Millions of Egyptian livelihoods could dry up as Ethiopia dam threatens Nile water access

Political deadlock has allowed the GERD dam to go ahead, with experts predicting reduced water flow will wipe out hundreds of thousands of jobs and upend Egypt's delicate food balance

Aswan High Dam, built between 1960 and 1970, helped control the natural flooding of the Nile and create Lake Nasser, a reservoir of fresh water. Hamza Hendawi / The National
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The Middle East and North Africa is one of the most water-scarce regions of the world. Already plagued by a lack of freshwater resources, it also faces climate change, population growth and poor management, which threaten to affect the lives of millions.

The National’s correspondents across the region spoke to the people most affected to understand the extent of the issue and where hope for change may lie.

“Egypt is the gift of the Nile!”

As apt as it is, that well-known and often used phrase coined by ancient Greek historian Herodotus to describe the Egypt he visited 2,500 years ago may be somewhat of an understatement now.

Perhaps “no Nile, no Egypt!” or “Egypt lives and dies by the Nile” are more accurate substitutes.

With a population of nearly 105 million people who depend on the Nile for more than 90 per cent of their fresh water needs, Egypt is now fighting to protect its very existence. Upstream, regional rival Ethiopia is pressing ahead with the construction of a massive dam that Egyptians fear will lead to severe shortages of vital water supplies.

Cairo says any reduction, no matter how small, in the quantity of Nile water that reaches Egypt will cause untold disaster for the mostly desert country, where the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants are crowded on a thin and fertile stretch that runs along the river’s banks.

A decade of negotiations between Egypt and Ethiopia have failed to break the deadlock over Cairo’s key demand for a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam. Ethiopia insists such a deal is not necessary. The last round of talks between them broke down in acrimony two years ago.

Egypt, which imports half its food, frequently calls on world powers such as the United States and the European Union to put pressure on Addis Ababa to show flexibility. But Ethiopia remains steadfast, insisting that only the African Union is entitled to mediate; and outsiders are reluctant to become too involved in an intractable dispute.

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has repeatedly urged Egyptians not to panic and ordered the media to stop speculating on possible military action against the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd).

Diplomacy and patience, he has said, are the only means available to settle the matter.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian government has spent billions of dollars on water conservation projects and desalination plants. It has also sought to encourage a reduction in waste by lifting subsidies on potable water. Growing crops requiring a great deal of water have been restricted and fresh water canals have had their bottoms and banks cemented to reduce seepage.

But with Egypt's population growing by more than 1 million every year and Mr El Sisi moving ahead with the reclamation of hundreds of thousands of hectares of desert land and building new cities, those policies — barring unforeseen circumstances — may never be enough to spare the North African nation the grim, maybe even deadly, prospect of wholesale thirst or prohibitively unaffordable food.

Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser

Seen from the top of the Soviet-built Aswan High Dam in southern Egypt, the fresh water of Lake Nasser extends as far as the eye can see; a gigantic mass of greyish blue that is proving to be a lifeline for Egypt and its rapidly growing population.

The lake lies behind the hydroelectric dam, built on the Nile between 1958 and 1970 at a height of 111-metres and length of nearly 4 kilometres. For decades, the dam and the lake served as potent symbols of Egypt’s independence under nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.

An engineering marvel by the standards of its time, the dam regulates the downstream flow of the Nile and has, for years, protected the country from destructive flooding while significantly increasing farming land.

Today, Lake Nasser — nearly 6,000km long with a storage capacity of 32 billion cubic metres — is the focus of Egypt’s perennial struggle to meet its growing water needs. Solving the issue of water scarcity is being prioritised over all else since Ethiopia began filling the water reservoir behind the Gerd on the Blue Nile, the source of more than 60 per cent of the water reaching Egypt.

Lake Nasser’s water has kept Egypt’s vital agriculture sector operating mostly unaffected as Ethiopia carried out three fillings in as many years from 2020, storing an estimated 20 billion cubic metres of water.

Despite this, Egypt fears a reduction in its annual water share — 55.5 billion cubic metres under a 1959 agreement with fellow downstream nation Sudan — would wipe out hundreds of thousands of jobs and upend its delicate food balance.

A senior Egyptian government official with first-hand knowledge of the nation’s multibillion-dollar water management programme says the country’s water deficit will reach 11 billion cubic metres in 2025 and will rise to 20 billion cubic metres by 2030.

“This will likely impact the pace of city-building and the giant reclamation projects,” said the official, who spoke to The National on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.

“Consequently, the already big food gap will increase.”

A change in the upper hand on water access

Mr El Sisi, a former army general, described the dispute over water with Ethiopia as an “existential” issue as well as one of national security.

“No one can take a drop of water from Egypt. If anyone wants to try, let [them] try,” he said in late 2021.

“Doing so will create unimaginable instability in the region and no one should assume that [they are] beyond the reach of our capabilities.

“Let me say it again, Egypt’s water cannot be touched. Touching it is a red line and our reaction if it’s touched will impact on the entire region.”

Ethiopia has not been intimidated by Cairo’s threatening rhetoric, going ahead with construction on the $5 billion, 6,000-megawatt dam, which is now about 90 per cent complete. It responded to suggestions in Egyptian media of a possible military strike by boasting about the heavy defences it has deployed at the dam’s site and its arsenal of long-range missiles.

It has also insisted that it is free to do as it pleases with a river whose source — Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands — is inside its territory.

The dam, say Egyptian and Sudanese experts, has also been used for political gain by the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. At a time when the Horn of Africa nation’s complex ethnic fabric is stretched close to breaking point, the Gerd is serving as a unifying rallying cry.

Adding another layer to the intractability of the dispute are the geopolitics surrounding the Nile together with the racial fault lines separating Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Sudan from the sub-Saharan Ethiopia and eight other Nile basin countries.

“Ethiopia was able to convince other Nile basin countries of the injustice Sudan and Egypt inflicted on them for decades through colonial-era agreements that gave them the lion’s share of the water and left them with little or nothing,” said Osama Al Tigany, a water expert from Sudan.

In 1999, that resentment of Cairo and Khartoum was crystallised into a historic act of collective dissent.

The Nile’s riparian countries established the Nile Basin Initiative as a forum on the river’s water use. Egypt and Sudan, on-and-off allies for decades, walked out of the talks, demanding that their fellow Nile basin countries recognise their “historic rights”.

They did not and the boycott proved to be ill-conceived.

The other riparian nations excluded Egypt and Sudan and went on to create the Co-operative Framework Agreement in 2010, a move that practically threw out the 1929 and 1959 deals that gave Sudan and Egypt most of the river’s water.

“To punish Egypt and Sudan for their heavy handedness and years of indifference to their needs, these nations gave Ethiopia what amounted to a green light to build the dam in 2010,” said Mr Al Tigany. “The dam gives Ethiopia new capabilities in agriculture and energy and bestows a huge push forward for its desire to control the Nile.”

A large part of Egypt’s response to the emergence of Addis Ababa as a regional leader was to quickly forge closer relations with some of the upstream Nile basin nations. It has courted Kenya, Eritrea, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and signed a military co-operation agreement with Sudan’s army generals.

Egypt’s new approach towards Africa

In a wider context, Mr El Sisi has since taking office in 2014 become the Egyptian leader who has travelled the most in Africa, criss-crossing the continent looking for allies, offering technical assistance and generally projecting an image of an African leader who uses his country’s international weight to advocate for Africa.

His outreach contrasts with the indifference shown to sub-Saharan nations by his predecessors Hosni Mubarak and Anwar Sadat, who between them ruled for 40 years ending in 2011.

Mr El Sisi’s policy in Africa has been met with some success in convincing sub-Saharan nations of Cairo’s goodwill and its ability to help them in various fields; it even built a dam for Tanzania. But the outreach showed modest results when it came to these countries putting pressure on Addis Ababa to be more flexible on the Gerd dispute.

Now, Egypt is once again warily waiting to see how much water Ethiopia will store behind the Gerd during the coming summer flood season to assess the likely reduction in its water share before considering its next move.

Some estimates say Ethiopia will add another 17 billion cubic metres of water to the reservoir.

Regardless of the size of the next fill, the move will invariably be met with strong words in statements of condemnation.

Waiting for Ethiopia's next move

Through all this, the threat of less water reaching Egypt remains real.

Egypt was spared a water shortage during the first three fillings thanks to an abundance of rainfall in the Ethiopian highlands, which meant Lake Nasser was filled to maximum or near maximum capacity.

“The high dam and the lake behind the dam granted us patience and a feeling of safety, but the estimated 20 billion cubic metres held so far by Ethiopia behind its dam is water that Egypt should have had,” said Abbas Sharaky, Egypt’s leading water expert and an authority on the Gerd.

But what Egypt is most worried about, he said, is a drought similar to that of the late 1970s and 1980s, when the Ethiopian plateau received insufficient rainfall for a number of consecutive years.

Egypt uses roughly 60 billion cubic metres of water for agriculture each year. Nearly 10 billion cubic metres are used for potable water, an area where waste is widespread largely because of negligence, poor distribution and worn-out pipes. Farmers are also known to use much more water than necessary when irrigating their land.

Another 20 billion cubic metres come from water desalination plants and treating irrigation water for repeated use. To date, cementing fresh water canals to stop seepage has cost the government about 80 billion Egyptian pounds ($2.59 billion), part of up to 600 billion pounds spent over the past 10 years on water-related projects, according to Mr Sharaky.

“No one has died of thirst but the cost is too high,” he said.

Studies carried out in Egypt paint a grim picture of what the country will have to deal with if its share of the Nile water is reduced.

Internal government studies estimate that for every reduction of 1 billion cubic metres of water in Egypt’s supply, 200,000 acres of farmland will be lost and the livelihoods of 1 million people would be affected.

It is in recognition of this catastrophic scenario that Lake Nasser is heavily policed, with stringent security regulations on fishing and leisure cruising. Some of the minor ancient Egyptian temples on its banks require security clearance to visit.

The dam itself, defined by a 74-metre-high mausoleum commemorating Soviet-Egyptian friendship, is guarded by army troops backed by armoured cars and stationed on both ends of the giant structure. Motorists and passengers are stopped at numerous army checkpoints for identity checks. And security cameras are installed across the entire area, with “no photography” signs everywhere.

All in an effort to protect arguably the country’s most precious commodity.

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Updated: May 02, 2023, 1:49 PM