Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Out of Time: Egypt and Sudan will Fight for the Nile

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is located in the headwaters of the Blue Nile the major tributary to the Nile River. It is at the center of an escalating dispute between Egypt and Sudan on one side and Ethiopia on the other.  The hydroelectric dam will produce 6,400 megawatts of electricity once the 74 billion cubic meter reservoir is filled. The Renaissance Dam will be Africa's largest hydroelectric power plant enabling Ethiopia to export renewable power and boost the economy and influence of Ethiopia, but also allowing Ethiopia to control water flow to Egypt.

Ethiopia began filling the reservoir behind the dam in 2020. Egypt is rightly worried the dam will affect the overall flow of the Nile River and together with Sudan which is also located downriver brought the issue to the UN Security Council. The UN Security Council did not see itself as an appropriate forum for discussion of a water issue since the council is designed to focus on security matters. If Egypt had really been hoping to force negotiations, they were disappointed last Thursday. However, this was political theatre to show how Egypt offered good will and time and again involved multiple parties to mediate. The optics of the situation were a little blurred by Egypt and Sudan holding joint military maneuvers last May, but the show of power was also important. Egypt has vowed not to allow the dam to impede its water supply.

African Union-mediated negotiations failed to bring an agreement where Ethiopia believes the water resources that originate in their country are theirs and Egypt and Sudan were guaranteed the water rights by the British, a quirk of the colonial history of the region.   The 1920’s Anglo-Egyptian Treaty amongst other things granted Egypt an annual water allocation of 48 billion cubic meters and Sudan 4 billion cubic meters out of an estimated average annual yield of 84 billion cubic meters. The 1959 agreement increased water allocations to both Egypt and Sudan 75% and 25% of the Nile’s water respectively, with none allocated to the source nations.  

Some 280 million people in 11 countries in the basin depend on the Nile River which has been the primary source of irrigation for more than 5,000 years. Egypt and Sudan are dependent on the Nile water for 98.26% and 96.13% of their annual water need, respectively (FAO 2015).  Few nations rely so completely on a single river, and 80% of the water that flows into the Nile originates in Ethiopia. Water rights along the Nile have been disputed since the 1959 agreement which allocated all the remaining waters of the Nile; today, the conflict threatens to escalate to war. Egypt and Sudan feel their survival is threatened. Scientific studies done at the University of Southern California show the dire water situation that will result downstream from Ethiopia’s continued actions. This is forecasted to be the largest water dispute in human history.

Egypt is largely a desert; but is the most populous Arab state with a large segment of its population dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, not to mention the food security. Any reduction in water flow to Egypt would impact political and economic stability and cause a humanitarian crisis as Egypt is already experiencing extreme water stress with less than 600 cubic meters of water per capita per year. 

Cairo University has estimated Egypt would lose over half of its farmland if the reservoir is filled in three years, as Ethiopia is doing- they are just entering the second year. Once the fill is completed, the Nile flow would in theory return to normal, but control of the Nile flow would belong to Ethiopia. They claim that the impact from filling the reservoir will be far smaller. Egypt could suffer less damage if Ethiopia and Egypt work together adjusting the rate of filling the reservoir to ensure that Egypt's own reservoir, Lake Nasser, stays full enough to meet its needs during the fill. Nonetheless, this may be the biggest treat to Egypt’s existence in 5,000 years.

The Nile River moves through Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Each country views the Nile as at least partly their own. Egypt receives the lion's share of Nile waters: more than 55 billion of the around 88 billion cubic meters of water that flow down the river each year. Still, Egypt has one of the lowest per capita shares of water in the world, some 600 cubic meters a person. Egypt's population was 19 million in 1947 and has reportedly reached more than 96 million today without any increase in water availability.

In its 2013 report, titled “Water Resources and Means to Rationalize their Use,” Egypt revealed that each Egyptian's annual share of water declined from a water surplus of 2,526 cubic meters in 1947 to a sufficient level of 1,972 cubic meters in 1970 (when their population was around 35 million), and then water poverty (U.N.’s threshold of water poverty) at less than 600 cubic meters today. The flow of the Nile has not increased and it has been the limiting factor in the growth of Egyptian population and their economy.

Official forecasts are that Egypt will double its population in 50 years without more water this is impossible. There is simply not enough water and control of the existing supply may now belong to Ethiopia. In a 2015 Declaration of Principles agreement, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed to contract an independent study of the dam's impact and abide by it for filling the reservoir and operating the dam. However, the study was never completed.

Egypt and Sudan face not only the limitations on the flow of the Nile, but also the shifting of power now that Ethiopia will to a large extent control the flow of the Nile. The regional tensions are growing. Egypt and Sudan alliance may not be solid. Sudan’s could gain from a separate agreement with Ethiopia for electricity supply and flooding prevention during rainy seasons.

For Ethiopia, the $5 billion dam is the realization of a dream. Ethiopia's infrastructure was among the least developed in the world, leaving most of its 95 million people without access to electricity. The hydroelectric dam will have the capacity to generate over 6,400 Megawatts, a massive boost to the current production of 4,000 Megawatts. The electric power and water will shift the geopolitical forces of the region. Egypt may realize this is their one last chance as the locus of strength and power shifts with control of the water, no government can survive the loss of half their farmland.

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