The Nile: Egypt's Great Security Issue

Photography by bfxu

Before we assess the Nile's importance for Egypt it is worth considering its neighbours. To the east lies Saudi Arabia which spends billions of dollars each year in a costly attempt to quench the collective thirst of its population. While over to the west is Libya, one of the world's twenty biggest nations by land mass and yet barely able to support six million inhabitants. Then we come to Egypt a country of over 80 million. Supporting the 15th largest population in the world requires a great deal of water and with over 95% of Egypt's supply coming from the Nile, securing this essential resource is a great concern for any Egyptian government.
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The Nile is made up of two main tributaries which meet near the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. The more important of the two, the Blue Nile, originates in the Ethiopian highlands and provides around 85% of the total Nile water which flows into Egypt.

Egyptian alarm bells were sent ringing in 2011 when Ethiopia announced a $4.8 billion project to build the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). In mid June 2013 Ethiopia began diverting the flow of water as part of the dam's construction process. This sent the Egyptian government into something of a frenzy. Mohammad Morsy, president at the time, declared that 'all options were open' to secure the country's water supply while Egyptian politicians were unwittingly caught live on national television calling for military action to stop the Ethiopians. For their part, the defiant Ethiopians claimed that nothing would halt the dam's construction. Amidst this war of words Egypt's foreign minister was dispatched to Adis Ababa for emergency talks. Following Ethiopian assurances, calm was restored.

The ongoing violence and political polarization which has gripped Egypt over the last month has understandably pushed the Nile issue to one side. However, the Nile is a finite resource and as we move forward into the 21st Century, population growth and socio-economic development will mean that more people are going to want a bigger slice of it. Therein lies the issue at the heart of Nile water management: how to balance the current needs of downstream nations with the aspirations of those further upstream? Egypt and Sudan claim a historic right over the Nile cemented in thousands of years of history as well as a few shaky colonial agreements. However, the precarious nature of Egypt's water security should not be underestimated even in the face of the country's sometimes hostile approach to Nile water politics.

So, is the Nile basin doomed as its precious water source is stretched too far? Over the last 50 years politicians and academics alike have spoken of 'water wars'. However, with particular reference to the Nile this seems unlikely. Each country along the Nile lacks the ability to project its power sufficiently to launch any meaningful military campaign much beyond its own borders. A possible worst case scenario in a future Nile Basin may play out along these lines: a diminishing water resource per capita could yield steady and painful regression across the region. Development and its precursor of urbanization would be impossible. Droughts and other external shocks would exacerbate the situation leading to a higher potential for civil wars, violent unrest and general humanitarian misery.

However, if the region can do away with the sabre-rattling and focus on cooperation then perhaps the Nile could avoid this Malthusian catastrophe. Clearly, no one can create more water to satisfy the extra demand, but collective action can help ensure that the water which is available is utilized to its full potential. Looking ahead this could involve projects to increase water efficiency in everything from industry to waste management. Technical assistance could be provided to increase agricultural yields relative to water consumption. An increasingly cooperative Nile Basin could promote infrastructure and trade between nations. This would encourage water-intensive produce such as livestock and crops to be kept within the Nile Basin rather than exported outside the region, which represents a form of water loss.

Indeed, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam could come to represent a future system of cooperation. Already there are plans to link the Sudanese and Ethiopian power grids so that electricity generated from the dam can be exported. There are also gains to be made by storing water upstream behind the new Ethiopian dam as opposed to behind the High Aswan Dam. Lower evaporation rates in the Ethiopian highlands than in the Egyptian desert would significantly reduce water loss. The GERD project will also trap silt sediment which would otherwise flow downstream, reducing the capacity of dams in Sudan and Egypt.

There are clear benefits to a more collaborative system of water management between the Nile Basin countries. Trust and compromise will be required in order to maximize the Nile as a source of development for all who rely on its influence. As upstream nations begin to embark on what may be a period of rapid growth and development, Egypt risks being left behind due to a careless disregard for the permanent changes taking place in Nile water politics.

An increasingly unified upstream bloc would reverse Egypt's historical political and economic dominance of the region. Looking beyond its current domestic turmoil, Egypt must fully integrate itself into the new political landscape of the Nile Basin. The announcement of tripartite talks next month between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the GERD project, with a view to limiting its negative effects on the two downstream nations, may signal the beginning of a more cooperative and integrated transnational water management system. Only in this way can Egypt hope to achieve a sense of security in the 21st Century over the future of its most essential natural resource.

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Posted on August 17, 2013

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