Ethiopia is desperately trying to delude the international community into believing that Egypt is trying to seize control of the Nile’s water and that Ethiopia, the source of 85 per cent of the Nile, gets none.
It also claims that Egypt has allocated to itself its current quota of water without the consent of other Nile Basin countries. Needless to say, the Ethiopian claims are not only false, but they also defy geography and logic. Egyptians did not dig a course for the Nile from the Ethiopian Highlands to the Mediterranean. The Nile dug its own course from there and from the African Great Lakes over the millennia.
For thousands of years, Egypt has received an average of 84 billion m3 of water from the four main tributaries of the Nile, the White Nile, the Blue Nile, the Atbara and the Sobat. The amount would increase by about 20 billion m3 during heavy flooding years and decrease by the same amount during drought years. So, rather than setting itself a quota, Egypt agreed to share the amount of water the Nile had granted it over the millennia with Sudan by means of a formal agreement that granted Sudan a one-third share of the 84 billion m3.
This agreement was not only just, but it was also generous given Sudan’s other abundant water resources compared to the meagre alternatives available in arid Egypt. In addition to the water it receives from the Blue Nile, the Sobat, the Atbara and the White Nile, Sudan has the Bahr Al-Ghazal, the Bahr Al-Zeraf, the Bahr Al-Arab, the Lol River and Lake No, not to mention the 40 billion m3 of fresh water in the Sudd and other marshlands that it has access to and the rainfall in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Kassala states.
Most Nile water reaches Egypt during the flooding season, which lasts four months from July to October. Whether the flooding is heavy or light, the river flows fast, which has meant that over the millennia vast amounts of water have sped unused into the Mediterranean. The Aswan High Dam Aswan was conceived in the 1950s to conserve some 22 billion m3 of water a year. Egypt did not “rip off” this water from some other country; it kept it from going unused into the salty Mediterranean. It then split that quantity with Sudan, which received 14.5 billion m3 while Egypt, the builder and owner of the High Dam, received seven billion m3. Sudan also received about 150km of the High Dam reservoir with its wealth of fish, an important source of livelihood for many Sudanese.
As to why Ethiopia objects to Egypt’s having saved billions of m3 of fresh water from going to waste in the Mediterranean, Egypt remains mystified. Why would Addis Ababa complain to the UN Security Council and threaten to build more dams in order to make Egypt’s own dam obsolete, despite the fact that this has never harmed Ethiopia or “stolen” water from the Blue Nile, the Atbara, or the Sobat? Is it pure envy that Egypt has succeeded in making use of water that would otherwise have been lost?
Ethiopia also continues to adhere to a very narrow view of what constitutes the water in an international watercourse, which, under international law, should be distributed equitably with other countries along the same watercourse. Under the UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, which became binding on all countries once it had attained the necessary number of ratifications, a watercourse containing water subject to distribution consists not only of the water that flows between the banks, but also the totality of its sources, whether from tributaries, aquifers, rainfall or freshwater lakes.
The convention also states that the principle of equitable distribution should take into account the existence of alternative water resources, or the lack thereof, in the countries that lie on the watercourse in question. The six White Nile Basin countries have had no problem accepting this and acknowledging the fact that they are blessed with billions of tons of water from Lake Victoria, Lake Albert, Lake Kyoga, Lake Edward, and Lake George. They have never raised an issue with Egypt over the water that flows between the banks of the White Nile or that gets lost in the marshlands in southern Sudan.
Ethiopia, on the other hand, excludes from its calculations the 40 to 50 billion m3 of water in Lake Tana, from which the Blue Nile flows, and the 10 billion m3 capacity reservoir it constructed in 2009 on the Tekeze, a tributary of the Atbara. It thus obtains at least 60 billion m3 of water from the Blue Nile and the Atbara alone among the many other Ethiopian rivers. Yet, it begrudges Egypt the 55.5 billion m3 of water it receives exclusively from the Nile.
As mentioned above, the Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses includes rainfall among the sources of river waters. Ethiopia receives 936 billion m3 of water per year, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in 2014. Thanks to the unpolluted water of this rainfall, Ethiopia is the world’s largest exporter of organic coffee and the second-largest exporter in Africa of organic foods to Europe.
These organic food industries use massive quantities of fresh water that is most likely not recycled. The rainfall also sustains vast swathes of pastureland for Ethiopia’s livestock industry. The country has some 100 million heads of livestock, of which half are cattle and the other half sheep or similar ruminants, according to the 2014 FAO report. A single head of cattle consumes 5,000 m3 of water by the time it reaches three years old. For 50 million heads of cattle, that makes 250 billion m3 over three years, or 84 billion m3 of water per year.
Add to this half the amount for the 50 million smaller ruminants — that is 42 billion m3 — and you get 126 billion m3 from a source of the Nile consumed by the Ethiopian livestock industry per year. Add this to the 60 billion m3 of water from Lake Tana and the Tekeze reservoir, and you get 186 billion m3 of Nile water, or twice the amount that Egypt and Sudan receive together, or three times the amount that Egypt receives from the Nile.
Despite such documented facts, Ethiopia still insists on claiming that it receives no share of Nile water. This comes from a country where the amount of physically available water per person is three times that in Egypt and where the land under cultivation is 10 times that in Egypt.
*The writer is a professor of soil and water sciences at Cairo University’s Faculty of Agriculture.
**A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly