was published in 2018 in the Global Environmental Change magazine, which is one of the most respected scientific journals specialising in environmental and water sciences.
We concluded that groundwater is at risk of disappearing within 150 to 200 years in North Africa, and 70 to 90 years in the Arabian Peninsula. The research was circulated widely and provided guidelines for many other studies.
In 2019, we deduced that we should use this model in order to understand Egypt's water deficit given the existence of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Indeed, we developed the model further to calculate the total shortage that Egypt would be likely to suffer in the coming decades, and we added to it the deficit of the dam under all the scenarios announced and published in light of solid scientific research.
Last Thursday, the research was published in the prestigious British journal Environmental Research Letters, which specialises in urgent environmental issues. It is the most read material in this journal's research section so far this year, and it ranks fifth in the history of research published in the magazine.
The research paper did not come out of nowhere. Moreover, it had nothing to do with the consultative meeting of Arab foreign ministers that was held a few days ago in Qatar, as some people claim.
TE: Some have talked about funding this research, so who did fund it?
EH: The research was funded by the Scientific Excellence Grant at the Water Research Centre at the University of Southern California, with the participation of Cornell University as well, which are both known for their prolific research funding. Our work has absolutely nothing to do with any Arab or foreign party or country. If we did get funding from any country, we would be happy to announce that with all transparency. That is one of the conditions of publication. In any case, there is no Arab entity interested in funding such research, because everyone is absolutely certain that Egypt's decision makers do not take fateful decisions based on the results and recommendations of research or scientific studies, whether they come from within the country or abroad.
Unfortunately, some Arab countries are interested in funding influencers on social media and media professionals in order to change public opinion, but they do not care about funding research that is only read by anonymous researchers with little or no influence on society and pivotal decision making.
TE: What are the key results of the research?
EH: We calculated the water budget deficit in Egypt according to different scenarios after the filling of the reservoir behind the Renaissance Dam. We also calculated the consumption of water resources in Egypt — in agriculture, industry, tourism and all other sectors — depending on published, documented and accurate figures. And we calculated Egypt's water supply from the River Nile, groundwater, rain, water recycling and so on.
We concluded that the current deficit is equivalent to 20 billion cubic metres, which will be added to the average deficit that the Renaissance Dam will create. Then the total will be about 31 billion cubic metres on average. When this deficit is introduced to the agricultural irrigation sector, it will lead to cutting off approximately 72 per cent of the current area if the deficit is not compensated within the framework of the scenario of filling the reservoir rapidly over a period of three years.
This is the scenario that is happening now, as this water deficit will certainly lead to large losses in the agricultural area. We are moving daily towards this worst case scenario about which our research warns.
TE: Why didn't you mention in the research the possibility that Egypt could cope with this expected water deficit?
EH: Because it is necessary to calculate the magnitude of losses in view of the continuously increasing internal water deficit and the presence of the Renaissance Dam. As research has shown, this scenario can be avoided by taking advantage of the water behind the Aswan High Dam to compensate for the loss of this water. However, with the rapid filling scenario, Egypt will use most of its strategic water reserves to make up for this deficit, which means that if the country is exposed to drought after three years, the repercussions will be catastrophic in all respects because we will have lost our strategic stock by then.
It is also necessary to calculate the percentage of losses in this way in order to identify the economic impact of the water deficit issue, as many may not consider it a high priority if it does not have a clear economic impact. We also have to consider the pessimistic scenario of not being able to close this gap in case of political fluctuations or the inability to activate technical solutions, which means that a regrettable situation is probable.
If the growing water deficit is not addressed properly, Egypt could lose up to 72 per cent of its agricultural area, the unemployment rate could increase from 14 per cent to 25 per cent, and agricultural production could lose up to $51 billion in three years, and then the average income of the average citizen will decrease by 8 per cent. These are undoubtedly catastrophic outcomes which should not be ignored in any way. I hope that these results are incorrect, but there is a huge difference between wishful thinking and scientific reasoning.
TE: How did you feel about the attack against your research by some supporters of the Egyptian regime?
EH: My response to those who have chosen to accuse us of betrayal and lying, preferred to downplay the seriousness of the problem instead of conducting a full and careful reading, and engaging in dialogue and a fruitful exchange of experiences, is that I welcome any criticism for our research paper. I also accept the publication of any research paper that responds negatively to our results, and I will publish it on my social media accounts. The right of reply will be guaranteed by the journal in which the research has been published.
The scientific journal uses the Double Blind Review system, which leaves no room for bias, and all data used in the research is available on the final publication page for those who wish to look into it again.
The research focuses on the calculation of the deficit in Egypt's water budget due to different scenarios of filling the reservoir behind the Renaissance Dam and its economic effects in case the shortage is not addressed, in order to limit the magnitude of losses, present the effectiveness of the proposed project solutions, and specify that it does not include the study of other damages such as environmental damage, collapse, etc., which are outside the scope of the research.
As for the absence of an agreement, I believe that Egypt will face an unknown water future, even if it overcomes the Renaissance Dam crisis, as it will pay a heavy price in terms of its strategic water stock in Lake Nasser and its economic resources, which will make it more vulnerable to any other water and environmental crises, which are, unfortunately, on the way.
I believe that the intervention of international bodies such as the UN Security Council, the White House, the European Union and the African Union is necessary, as the military exercises held in Sudan are not intended to break the boredom, but are evidence that there is a real crisis in the blatant attack on the River Nile. Our role in the research is not to amplify or de-emphasise the crisis, but rather to try to determine its magnitude based on published data.
The research is a joint effort and the product of many discussions and work over 18 months, and any positive contribution that it provides is shared with my fellow researchers. I assume responsibility for any mistake that may occur.
TE: When will the Egyptians sense the predictions contained in your research and the upcoming water deficit in light of Ethiopia's second filling of the reservoir at the dam?
EH: Presumably, Egypt is supposed to have a water reserve to rely on during the period of filling the reservoir. I think that these quantities of water are difficult to sustain for more than three years if the reservoir is filled rapidly, which constitutes the worst case scenario, unless the three countries — Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia — can reach an agreement.
We have to monitor the water level in Lake Nasser behind the Aswan High Dam as an indicator of the overall water situation, and it is now difficult to predict how fragile the situation will be after consuming all the water reserves.
TE: What are the solutions you propose to overcome this potentially catastrophic crisis?
EH: I think we need to take advantage of the water reserve behind the Aswan High Dam and there should be partial use of groundwater, development of canals and irrigation methods, selection of agricultural crops that consume little water and prevention of crops that consume a lot of it. Egypt has already started putting such measures in place, but it has to be a popular awareness that water conservation is everybody's responsibility, not just the state's duty, by stopping wastage.
The crisis is not only about water, but is also primarily a food crisis because we may lose a large agricultural area, which is why we suggested that Egypt and Ethiopia should reach an agreement regarding the agricultural area that Egypt will not exploit during the filling period because of the water deficit, and Ethiopia would lease an equal agricultural area of its fertile lands to the Egyptians on a long-term contract with privileges in order for Egypt to compensate for the food shortages that may occur. This way, Ethiopia will benefit from developing its infrastructure of agricultural land, and Egypt will also profit by compensating for decreasing food production.
TE: What about the desalination option to which the Egyptian government has resorted?
EH: Seawater desalination plants will not bridge the water deficit estimated at 31 billion cubic metres per year, and it is difficult for this process to have a quick positive impact on this crisis.
TE: Some believe that the military option has become the last card in Egypt's hands to deal with the crisis of the dam. Do you agree?
EH: The problem cannot be addressed by provoking a larger and more dangerous crisis. I do not think that Egypt is at war with Ethiopia, but rather the two countries are in a joint war against hunger, thirst and poverty that threatens both populations. It is unfortunate that some people consider this option when faced with environmental issues and demand "blood for water".
This means that science is long overdue having a voice in this dispute. We are seeing the result of that today, when publishing a scientific paper leads to unreasonable responses.
TE: President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has blamed the January Revolution for the Renaissance Dam crisis. What do you say?
EH: I do not see that the January Revolution is the cause of this crisis or even other crises. If it is true that Ethiopia has taken advantage of the revolution from 2011 until the summer of 2013, why did it not take advantage of the biggest and most dangerous crises that have occurred since 3 July, 2013 [the date of the coup that brought Al-Sisi to power]? And why did the Egyptian regime not exploit the recent instability in Ethiopia, as it has supposedly exploited our turmoil? Nobody is attempting to ambush us, we are fighting ourselves. We need to stop justifying our mistakes and blaming others.
TE: Who is responsible for the expected water deficit in Egypt in your opinion?
EH: The large increase in the population of the River Nile Basin in general, and capitalists who are eager to make quick profits from harmful investments in the Nile. I do not exclude any of the Nile Basin countries; all of them attract foreign investments at the expense of the environmental balance of the river, which leads to dangerous environmental risks for the future. This is similar to the investments in the River Amazon Basin, after razing the tropical rain forest, until the government of Brazil and many other governments intervened to stop what was happening.
Investing in the generation of cheap energy at the expense of the River Nile environment is very risky. Major dams such as the Aswan High Dam and the Renaissance Dam have detrimental impacts on the Nile, and energy sources could have been generated by alternative means without resorting to these controversial projects.
The Aswan High Dam used to produce 100 per cent of Egypt's energy, but now it produces less than 10 per cent. Furthermore, it has caused the erosion of the delta and the beaches. The Renaissance Dam may lead to similar environmental damage, which must be studied. Hence, everyone will pay the price of tampering with the River Nile and paying little attention to scientific studies. All we call for is the studying of the effects of certain projects prior to their implementation.
TE: How do you interpret the support given by some countries for building the Renaissance Dam?
EH: Since it is a source of cheap energy and presents an opportunity for agricultural investments for many countries that do not have suitable agricultural areas or climate, the dam will be a real opportunity for them to achieve energy sufficiency and food security. Hence, they invest and support such projects in the headwaters of the Nile, regardless of any other considerations.
TE: How do you see the effects of major dams on the River Nile Basin in the future?
EH: These dams will have negative repercussions that need accurate scientific studies and research to determine. Unfortunately, I have to say that the water studies centres in the Nile Basin countries are among the poorest such institutions in the world, making it almost impossible for them to provide any solutions to the crises facing the region.
Put simply, we are now trying to solve a crisis the essence and dimensions of which in the short or long term we do not understand, and we are discussing decisions that may escalate to war over a problem that can be resolved by careful studies. Unfortunately, we in the Arab and African countries have a very bad history of managing conflicts over resources, which makes the Renaissance Dam crisis the tip of the iceberg due to the decades of neglect of the environmental and water sciences, and the lack of funding for specialised research centres.
TE: Will Egypt be able to overcome the Renaissance Dam crisis given the failure of diplomacy to do so?
EH: Getting out of the crisis requires understanding of its nature and then dealing with it scientifically and realistically away from arrogance and national slogans. This is what we hope will happen. We believe that publishing our research — or any other research — contributes to the efforts to solve a crisis that has no solution other than consensus based on scientific facts. Science is the only solution to confront the growing water deficit crisis in Egypt. I am convinced of that.