The waters of discord: the Nile, Egypt and Ethiopia

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is now a reality
Aerial view of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River in Guba, northwest Ethiopia, July 20, 2020

AFP PHOTO/ADWA PICTURES  -   Aerial view of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River in Guba, northwest Ethiopia, July 20, 2020

Following the start of its filling last July and the continuation of the attempts at dialogue between countries, Ethiopia does not appear to wish to relinquish the benefits it will derive from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and Egypt will have to share the almost exclusive use it made of the waters of the Nile. 

In 2011 the tensions which now run downstream on the waters of the Nile began. That year Ethiopia decided to begin construction of the Grand Dam which would become the largest on the continent. With a capacity of 63 million cubic metres of water and a total of 16 turbines, it would be capable of generating 6,450 megawatts of electricity - about 15,000 GWH per year. This would be a significant increase of four times the current energy production of the country. 

The tension lies in obtaining the water from the dam. It comes from a tributary of the Nile River: the Blue Nile, responsible for 80% of the flow of the historic African river - in the dry season it contributes 20%. Thus, downstream, the news reached the ears of Sudan - where the Blue Nile and the White Nile meet to form the Nile River - and Egypt. The latter draws almost 90 per cent of its water resources from the Nile. Added to this is the negligible amount of annual rainfall it receives from its desert lands.

Since then, tensions have arisen between the three countries, and have continued nine years later. Ethiopia has not ceased its efforts to build the dam; Egypt, for its part, remains firm in its opposition to it and Sudan appears to have moved away from a position more in tune with Egypt to that of Ethiopia.  

An initial agreement of principle was reached in 2015 to establish cooperation between the countries and see none of their interests dashed. However, the talks have been complex and unstable. Many points remain to be solved, such as the amount of filling that can be allowed depending on the season, dry or rainy, or the question of governance and conflict resolution mechanisms, as Beatriz de León Cobo explains in Atalayar.

Imagen de satélite que muestra una vista de la Gran Presa del Renacimiento Etíope (GERD) y del Río Nilo Azul en Etiopía el 26 de junio de 2020
PHOTO/ Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies via REUTERS - Satellite image showing a view of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia on 26 June 2020
The richness of the Blue Nile

Lake Tana in Ethiopia is the birthplace of the Blue Nile. A strong flow that the East African country has now decided to take advantage of given certain pressures arising from climate change, demography and energy production, among others.  

Thus, climate change lurks in relation to a possible scarcity of water resources; furthermore, according to World Health Organisation estimates, by 2050 half the world's population will be suffering from water stress. However, this is a problem that will be further exacerbated, above all, in the countries of the Middle East, as well as in Libya and Egypt.

Meanwhile, the population near the Nile basin is estimated to reach one billion by 2050. According to the United Nations report on population prospects for 2019, more than half of the expected growth in the world's population between 2019 and 2050 will take place in Africa, with Ethiopia and Egypt among the nine countries that will increase their population most in that period. This puts pressure on Ethiopia to develop a policy to accommodate such a large population, in a country where currently more than 60 million people have no access to electricity, a large 56% of the population. Ethiopia's main import is nothing but electricity and yet it is not enough to reach the entire population. 

The increase in energy production brought about by the Grand Renaissance Dam not only aims to solve the country's energy deficit, but also to raise its profile as a nation that exports to neighbouring countries. It would also have the capacity to increase the industrial production of the country which currently employs only a little more than 7% of workers.

Mapa de África oriental que muestra el Nilo y la Gran Presa del Renacimiento Etíope
AFP/AFP - Map of East Africa showing the Nile and the Great Dam of the Ethiopian Renaissance
Egypt, son of the Nile

This series of benefits that the dam would bring to Ethiopia contrasts with Egyptian concerns about the use of the Nile water.  

The country is part of the great desert that stretches across North Africa. Low rainfall in most parts of the country has not prevented them from accessing water from the Nile. Fertile riverbanks run along the bank of the river which runs through the country from south to north and ends in a delta on the Mediterranean. 

As we mentioned earlier, Egypt is one of the countries that will suffer - at present it is already suffering - from severe water stress given its geographical location and the increasing effects of climate change. Thus, an increase in droughts or high temperatures favouring rapid water evaporation could have serious consequences on the stability of the country.  

These include the reduction of the flow of its main water source, the Nile. This could lead to the salinization of the fertile lands of the delta as seawater enters the basin. And in turn, destroying them along with a large number of jobs - 25% of the workers are in agriculture. All this becomes even more relevant when the food deficit in Egypt is revealed, making it the world's main wheat importer.

Thus, a possible reduction in the flow of the Nile due to the Grand Renaissance Dam could increase the water problems intrinsic to the Egyptian geography. 

Finally, and third in the discussion, Sudan is a country that has changed its initial position and already seems to be in favour of the benefits that the The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam may bring. It is on Sudanese soil that the Blue Nile and the White Nile, the latter coming from the Great Lakes region such as Lake Victoria, converge. 

Egipto considera que la presa hidroeléctrica es una amenaza existencial que podría reducir gravemente su suministro de agua. Pero Etiopía insiste en que la cuota de agua de Egipto no se verá afectada
AFP/KHALED DESOUKI - Egypt sees the hydroelectric dam as an existential threat that could seriously reduce its water supply. But Ethiopia insists that Egypt's water quota will not be affected

The reasons for Sudan's current support are mainly based on controlling the flow of the river so as to avoid periodic flooding of its territory. This will make it possible to increase the productivity of cultivated land.  

On the other hand, electricity is also the country's most important import, as is Ethiopia. Having such a large power plant close to its territory can be beneficial. 

Sede del Ministerio de Recursos Hídricos e Irrigación en El Cairo
PHOTO/REUTERS - Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation headquarters in Cairo

In short, the waters of the Nile are a strategic resource for the riverine nations. However, there appears to be no turning back from the implementation of the Ethiopian dam and, as the political scientist Lluis Torres Amurgo states in an article by the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (IEEE), in nations that have reached a certain level of equality, this entails "the need for a cooperative model", for a joint management of the resources of the Nile.