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Sudanese Hydrologist Calls for Tackling Root Causes of Nile Water Crisis

The only way to deal with future variances in the Nile’s water is to build huge storage tanks and release water only when needed, says the Sudanese hydrologist Elfatih Eltahir.

Eltahir, who is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also believes that the best way to avoid conflict over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is to tackle the root causes of the water crisis “by finding ways to limit population growth and nourish soil fertility across the Nile basin, rather than focusing on how to fill the dam’s reservoir.”

Egypt will host the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) this November, and water issues, including concerns about the Ethiopian dam as a potential contributor to water deficits in Egypt and Sudan, are expected to be part of the discussions.

“Building the Renaissance Dam, and the subsequent conflict over Nile waters, are linked to a fundamental and larger problem of population mismanagement and a fragile agricultural infrastructure in Nile countries.”

Elfatih Eltahir Professor of Hydrology and Climate in MIT’s Center for Global Change Science

In a recent interview with Al-Fanar Media, Eltahir asserted that “building the Renaissance Dam, and the subsequent conflict over Nile waters, are linked to a fundamental and larger problem of population mismanagement and fragile agricultural infrastructure in Nile countries.”

Confronting any water shortages downstream after the completion and filling of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, he said, will require “a commitment by three countries (Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt) to invest in new agricultural technologies, such as selecting better seeds, increasing the use of fertilisers, and employing water-use technology efficiently to irrigate agricultural lands, like drip irrigation.”

He expects climate change to dramatically increase the variance in the annual output of the Nile’s water, so the huge storage tanks would be needed.

Studies of Water Scarcity

Eltahir and Catherine A. Nikiel, a member of his research group at MIT, co-wrote a study published in Nature Communications in 2021 called “Past and Future Trends of Egypt’s Water Consumption and Its Sources”. In this study, they argued that “future population and economic growth will increase water demand dramatically and require Egypt to rely more heavily on virtual water imports”.

Eltahir’s academic journey began at the University of Khartoum, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1985. He went on to earn a master’s in hydrology from the National University of Ireland in 1988 and a doctorate in hydroclimatology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1993.

In his current position as a professor of hydrology and climate in the Center for Global Change Science at MIT, he focuses on understanding how regional land use and global climate change may impact society through changes in the patterns of water availability and extreme weather.

Extreme heat may make parts of the Gulf region uninhabitable, says Eltahir. Rich countries may be able to adapt, but poor ones, like Yemen, will be less able to deal with the danger.

Eltahir told Al-Fanar Media that he decided to specialise in climate studies  relating to water scarcity “because access to water is closely related to the nature of the prevailing climate in each country.”

He believes that there is not enough public interest in climate and water issues in the Arab region and Africa, which he attributes to low incomes and declining levels of education.

He said people must be educated about the use of certain types of cars, electricity sources, and types of farming to mitigate the effects of climate change. He also advocates homes being designed to limit the impact of climate change.

Extreme Heat in Gulf Region

Eltahir’s research has focused on developing methods for predicting local effects of climate change.

A study he conducted with Jeremy Pal, of Loyola Marymount University, published in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2015, found that parts of the Arabian Gulf region may be exposed to deadly heat because of climate change.

The Gulf states’ “climate makes it a regional hotspot, which may affect future human habitability in some areas of these countries,” he said. Many Gulf countries are rich and “may be able to adapt to extreme weather,” he added. But poor countries, such as Yemen, will be less able to deal with the danger over the next three decades.

Eltahir also collaborated on a study that used climate models to predict future heat stress during Hajj seasons, especially when Hajj occurs during summer.

Eltahir and his co-authors projected that climate change will elevate heat stress in Mecca and surrounding areas to levels above the “extreme danger threshold” during the years between 2047 to 2052 and 2079 to 2086.

Eltahir sees his research as “part of an effort to help African societies adapt to their difficult conditions, especially with regard to poor water resources and rising temperatures.”

Their study, which was published in 2019 in Geophysical Research Letters, the journal of the American Geophysical Union, called for a strategy to reduce the number of pilgrims during high-risk years and limit the pilgrimage to only people in good health.

In other research, he has studied climate patterns in Morocco, where he considers the potential future lack of rain  to be one of the “biggest obstacles” to economic planning and development in the kingdom.

Precipitation variability “will affect the planning of water resources and the sustainability of agriculture,” said Eltahir, who is also director of an institute affiliated with Morocco’s Mohammed VI Polytechnic University that studies sustainable development in Africa.

Vector-Borne Diseases and Climate Change

Eltahir has also spent much of his career studying vector-borne diseases and their relationship to climate change. He has published dozens of papers on this subject and has monitored “the increased risk of malaria transmission with the rise in temperature in African countries.” Preventive measures will be needed to counteract this problem, he says.

During his career Eltahir has received numerous honours, including a U.S.  Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering in 1997. He was awarded the Kuwait Prize for Applied Sciences in 1999 for his contributions to climate change research.

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He was elected a fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 2008 and received its Hydrologic Sciences Award in 2017.

He is currently studying the measures Bangladesh and East Africa should take to adapt to climate change.

He told Al-Fanar his research was just “part of an effort to help African societies adapt to their difficult conditions, especially with regard to poor water resources and rising temperatures.”

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