From Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich [ETH Zürich] [Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich] (CH): “Water resources-defusing conflict and promoting cooperation”

From Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich [ETH Zürich] [Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich] (CH)

23.07.2021
Michael Keller

The EU funded project DAFNE has developed a methodology for avoiding conflicts of use in transboundary rivers. The model-​based procedure allows for participatory planning and cooperative management of water resources. The aim is now for the DAFNE methodology to be implemented in other regions of the world.

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The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River, taken on 25 November 2017. The dam provoked tensions between Ethiopia and its neighbours – echoing the situation following construction of Gibe III mega-​dam on the Omo River. (Image: Gioia Forster/Keystone.

Rivers are lifelines for many countries. They create valuable ecosystems; provide drinking water for people; and raw water for agriculture and industry. In the Global South in particular, there is strong competition for access to freshwater resources. The increasing use of hydropower has recently intensified this competition further.

Take Ethiopia, for example: when the country began filling the mega-​dam Gibe III on the Omo River in 2015, downstream users saw a drop in water volumes. Natural flooding declined, reducing the volume of fertile mud washed onto the floodplain. The level of Kenya’s Lake Turkana, into which the Omo flows, fell temporarily by two metres, resulting in significant consequences for people and agriculture.

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The Omo River in Ethiopia. The country has already built three hydropower schemes (Gibe I to III), fed by two dams on the Omo, with a third reservoir (Koysha) is already under construction. (Image: Tiziana_P/iStock.

Addressing the nexus

The network of interactions between water, energy, food and ecosystems – referred to by experts as the “water-​energy-food (WEF) nexus” – often leads to wide-​ranging disputes in the catchment areas of transboundary rivers. Large-​scale infrastructure construction projects such as dams and irrigation schemes have caused political tensions between neighbouring states at various points in the past.

An international research team led by ETH Zürich has now developed a strategic toolkit that can help to defuse such conflicts over water use, through an objective analysis of stakeholder’s interests. In the EU’s Horizon 2020 project DAFNE, 14 research partners from Europe and Africa worked together to find approaches to a more equitable management of water resources.

“We wanted to show how it is possible to sustainably manage the nexus between water, energy, food and ecosystems, even in large and transboundary river basins with a wide range of users,” says Paolo Burlando, Professor of Hydrology and Water Resources Management at ETH Zürich.

Integrating and balancing different interests

While it is now recognised that watershed planning should take a holistic approach that respects the needs of all stakeholders, multidimensional decision-​making problems with significant numbers of stakeholders make it difficult to negotiate generally accepted solutions.

“Conventional planning tools are usually overwhelmed with challenges such as these,” explains Burlando, who has led the DAFNE consortium for the past four years. This is why the project team developed a novel method to map and quantify trade-​offs in the WEF nexus.

The approach is based on the principles of the participatory and integrated planning and management of water resources, which focuses on the role and interests of stakeholders. The DAFNE methodology is designed to engage stakeholders and find compromises and synergies in a joint approach. “The key is to find solutions that benefit everyone, take the environment into account and also make economic sense,” explains Burlando.

Enabling dialogue through models

DAFNE uses state-​of-the-art modelling techniques and digital solutions to enable participatory planning. A strategic decision tool allows the social, economic and environmental consequences of interventions to be assessed in a quantitative approach, enabling users to identify viable development pathways. Stakeholder selected pathways are simulated in detail using a hydrological model driven by high-​resolution climate scenarios, in order to accurately analyse the impact on the respective water resources. Additional sub-​models can be used to model other aspects of the nexus. Finally, a visualisation tool helps to illustrate interrelationships and assess problems from various user perspectives.

“The models aim to facilitate continuous negotiation between stakeholders – which is a key element of the DAFNE approach,” says Senior Scientist Scott Sinclair, who co-​developed the modelling approach.

Case studies with local stakeholders

The DAFNE project focused on two large river basins in East, and Southern Africa – the Omo-​Turkana and Zambezi – where the researchers tested their methodology in two case studies. In both case studies, real stakeholders were involved in the development of the DAFNE approaches, working with them to test alternative operating modes for the power plants and irrigation schemes, to design more sustainable use scenarios for their catchment areas. They exchanged their different perspectives in simulated negotiations to illustrate the process.

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Mega-​dam on the Omo River: Gibe III (2016). (Image: Mimi Abebayehu/Wikimedia Commons)

In the Omo-​Turkana basin, the scientists also used their methodology in a retrospective analysis of the controversial two-​year filling phase of the Gibe III mega-​dam in Ethiopia. “We observed that the negative impact on downstream neighbours was exacerbated by a prolonged drought,” reports Burlando. The DAFNE consortium partner from Politecnico di Milano were able to show in a study published in Nature Communications together with Burlando and Sinclair, that such problems can be reduced by combining DAFNE tools with seasonal drought forecasts and flexibly adapting the filling regime to hydroclimatic conditions.

Dams on the advance worldwide

The results of the study are highly topical: Ethiopia is currently building another mega-​dam in the Omo-​Turkana catchment area, and filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. Worldwide, around 500 dam projects are being planned in regions affected by climate feedbacks through teleconnections. Growing populations and increasing prosperity will continue to boost demand for energy, food and water. The researchers hope that the DAFNE methodology will one day become a reference.

“We designed the modelling tools to be transferable to other regions with competing water needs,” says Burlando. Follow-​up projects are already under way to apply and further develop the technology in several river basins worldwide.


DAFNE Project: Official video.
Project partners and stakeholders report on their experiences with the DAFNE methodology from two case studies conducted on the Omo and Zambezi rivers under real-​life conditions. (Video: DAFNE project consortium.)

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ETH Zurich campus
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich [ETH Zürich] [Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich] (CH) is a public research university in the city of Zürich, Switzerland. Founded by the Swiss Federal Government in 1854 with the stated mission to educate engineers and scientists, the school focuses exclusively on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Like its sister institution Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne [EPFL-École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne](CH) , it is part of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology Domain (ETH Domain)) , part of the Swiss Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research [EAER][Eidgenössisches Departement für Wirtschaft, Bildung und Forschung] [Département fédéral de l’économie, de la formation et de la recherche] (CH).

The university is an attractive destination for international students thanks to low tuition fees of 809 CHF per semester, PhD and graduate salaries that are amongst the world’s highest, and a world-class reputation in academia and industry. There are currently 22,200 students from over 120 countries, of which 4,180 are pursuing doctoral degrees. In the 2021 edition of the QS World University Rankings ETH Zürich is ranked 6th in the world and 8th by the Times Higher Education World Rankings 2020. In the 2020 QS World University Rankings by subject it is ranked 4th in the world for engineering and technology (2nd in Europe) and 1st for earth & marine science.

As of November 2019, 21 Nobel laureates, 2 Fields Medalists, 2 Pritzker Prize winners, and 1 Turing Award winner have been affiliated with the Institute, including Albert Einstein. Other notable alumni include John von Neumann and Santiago Calatrava. It is a founding member of the IDEA League and the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU) and a member of the CESAER network.

ETH Zürich was founded on 7 February 1854 by the Swiss Confederation and began giving its first lectures on 16 October 1855 as a polytechnic institute (eidgenössische polytechnische Schule) at various sites throughout the city of Zurich. It was initially composed of six faculties: architecture, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, chemistry, forestry, and an integrated department for the fields of mathematics, natural sciences, literature, and social and political sciences.

It is locally still known as Polytechnikum, or simply as Poly, derived from the original name eidgenössische polytechnische Schule, which translates to “federal polytechnic school”.

ETH Zürich is a federal institute (i.e., under direct administration by the Swiss government), whereas the University of Zürich [Universität Zürich ] (CH) is a cantonal institution. The decision for a new federal university was heavily disputed at the time; the liberals pressed for a “federal university”, while the conservative forces wanted all universities to remain under cantonal control, worried that the liberals would gain more political power than they already had. In the beginning, both universities were co-located in the buildings of the University of Zürich.

From 1905 to 1908, under the presidency of Jérôme Franel, the course program of ETH Zürich was restructured to that of a real university and ETH Zürich was granted the right to award doctorates. In 1909 the first doctorates were awarded. In 1911, it was given its current name, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule. In 1924, another reorganization structured the university in 12 departments. However, it now has 16 departments.

ETH Zürich, EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne) [École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne](CH), and four associated research institutes form the Domain of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH Domain) [ETH-Bereich; Domaine des Écoles polytechniques fédérales] (CH) with the aim of collaborating on scientific projects.

Reputation and ranking

ETH Zürich is ranked among the top universities in the world. Typically, popular rankings place the institution as the best university in continental Europe and ETH Zürich is consistently ranked among the top 1-5 universities in Europe, and among the top 3-10 best universities of the world.

Historically, ETH Zürich has achieved its reputation particularly in the fields of chemistry, mathematics and physics. There are 32 Nobel laureates who are associated with ETH Zürich, the most recent of whom is Richard F. Heck, awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2010. Albert Einstein is perhaps its most famous alumnus.

In 2018, the QS World University Rankings placed ETH Zürich at 7th overall in the world. In 2015, ETH Zürich was ranked 5th in the world in Engineering, Science and Technology, just behind the Massachusetts Institute of Technology(US), Stanford University(US) and University of Cambridge(UK). In 2015, ETH Zürich also ranked 6th in the world in Natural Sciences, and in 2016 ranked 1st in the world for Earth & Marine Sciences for the second consecutive year.

In 2016, Times Higher Education WorldUniversity Rankings ranked ETH Zürich 9th overall in the world and 8th in the world in the field of Engineering & Technology, just behind the Massachusetts Institute of Technology(US), Stanford University(US), California Institute of Technology(US), Princeton University(US), University of Cambridge(UK), Imperial College London(UK) and University of Oxford(UK).

In a comparison of Swiss universities by swissUP Ranking and in rankings published by CHE comparing the universities of German-speaking countries, ETH Zürich traditionally is ranked first in natural sciences, computer science and engineering sciences.

In the survey CHE ExcellenceRanking on the quality of Western European graduate school programs in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics, ETH Zürich was assessed as one of the three institutions to have excellent programs in all the considered fields, the other two being Imperial College London(UK) and the University of Cambridge(UK), respectively.