Ethiopia is building a dam that threatens Egypt’s access to water – a country that is expected to hit “absolute water scarcity” by 2030.

Map of the Nile River from source(s) to the sea

The famous Nile River is a source of intense disagreement between Ethiopia and Egypt after the former began work on a huge dam that will end up restricting the amount of water flowing into Egypt. Almost all of Egypt is desert, and its 97 million people rely heavily on the Nile for water. Will these countries come to an understanding that is beneficial to all?

The Nile River has been synonymous with Egypt since ancient times, but this pairing may come to an end because of Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which lies on the Blue Nile.

The Blue Nile is one of the two sources of the River Nile, which originates from Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, and which also supplies much of Egypt’s water. The other source is the White Nile, which originates from Lake Victoria, a lake shared by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The two rivers then merge in Sudan and flow into the Mediterranean Sea.

Work on the $5 billion Ethiopian dam began in 2011 and currently stands at 60 percent completion. Once complete, the dam will be the largest of its kind in Africa with a capacity of generating at least 6000MW of electricity. It will also effectively take control of the Blue Nile’s water from Egypt and place it firmly in Ethiopia’s hand.

Water Scarcity in Egypt

Egypt has not taken the construction lightly and has openly expressed resistance to Ethiopia’s plan. This is because the Nile is a lifeline for the Egyptians, for whom water scarcity is a serious problem. The vast majority of Egyptians live along the Nile since the rest of the country is largely a sandy desert.

In 2016 the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that Egypt had only 637 cubic meters of water per capita compared to 9,538 cubic meters in the United States. The organization says Egypt will slide into “absolute water scarcity” by 2030 when the country’s population is projected to have hit 120 million.

This water scarcity does not factor in the construction of the dam.

The River Nile in Egypt

The Nile River in Egypt (Image via Flickr, Michael Gwyther-Jones)

Ownership of the Nile

Egypt’s grip on the Nile is not only historical, but also legal, due to treaties such as the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1929 with Great Britain, and the Bilateral Agreement of 1959 with Sudan, which gave the country the lion’s share of the Nile’s waters. Also, collectively known as the Nile Water Agreements, these treaties allocated at least 55.5 billion cubic meters of water to Egypt per year while Sudan was allocated 18.5 billion cubic meters.

The treaties also gave Egypt veto power to control any projects on the entire length of the Nile. Notably, none of the treaties involved the other countries in the Nile River Basin.

While Egypt relies on these treaties to exercise control, the other Nile Basin countries, including Ethiopia, argue they are not bound to the treaties’ stipulations since they were not parties to the treaties to begin with. Egypt cannot therefore control what happens on the Nile upstream.

In 1999 all Nile River Basin countries began negotiations, which they expected to lead to an agreement on fairer sharing of the water. Egypt would not let go of its veto power, thus stalling the negotiations. These talks rolled on for more than a decade with no progress, until Ethiopia finally began its ambitious plan in 2011.

Battle for the Nile: Egypt Being Pushed Over?

In 2013 former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi sent a warning to Ethiopia on live TV: “[We are not] calling for war, but Egypt’s water security cannot be violated at all. The lives of the Egyptians are connected around it…as one great people. If it diminishes by one drop, then our blood is the alternative.”

This address came as other Egyptian politicians called for military action on the dam.

When this confrontation didn’t work and with the dam works still in progress, Egypt, in a change of attitude, warmed up to diplomatic approaches, and in 2015 the presidents of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met in Khartoum for fresh negotiations. The talks discussed how the dam would be filled without affecting downstream flow, but these negotiations have not yet borne a solution to date.

As reported by CNN, John Mbaku, a professor of economics at Weber State University in Utah and co-author of “Governing the Nile River Basin,” says the fact that the Ethiopians got away with constructing the dam up to 60 percent completion has “boosted their morale,” and “has shown them that the Egyptians are not as powerful as everyone thought.”

It will take at least three years for the dam to be filled, and once full, the three countries must come to an agreement and forge the way forward in order to avoid a war. Mbaku says Egypt is “not as domineering as it used to be,” and that the Ethiopians are “now in a very strong position to dictate terms.”

If no agreement is reached, then the Egyptians will suffer water scarcity much sooner than anyone had planned for.

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