Nothing illustrates the extent of Egypt’s dependence on the Nile as much as an aerial view of the country. Amid vast deserts, the river and its cultivated banks appears a narrow green ribbon snaking its way to the north where it widens into a delta before reaching the sea. This is where the vast majority of Egypt’s 94m people live. The rest of the country is uninhabitable sand.
Now Cairo fears that an Ethiopian plan to build a huge hydropower dam on the Blue Nile, the source of most of the water reaching Egypt, will reduce its access to water. In recent weeks, tensions have risen between Cairo and Addis Ababa.
As the rhetoric escalated, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s president, said the Nile was “a matter of life and death” for his country and that “no one can touch Egypt’s share of the water”. Ethiopia retorted that the dam was a matter of life and death for it, too. Khartoum suggested Cairo was angry because the dam would enable Sudan to utilise more water from its own agreed allocation instead of allowing it to flow downstream to Egypt.
In November, talks between the three countries on how best to manage the impact of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam — a $4.8bn hydropower project that will be the largest in Africa and a linchpin of Ethiopia’s plans for economic development — broke down. Ethiopian officials have declined to comment. But Egyptian officials say the three countries failed to agree on the terms of reference of a study commissioned by French consultants on the effect on downstream countries.
On Tuesday, Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister, flew to Addis Ababa for talks. He underlined Egypt’s concerns about water security and said the issue was too sensitive for his country to rely solely “on promises and assertions of good intentions”. He proposed the inclusion of the World Bank as a “neutral party” in the negotiations.
At the heart of the dispute lies Egypt’s fear that, once the dam is built, the country will receive less than the annual 55.5bn cubic metres of water it says is the minimum it needs, especially during the initial phase when the reservoir is being filled.
“The 55.5 bcm we currently use are not enough,” said Khaled Abu Zeid, secretary-general of the Egyptian Water Partnership, a non-governmental group. “Egypt already recycles water several times and uses treated and untreated drainage water and it also desalinates seawater.” Most of Egypt’s current usage of 55.5 bcm comes from the Blue Nile on which the dam is being built.
Ethiopia is adamant that the dam will not adversely affect downstream countries once the 74 bcm reservoir has been filled. But it has refused to officially recognise what Cairo considers its right to 55.5bn cubic metres of water every year. This volume is specified under a 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan to which Ethiopia was not a signatory. Addis Ababa has long argued that its two northern neighbours divided up the entire flow of the river taking no account of its needs. Analysts say Ethiopia’s current stance is partly fuelled by this decades-old resentment.
Long an Egyptian ally, Sudan has now sided with Ethiopia against a background of strained relations with Egypt over a disputed strip of border territory. But experts also point out the new dam will end the seasonal fluctuations of the river and allow Sudan to expand its agriculture.
“Sudan stands to benefit a great deal,” said Salman Salman, editor of the International Water Law Journal. “There have been lots of floods this year, but those will stop after the water flow has been regulated. Instead of having one crop rotation, there will be two or three.”
Work on the dam is already advanced — it is 62 per cent built, says Ethiopia. The Ethiopians are due to start testing the first two turbines next year, with construction in theory set to be completed by the end of 2018.
But the three riparians have yet to overcome their mistrust of each other and agree mechanisms to contain the impact on downstream countries both during the filling period and once the dam comes into operation.
Egypt’s immediate concern is how long Ethiopia will take to fill the reservoir. “If they try to fill it as fast as possible, they could fill it in three years under average hydrologic conditions,” said Kevin Wheeler, of Water Balance Consulting. “But I don’t think they would do that. I think if Egypt is willing to show some level of compromise, Ethiopia would be willing to show some level of compromise.”
He warns that the countries need to start co-operating soon, because setting up systems to share information and develop protocols will take time. In an ideal situation, the operation of dams and reservoirs on the Nile would be co-ordinated between the three states, for example to ensure the water in Egypt’s Aswan High Dam lake was at the level needed to operate the turbines for electricity generation.
“If they don’t reach an agreement until the very last minute, it may be poorly structured and difficult to implement,” said Mr Wheeler.
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