Addressing the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi commented that “the Nile is a matter of life and existence for Egypt, and we urge the international community to persuade all the parties to be resilient and to resume negotiations” on the filling and operations of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) being built on the Nile in Ethiopia.
President Al-Sisi was articulating Egypt’s disappointment with the negotiations then taking place on the GERD, announcing its desire to internationalise an issue that was becoming a threat to regional peace and security. For all Egyptians, “Egypt is the gift of the Nile,” and it is essential that everything is done to guarantee Egypt’s rightful access to the Nile’s water.
Over 95 per cent of Egypt’s territory is desert with almost no rainfall. The Nile, cutting through the centre of the country, provided fertile land along its banks to the ancient Egyptians, allowing the formation of the first nation-state in world history. Crops grown along the Nile and fish caught in it have always provided nourishment for the people of Egypt. The Nile was the boundary between life and death in the creed of the ancient Egyptians, and along its banks they built their magnificent temples and monuments.
Today, Egypt relies on the Nile for water for domestic, industrial and agricultural purposes. The river provides 97 per cent of Egypt’s annual water needs, though there is still a shortfall of some 30 billion m3 of water per year. 100 million Egyptians now live along the Nile or in its Delta, and it supplies almost all of their drinking water.
According to a treaty signed in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan, the two downstream countries in the Nile Basin, to which Ethiopia declined to accede, Egypt is entitled to 55 billion m3 of water from the Nile each year, an allocation that now has to suffice a population that has grown five-fold since the date the treaty was signed. Egypt is now well below the International Water Scarcity level of 1,000 m3 of water per person per year, with this now standing at 575 m3 per person.
Soaring population figures are not the only threat to Egypt’s water security, since climate change is also causing rising sea levels in the Mediterranean, pushing saltwater inland off the coast and spoiling fertile agricultural land. As agriculture contributes some 12 per cent of Egypt’s GDP and provides employment for some 25 per cent of the nation’s workforce, less green land and increased salinity threaten the viability of the sector and put increasing pressure on rural people to migrate to the cities, potentially causing social problems. Climate change is also imperiling the life of the river itself, harming fish stocks and threatening food security. A reliance on underground aquifers to fill the water deficit is not sustainable, and it can only supply a share of increasing needs.
Meanwhile, rising temperatures linked to climate change are affecting the flow of the River Nile from its source in the Ethiopian Highlands. Reduced water flow reduces the electricity generated by the Aswan High Dam, which produces ten per cent of Egypt’s electricity. Should the level of Lake Nasser behind the Aswan High Dam, which now stands at 165 metres above sea level, reach 140 to 145 metres, the dam’s turbines will shut down. Given its ever-increasing population, Egypt has no near-term options other than retaining and increasing its utilisation of the water of the River Nile.
THE GERD: The GERD has exacerbated Egyptian fears of reduced amounts of water reaching it through the River Nile.
Some 85 per cent of the river’s water flows from the Ethiopian Highlands. The filling of the GERD’s reservoir, estimated to hold some 74 billion m3 of water, will interrupt the flow of the Nile, shrinking the amount of water Egypt receives even further.
In response to Egypt’s justified concerns over the building of the GERD, some have portrayed the country as a regional hegemon denying others the right to use the water of the River Nile while itself taking advantage of it. However, Egypt’s dependence on the River Nile makes its utilisation inescapable. Around 100 million Egyptians rely on the 55 billion m3 of Nile water guaranteed under the 1959 Treaty, while Ethiopia has access to 936 billion m3 of water on the Ethiopian Plateau alone. Moreover, Egypt is the final downstream country, and no other country’s access to the Nile River’s water is placed in jeopardy as a result of Egypt’s development plans, especially since these have been coordinated with Sudan, the other downstream country.
In order to demonstrate their commitment to the development of the Nile Basin, Egyptian companies have long occupied front seats in cooperation with the Democratic Republic of Congo in the building of the Inga Dam, with Tanzania in the building of the Nyerere Dam and with Uganda in the building of the Owen Dam after the completion of appropriate impact assessments. Claims of “hegemonic” Egyptian policies regarding the Nile are thus false and only reveal the malevolent intentions of those making them.
In spite of a constrained national budget, the Egyptian government has embarked on a 20-year National Water Resource Plan that aims to promote water conservation, invest in alternative sources of drinking water and upgrade the country’s irrigation infrastructure. It has imposed restrictions on water-intensive crops and introduced new technologies to rationalise household consumption.
Despite their huge cost, the government is also well on the way to completing 23 water-desalination stations in the coastal governorates in order to satisfy the increasing demand for water and to raise the efficiency of existing water-treatment plants to allow for its re-use. It has sponsored the employment of modern water-conserving irrigation techniques and expanded investment in greenhouses and fish farms to meet Egypt’s food security challenges.
However, since 2014, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have been locked in rounds of negotiations over the GERD. The three countries signed a Declaration of Principles in 2015 stipulating the need for the completion of “incomplete studies on a dam [that was] already-in-progress” and providing recourse to a mediator should the negotiations reach deadlock.
After four months of negotiation, the Ethiopian government suspended its participation in the US and World Bank-mediated talks in Washington in February this year. Egypt, by contrast, engaged in a round of patient awareness-raising of the threat represented by the GERD among the Egyptian public. It initialed the proposed mediated agreement and requested the phased filling of the GERD reservoir in accordance with projected rainfall patterns and a coordination mechanism that would take droughts into account. But Ethiopia’s government has regarded the agreement as a breach of its sovereignty and assumed hegemony over the development of the Nile, while actively misleading its people.
Egypt’s dependence on the Nile means that it must exhibit a constant and extraordinary preoccupation with the security of the river. The international community must also understand that Egypt’s quest to secure the Nile’s water is an existential matter that has nothing to do with any misguided notion that Egypt is somehow claiming “hegemony” over its development.
No nation can stand idly by when its security is on the line or advance quietly on a path that could hinder its very existence.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly