Herodotus, the famous Greek historian (450 BCE) called Egypt the “Gift of the Nile” because of its dependency on the Nile River. Almost 26 centuries later, is this testimonial still valid?
This question is relevant because of the planned inauguration of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Ethiopia in 2022, the biggest hydroelectric power facility in Africa and seventh largest in the world. The massive dam is being built 20 km from the Sudanese-Ethiopian border on the Blue Nile that provides 85 percent of the water flow to Egypt downstream (the White Nile provides 15 percent). Originally, the 6,450-megawatt dam hydroelectric power project1 was intended to be inaugurated in 2018, but because of budgetary constraints and mismanagement it seems now that 2022 may be the likely date of the beginning of the dam’s operation.
The new source for energy is essential for Ethiopia, where according to the World Bank, only 44 percent of Ethiopians have access to electricity.2 Once built, Ethiopia expects to export energy to the neighboring states of Kenya, Sudan, and Djibouti. To some Ethiopians, the flagship project is of great national importance: “The project is symbolic in the sense that it has effectively ended the age-long dominance of Egypt over the Nile,” Ethiopian journalist Yohannes Anberbir wrote. The dam “has ushered in a new era of fair and equitable use on the longest river in Africa.”3
The foundation and construction work on the six billion dollar dam began in 2011 at a time when Egypt’s attention was focused on domestic unrest of “the Arab Spring.” That unrest brought down President Hosni Mubarak’s regime and installed a democratically elected civilian one dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Finally, in 2013, military rule was reinstated in Egypt under President Abdel Fattah Sisi.
It took only a short time and a ground-breaking ceremony in Ethiopia to signal to the Egyptians that the Ethiopian government had concrete intentions to build the dam. The first reactions were a mixture of panic and incredulity because of the magnitude of the project: six times the output of energy of the Aswan Dam; the equivalent of six 1000-megawatt nuclear power plants and a threatened water shortage problem that never existed in 7,000 years of Egyptian history.
Indeed, since the beginning of the construction, Egypt has unsuccessfully tried to negotiate with the Ethiopians to slow the pace of filling the mammoth reservoir behind the dam, which, once full, will contain between 74 to a 100 billion cubic meters of water.4 The Egyptians asked that the reservoir-filling process be carried out over a minimum of 10 years and that Ethiopia would control the Nile water quantity flow so that the impact on Egypt would be minimal. The Ethiopians plan a three-year reservoir filling process; they may compromise on a 5-6 years prolonged course. A three-year rhythm of filling the reservoir would deprive Egypt of 33 billion cubic meters out of the 55.5 allowed each year according to diverse agreements signed in the past (1929 and 1959) between Ethiopia and the 11 Nile downstream countries. Such a deficit would mean, for instance, that each Egyptian would receive 600 cubic meters annually instead of 2500 and would transform Egypt into a water-poverty stricken area since the basis according to the UN should stand at 1000 cubic meters per year for each individual.5
Moreover, Egypt argues that each loss of 2 percent of its water share would provoke the desertification of almost 80,000 hectares. Finally, with the beginning of the filling of the reservoir, the Aswan Dam water level would probably drop in the best case to 170 meters (eight meters less than today) and in a worst-case scenario, the level would drop to 168 meters,6 although not enough to jeopardize the production of electricity by the dam turbines.
Realizing the coming crisis, in April 2018, the Egyptian government enacted through its parliament a law forbidding the growth of water-intensive plants such as rice. As a result, for the second consecutive year, the area dedicated to rice growth has been reduced from 1.8 million feddans to 724,000 feddans (1 feddan = 1.037 acres) in all 9 Egyptian governorates while the farmers were encouraged to grow three alternative species of rice that demand less water.
In 2014, the Egyptian government embarked on a project of water desalination meant to provide alternative sources of potable water. Through December 2018, 47 such installations had been built with a total output of 254,000 cubic meters daily (compared to 1.75 million cubic meters per day in Israel in five installations as of 2018). The plan aims to double the quantity of water desalination installations by the end of 2020 to reach the goal of 1 million cubic meters daily. However, to compensate for the loss of water due to the Ethiopian dam, Egypt should desalinate 90 million cubic meters of water per day – an impossible goal.
Finally, the Egyptian government plans to build additional dams on the Nile and to erect a series of small dams meant to capture floods and rainfall, but this will not make up for the loss Egypt will sustain with the beginning of the filling of the Renaissance Dam reservoir.
A Risk of War over Water?
There is little wonder that Egypt has several times contemplated the possibility of waging military action against the Ethiopian dam. Under President Morsi’s presidency secret discussions by the Egyptian national security council in 2013 were accidentally televised, including the proposal for commando attacks against the Ethiopian dam.7 The Egyptian government apologized, with Morsi’s cabinet declaring that the two countries’ relationship was based on “good neighborliness, mutual respect, and the pursuit of joint interests without either party harming the other.”
Egypt will likely refrain from direct military action against Ethiopia. The better course of action would be to secure international support and try to convince the Ethiopians to accept a compromise. In the meantime, until the inauguration of the dam, consultations may try to reroute the Blue Nile River to alternative routes that would cause only minor damage to Egypt and Sudan rather than the catastrophe presaged by the opponents of the project.
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