The Nile River: longest disputed fountain of life

Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam generates an international dispute on its waters

A traditional Arab proverb says about the Nile: “If you throw a lucky man into the Nile, he’ll come out with a fish in its mouth.” While clearly meant as a cute illustration of the river’s role for those living at its shores, it also captures a pinch of truth. Since the earliest times in human history, the Nile has fed and provided water to millions of people. From the Egyptian to the Ethiopian Empire, and through the Nubian peoples, the Nile basin has seen the rise and fall of many civilisations. Its lands have been those of rich and plenty for any society that settled around it, minimizing competition for its waters. However, the industrial revolution and climate change has, within the last century, turned the situation upside down.

These days, 160 million people depend on the Nile water for their living, and in 2050 a billion people will live in the lands of its basin. In addition, the number of its riparian states is 11, with each of them having different needs and access to its waters. According to MIT researchers Messrs Siam and Eltahir, climate change will increase the number and severity of droughts and floods in the Nile, making access to the water more difficult. Also, the will for economic development in poor countries like Sudan or Ethiopia increases the pressure for using the river’s resource capacity. The building of a dam enables that state to generate great amounts of clean energy and improve its irrigation capacity (and therefore, its farming productivity), and to extend its clean water service. The consequence is that an explosive combination is being created, in which water scarcity drives states to dispute the Nile’s water access.

The latest and most important issue in recent years has been the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), located at the Blue Nile, 40 km before the Ethiopian-Sudanese border. The water collected at the Blue Nile basin in Ethiopian territory represents 80% of the water that flows through the Nile River. Therefore, the capacity for GERD impact on the Nile’s water flow downstream is massive — especially if we consider that the Egyptian dependency ratio on outside water resources is 97%.

When the construction of the dam began in 2011, Egypt asked Ethiopia to cancel the project. The alleged reason behind their demand was that the water access ratio for Egypt had been given in  international treaties of the colonial era from 1929 and 1959 (Nile Waters Agreements). Negotiated between Great Britain and Egypt, it gave the monopoly on water access to Egypt and Sudan, also giving Egypt the capacity to veto projects on the Nile River. Nevertheless, the states upstream of the Nile Basin argue that they are not bound to comply with those international treaties, as they did not participate in the negotiations. In addition, the rise of population in those upstream states pressures their governments to conduct projects of water collection in order to meet the increased demand.

In order to diplomatically address this dispute, in 1999 the riparian states signed the Nile Basin Initiative, with the objective of administering the so-called Nile River Basin. This international regime developed into the Cooperative Framework Agreement of 2010 — which was not signed by either Egypt or Sudan because it enabled upstream states to build dams on the Nile. Consensus was broken, and tensions rose again when building of the GERD started in 2011.

Negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia yielded an agreement in 2015, by which the GERD was to be built without conflict if its functioning was coordinated between the Egyptian and Ethiopian governments. The technical analysis for the project was given to an international panel of experts, including members from all the stakeholder states, which are to present a report at the end of this year. Due to disagreements inside the consultant committee, it is unclear whether the results will be  published in time. And last summer, pooled water at the GERD (because of the flood season and the late construction station of the dam) have again increased tensions between the countries. The uncertainty over Ethiopia’s unilateral filling of the water reservoir has possibly led to the creation of an Egyptian military base in Eritrea and the funding of Ethiopian rebels.

The possibility of violent conflict erupting in the near future will depend on the success of the current diplomatic solution. The path is very narrow, as the chance of the experts’ report pleasing all stakeholders is very small. Even then, an agreement on common governance over the dam’s functioning will have to go through negotiations as tough as any until now—in which case, consensus could be broken at any time. In any case, water management in the MENA region, and specifically in the Nile River Basin, will only be faced efficiently if tackled by states with international support.

Pol Bragulat i de la Varga  (Barcelona, Spain)

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