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For Ethiopia-born professor, the Nile is at the heart of his work and life

For Ethiopia-born professor, the Nile is at the heart of his work and life

August 26, 2020 at 10:44am

Born in Ethiopia, Assefa Melesse’s life began near the River of Life. The Nile.

One of the oldest rivers in the world, the Nile flows northward, traveling nearly 4,000 miles through 11 countries — a major artery supporting and sustaining 300 million people. History, civilizations, culture, beliefs, spirituality, nourishment — all have risen from the Nile. A professor of water resources engineering in the FIU Institute of EnvironmentMelesse knows the world’s climate crisis means the promise of water from the River of Life is no longer promised.

Melesse recently organized the 2020 International Conference on the Nile and Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to address concerns surrounding the ongoing negotiations over the filling and operation of the dam. Researchers and experts from six continents and dozens of countries shared experiences on historical and current Nile water issues. Melesse wanted the conference to highlight the importance of research, because future decisions and solutions surrounding the dam will require scientific data.

“This isn’t only going to be a Nile issue,” Melesse said. “With climate change and population pressure, it’s going to be a problem in other parts of the world. How can we share limited water resources to meet the growing demand and a declining freshwater supply? These discussions are important, but they must be based on proven science.”

Melesse left Ethiopia years ago. But he’s never truly left the Nile behind. For 20 years, he’s studied water — both the surface water we can see, like rivers, and the groundwater beneath our feet. He specializes in hydrological modeling, which allows him to look toward the future to find ways to safeguard precious water resources.

Different models can test different scenarios, revealing how a variety of factors — ranging from deforestation to drought and climate change — could potentially impact freshwater resources. These projections give a glimpse into how current trends, like rising temperatures, could have serious longterm consequences. Both a warning and a guide, the outcomes of the models aim to inform better water management strategies.

Melesse’s research has received funding from NASA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation, and has taken him all around the world — from Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico to Kenya, Tanzania and India. It’s also taken him home.

In 2006, he returned to Ethiopia to study the understudied upper Nile. One of the main tributaries of the Nile, contributing more than 80 percent of the river’s water, is the Blue Nile. Beginning at Lake Tana in Ethiopia, the Blue Nile flows into Sudan and Egypt — two countries that have historically relied the most on the water. To better understand how the Blue Nile functions, Melesse gathered critically important data on the hydrology of the upper river basin, and then presented to government officials from other basin countries.

Melesse also proposed and developed graduate programs focused on water issues at several Ethiopian institutions. Twice a year Melesse travels to Ethiopia to teach courses, provide targeted professional training, advise students and also conduct research. He’s currently working with nine Ph.D. students at four different Ethiopian institutions, in addition to his students at FIU. Some of his students presented their research at the conference earlier this month.

The Nile has had a consistent presence in Melesse’s life and his life’s work. In many ways, though, the question of how to share the water of the Nile between millions of people is one part of a bigger, more complicated global issue — one he’s not yet done exploring.