28 February 2005

Coming up with better ways to harness the flow of the Nile River has earned a University of Queensland student a national award.

Ethiopian student, Kefyalew Mekonnen, who studied in the School of Natural and Rural Systems Management and graduated in economics, has won the 2004 prize for PhD research from the Australian Agricultural and Resources Economics Society (AARES).

His thesis was titled The economics of developing water resource projects in the Ethiopian Nile River Basin, their socio-economic, political, environmental and transboundary implications.

It investigates the economics of building small water storages in the upper Nile basin – the world’s longest river which flows from Ethiopia through Sudan, Egypt – and has special meaning for Dr Mekonnen.

He was born in the Nile basin and spent nine years working in the basin mostly on engineering and environmental projects.

Dr Mekonnen said drip irrigation could save up to 48 percent of the water potentially used to irrigate small areas of cereal, vegetable, and traditional crops on a typical Ethiopian farm and improve farm productivity, earnings, and family livelihoods.

A fairer distribution and use of water in the Nile River basin could lessen the risk of regional conflict over water resources.

The majority of the Nile originates in Ethiopia but more than 97 percent of its annual flow of 84 million megalitres, is used by downstream countries such as Sudan and Egypt.

“Water resources of the Nile River basin are not only scarce but also shared among several countries and have the potential to become a major source of conflict,” Dr Mekonnen wrote.

“Egypt is even demanding additional water and there is no unallocated Nile water available to Ethiopia.”

In his thesis, Dr Mekonnen detailed the likely costs of building dams, weirs and irrigation, calculated water consumption per crop and analysed new ways of water harvesting, storage, and delivery to fields.

He said new technology, innovative uses of water, distribution and production systems, funding, research and water trading systems could make better use of Nile water but education and awareness were also important.

His supervisor, Senior Lecturer in Agricultural Economics Dr Malcolm Wegener, said Dr Mekonnen’s work should give confidence to the 10 basin countries and their plans to build several hundred water resource projects at a cost of billions of dollars.

Dr Mekonnen’s thesis rated high with AARES judges.

“His is the most ambitious, encompassing and far-reaching work,” one of the AARES reviewers wrote.

“The student has rolled up his sleeves and done all the hard work that few economists like doing: he’s gathered a lot of data at different scales in what I know to be difficult conditions.”

The same reviewer said Dr Mekonnen’s plan could be a world-first for transboundary river management in developing countries.

Dr Mekonnen was presented with his award certificate at the AARES conference in Coffs Harbour on February 9.

The 36-year-old, who now lives in Wynnum West, works for the engineering and infrastructure business, The BMD Group, as a management systems engineer.

He ensures the company complies with state and federal acts and international standards and writes environmental and strategic planning manuals.

Media: UQ Communications, communications@uq.edu.au