“Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”, this line from the famous poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge could metaphorically define the conflict surrounding the Nile especially while preluding to the future of the countries of the Nile basin who are now threatened by lack of constant water supply. The Nile has held importance since the brewing of the civilisation, as nations since ancient times have been dependent on the river for drinking water, food, trade, and transportation. Till date the importance of Nile, also called the father of African rivers, has not subsided and nations dependent on the river are worried over the brewing politics around the Nile.
On July 5, as the summer rains began to swell the Blue Nile, Ethiopia resumed filling the vast dam reservoir of its controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), after notifying Egypt.
The Nile River flows from south to north through eastern Africa. Beginning in the rivers that flow into Lake Victoria in Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya, the White Nile joins Blue Nile emanating from Ethiopia. Nile traverses 6,600-plus kilometres through eleven countries in Africa, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda before emptying into the Mediterranean as one of the longest rivers in the world.
Ethiopia filling the GERD reservoir is bad news for all 11 nations dependent on the Nile basin, more specifically Egypt and Sudan. There is simply not enough water to meet their rapidly growing needs. At the request of Egypt and Sudan, the UN Security Council debated the crisis and urged Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt to avoid unilateral action. In the battle for the Nile, reservoir filling is just the start of Egypt’s woes.
In 1999, riparian nations set up the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) to collaborate and manage fair access to the Nile waters in an “equitable way to ensure prosperity, security and peace for all its peoples.” The NBI devised a 10-year strategy in 2017 to ensure “cooperation and joint action between the riparian countries, seeking win-win gains.” Ethiopia’s unilateral action has undermined the NBI.
Egypt remained the master of the Nile for centuries but now has no exclusive rights and could even be deprived of adequate water. Half of Ethiopia’s 120 million population has no electricity, hence it is desperate to begin generating power for domestic use and profitable export.
The volume of water that flows down the Blue and White Niles is limited but the populations of Nile basin states and their developmental ambitions are unlimited. Currently some 260 million people—about 54 percent of the total 11 riparian countries population—depend on the Nile. Egypt’s largest number of citizens—86 million, and 94 percent of its entire population–are dependent on the Nile waters. The NBI estimates the energy demand of Nile basin people to triple by 2035.
The UN defines water scarcity as supplies below 1,000 cubic meters of water per person per year and Egyptians have 570 cubic meters which could drop below 500 by 2025, even without the GERD. The NBI’s 10-year strategy estimated that if countries develop as planned, 1.5 Niles will be needed by 2050. The strategy suggested to better monitor, manage and develop the Nile, use existing water sources more efficiently and explore new ones to have enough water for all.
Egypt is modernizing irrigation systems, fixing leaky canals and drains and avoiding water-intensive crops like rice. The NBI’s strategy talks of “unlocking and optimising hydropower potential.” This highlights a grim reality that nations will fight over limited volumes of the Nile waters.
The riparian states need to build the right dams in the right places, connect regional power grids and use the harnessed energy to light up region’s cities and energise economies. The squabble over the dam could soon be overshadowed by an even grim news. South Sudan announced in June to build a hydroelectric dam on the White Nile upstream of Sudan and Egypt.
Though about 80 percent of Egypt’s water comes from the Blue Nile and its tributaries, reducing the flow of the remaining 20 percent would obviously create additional problems for the country. And that could just be the start. The other countries of the Nile basin will want to place their economies and societies on a similar footing to those of Egypt.
Ethiopia is also working on three more dams. Once the GERD starts successfully generating power and export income, Addis Ababa can persuade international investors to back new hydroelectric ventures. Ethiopia’s success with the GERD will also generate interest in the construction of other dams throughout the Nile basin.
The Nile basin “offers huge potential for hydroelectric power generation, but largely remains untapped, with existing facilities representing about 26 percent of potential capacity.”
The African Union, the Arab League, the NBI and the UN Security Council have all failed to break the deadlock over the GERD. Egyptian Ministers accused Ethiopia of intransigence over reservoir filling. Some suggest a pre-emptive international diplomatic intervention to prevent the potential disasters looming over the Nile basin.