Observations of an ex pat: Disappearing water

Water, water… Where? Certainly not everywhere. Not anymore. The essential ingredient to life is becoming a disappearing and fought over commodity.

Nowhere is this more obvious at the moment  than in relations between Egypt and Ethiopia over rights to the historic Nile.

Since the dawn of civilisation, the waters of the Blue and White Nile have joined at Khartoum to form the Nile River—the only source of fresh water along its 1,600-mile journey through the desert  to the Mediterranean.

Egyptian civilisation grew out of the Nile more than 3,000 years ago. It is the reason that Egypt can continue to support its fast growing population of 100 million. But only just.  The UN predicts that the combined pressures of a growing population, rising sea levels and industrial pollution will result in severe water shortages by 2025.

And that is without the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which is due to open later this year.  GERD–as it is known in Ethiopia– will span the Blue Nile near the border with Sudan. It will cost $5 billion, every penny paid by the Ethiopian government. The dam will power a hydroelectricity plant expected to treble the country’s electricity output. Ethiopia will be transformed from a country supplying electricity to only 25 percent of its 75 million citizens into the powerhouse of East Africa.

But what about Egypt? The Ethiopians claim that the dam will have zero impact on water levels flowing through Egypt. But According to the Geological Society of America,  the dam will reduce by at least 25 percent the flow of water through the land of the Pharaohs . Eighty-five percent of the Nile waters originate in Ethiopia.

The Egyptians have, unsurprisingly, complained loudly and at great length. In 2013 former President Mohamed Morsi threatened war.

From the Ethiopian, point of view, GERD has become more than a giant economic benefit. It is now an issue of intense national pride, similar to that felt by the Egyptian public over the Aswan High Dam in the 1950s and 1960s.

As the date of completion draws closer, tensions are rising faster than water levels are sinking. In January Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian foreign ministers met in Addis Ababa to try to reach a compromise. Total failure.

Part of the problem is the prevaricating position of Sudan. It has a 1959 agreement to share Nile Waters with Egypt to which Ethiopia is not a party.  At the same time it will benefit from the electricity power generated by GERD. And finally, it is in dispute with Egypt over the ownership of  the 8,000 square mile Hala-ib Triangle bordering the Red Sea. Sudan, therefore, has a foot in both camps.

The dispute is further complicated by political instability in all three countries.  Sudan has its long-running problems. Egypt is a dictatorship on the verge of enduring another joke election. Ethiopia is trying to balance the demands of half a dozen competing—and at times warring—ethnic groups.  A conflict over the rights to the Nile could be just the cause any of them need to unite the populace behind an otherwise unpopular government.

Water is also causing difficulties elsewhere in the world. China has built seven hydroelectricity dams along the upper reaches of the Mekong River with plans for 21 more. This is lowering water levels in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam which rely on the Mekong waters for a fisheries industry worth $7 billion a year as well as irrigation for the region’s rice paddies.

China is potentially the world’s biggest threat to water supplies. It controls the headwaters of Indus, Ganges, Irawaddy, Salween and Mekong Rivers. A billion people are provided with fresh water from those rivers and China’s rapid industrialisation and pressures to move from coal-powered to water-powered electricity generation is a danger to all of them.

Other areas threatened with water wars are the steppes of Central Asia, the fertile valley of the Tigris and Euphrates River and the Jordan River Valley. Populations are growing. Industrialisation is growing. Food production is growing. Water is evaporating.


* Tom Arms is a Wandsworth Lib Dem and produces and presents the podcast www.lookaheadnews.com

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  • Good article, Tom, on an increasingly important issue.

    The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) is a partnership among the Nile Riparian states that “seeks to develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits, and promote regional peace and security”. It was formally launched in 1999 by the 9 countries that share the river – Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo with Eritrea as an observer.

    During the colonial period, Britain effectively controlled the Nile through its military presence in Africa. Since Sudanese independence, Sudan has renegotiated with Egypt over the use of the Nile waters. The 1959 agreement between Sudan and Egypt allocated the entire average annual flow of the Nile to be shared among the Sudan and Egypt, but ignored the rights to water of the remaining eight Nile countries. Ethiopia contributes 80% of the total Nile flow, but by the 1959 agreement is entitled to none of its resources.
    However, Ethiopia quite reasonably takes the position that the agreement between Egypt and Sudan is not binding on Ethiopia as it was never a party to it..
    Since the early 1990s, Ethiopia has successfully countered Egyptian and Sudanese resistance to water development projects in Ethiopia to increase irrigation and hydroelectric potential.
    Since 2010, Ethiopia and the other upper riparian states have launched the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement in a bid to ensure an equitable utilization between all the riparian states of the Nile.

    Egypt continues to be the primary user of Nile water. Political instability and poverty in the other nine riparian countries has limited their ability to move toward socioeconomic development of the Nile.
    The greatest question facing the Nile riparian states is: Will the Nile Basin Initiative help them overcome the unjust and unequal distribution of Nile water resources or, as you fear, are we heading for conflict over vital natural resources in an area where it appears homo sapiens first started the migration out of Africa to the rest of the world?

  • I watched this feature on the subject last Sunday.

    It was hard to pin down the reality of what will actually happen when the hydroelectric scheme is up and running, as perceptions of the project were very much rooted in the politics. So we had the Ethiopians convinced it wouldn’t be a problem, and the Egyptians complaining about it, but interestingly the Sudanese appearing to be in favour. I don’t know nearly enough about this specific project to form a firm view, but I do think it’s fair to say that in theory, a hydroelectric scheme should not be taking any water from the Nile that isn’t returned, so it’s more a question of how altering the flow will impact those downstream. There was a case given for the benefits of regulating the flow, but of course theory and practice are often very different things and the dam in question is spectacularly huge, and it’s hard to imagine that the economic and electricity demands were not given more attention than the hydrology.

    The optimist in me hopes that Ethiopia’s decision to pursue ‘clean’ electricity generation has to be good for the economic and political stability of the region, and access to electricity will be of huge benefit to the quality of life of millions in a country that could do with a break. The Sudanese representatives in the feature seemed to be appreciative of that point of view, when I got the impression that the reporter was hoping for a bit more drama. The Egyptians, however, seemed to be more concerned with the theoretical impact on their major agriculture, which is of course both their right and responsibility, but the cynic in me felt it came across a bit like political posturing (perhaps from all sides) rather than a genuine discussion of the impact on the water environment.

    I did wonder whether Ethiopia might benefit more from micro-generation, but with an overall power base so low, it is understandable that the government would be keen on a major project to make a substantial contribution to their energy needs, to tie-in with the necessary investment in grid infrastructure, and to make a bold statement to the voting public. I hope it works out.

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