Egypt and Sudan’s concerns about the impact of Ethiopia’s massive Nile dam on their share of the river’s water are unlikely to materialise, but the two downstream nations need to closely co-ordinate with Addis Ababa in the event of persistent drought, according to research published this weekend by experts from five British and American universities.
The finding supports efforts, so far fruitless, by Egypt and Sudan to reach a legally binding agreement with Ethiopia on a mechanism to deal with multi-year drought once the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, becomes operational. They have also been seeking a blueprint for co-ordination with the Horn of Africa nation on filling and operating the dam.
Ethiopia has baulked at making a commitment on the volume of water it would allow through to the two Nile basin nations in the case of drought. Ethiopia angered Egypt and Sudan in July when it carried out the first filling of the dam's reservoir without giving them notice. Moreover, it has repeatedly complained that the two nations’ demands in years of protracted negotiations over the dam amounted to interference in its domestic affairs.
Sudan maintains that co-ordination with Ethiopia over the operation of the GERD is essential so that its own hydroelectric dams on the Blue Nile operate smoothly, but the vast Afro-Arab nation also stands to benefit from cheap electricity generated by the dam.
It is a different story for Egypt, which depends on the Nile for almost all its water needs. A significant cut in its share of the river’s water could cost it hundreds of thousands of jobs and upset its delicate food supply balance.
The study by the experts concluded that while the filling of the GERD reservoir, which has a capacity of about 74 billion cubic metres, would reduce the water volume in the reservoir of Egypt’s own Aswan Dam on the Nile, or Lake Nasser, the risk of additional water shortage in Egypt would be “low”.
“Once in operation, the GERD will benefit Ethiopia and Sudan without significantly affecting water users in Egypt as long as Nile flows are similar to the historical average,” said the study, which used historical data from Nile measurements over extended wet, average and dry periods to assess the potential impact of a long-term drought.
”However,” it added, “researchers deem a future multi-year drought ‘inevitable’ although the probability, severity and timing are unknowable, especially as climate change unfolds. They warn that advanced planning for the careful co-ordinated management are essential if harmful impacts are to be minimised.”
The experts who wrote the study came from the universities of Oxford and Manchester in Britain and the universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Colorado Boulder and Duke in the United States.
The stand-off between the three nations has fed tension in the region at a time when Ethiopia’s standing in the area appears to be on the ascent with promises of cheap electricity for its neighbours and a rapidly growing economy. Egypt, on the other hand, has steadily gained prestige in the Arab world with a massive, multibillion dollar construction boom and an army that is equipped with advanced weapon systems procured from the United States, Russia and western European manufacturers.
Sudan, for its part, is attracting significant attention and international admiration as it makes its transition to democratic rule after nearly three decades of authoritarian rule under the Islamist Omar Al Bashir.
“It is often argued that water resources will be a source of growing conflict in the future, as populations and economic growth, as well as climate change, increase the risk of scarcity and create conditions not previously experienced," wrote one of the researchers, Marc Jeuland of Duke University.
“This specific case offers lessons for other societies given that water resource scarcity is bound to worsen in many parts of the globe.”