Ethiopian myths on the Nile

Nader Noureddin, Wednesday 24 Mar 2021

Despite its denials and desire to dupe the world, Ethiopia already receives far more water from the Nile than the downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan

Ethiopian myths on the Nile

Ethiopia has been making a raucous noise about how it contributes 85 per cent of Nile water and yet receives none of the water from the three rivers that originate in its territory. However, this claim is baseless. In fact, Ethiopia receives the greatest share of Nile water originating in its territory.

There is no glory in Ethiopia being a source country of the Nile, and no shame in Egypt being a downstream country. Ethiopia does not make the rain fall from the sky, and Egypt did not dig out the Nile so that its waters can reach Egypt after passing through Sudan. The Nile is a natural resource created by God that passes through the three countries. International law prohibits the source country of any river from blocking its natural flow or from withholding its waters without the agreement of downstream countries.

The Blue Nile, which constitutes 59 to 64 per cent of the Nile’s water, originates in Lake Tana in Ethiopia. However, the Lake only contributes five billion cubic metres of water to the Blue Nile water annually, and it is joined by many tributaries on its way to reach an average of 49 billion cubic metres annually at the Sudanese border. At this point, the Nile is joined by the Rahad and Dinder rivers in Sudan, and the amount of water in it rises to 54 billion cubic metres.

Looking at the size of Lake Tana and the average water depth there, we find that the lake contains between 30 and 40 billion cubic metres of water, due to the many rivers that flow into it, and the Blue Nile emerges from it both weak and narrow. The lake’s water is also fully utilised by Ethiopia, which has built two power plants, drinking water plants, and several water intakes for the agricultural and industrial sectors on it. Yet, Ethiopia still claims that it does not benefit from the resources of the River Nile that originates in its territory.

There is also the Tekeze Dam, which Ethiopia inaugurated in 2009 on one of the largest tributaries of the Atbarah River, the second of the rivers feeding into the Nile that originates in Ethiopia. The dam has a reservoir capacity of ten billion cubic metres of water, and it is used to generate electricity. There are also drinking water plants and an agricultural and industrial intake along its banks.

As a result, Ethiopia receives 40 to 50 billion cubic metres of water from the Blue Nile and Atbarah rivers annually, while Egypt and Sudan together receive 72 billion cubic metres from the three rivers originating in Ethiopia. This demonstrates that Ethiopia receives the largest share of the water from rivers originating in its territory despite all its denials and its desire to dupe the world into thinking that it receives nothing from the Nile.

Ethiopia has also not told the world that it has six alternative river basins other than the three Nile tributaries and that each basin has many tributaries adding up to a total capacity of 122 billion cubic metres of water annually, according to UN estimates, of which 72 billion cubic metres of water goes into the River Nile. Ethiopia is thus left with 50 billion cubic metres of water from its six rivers, in addition to the 40 to 50 billion cubic metres it receives from Lake Tana and the Tekeze Dam.

Altogether, Ethiopia’s water resources are no less than 100 billion cubic metres annually, but it nevertheless still covets what belongs to others and wants to take more Blue Nile water, which it does not need, to see Egypt and Sudan suffer from further water poverty when compared to Ethiopia.

The UN Law on Transboundary Waters stipulates that relations between countries sharing a river should be based on river resources from rain, groundwater, and water catchment areas that are directed towards the riverbed and freshwater lakes and that are an essential part of the river system.

In 2012, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated that 936 billion cubic metres of rain fell on Ethiopia’s river basins, in addition to 17 billion cubic metres of water from renewable groundwater flowing into these rivers and 40 billion cubic metres of water from Lake Tana. This means that Ethiopia receives the largest share of the Nile River’s resources, well above the shares of Egypt and Sudan. 

Agricultural figures also show the abundance of water in Ethiopia. Per capita water availability in Ethiopia is three times that in Egypt and 1.5 times that in Sudan. Ethiopia cultivates 35 million hectares of agricultural crops, while agricultural areas in Egypt are no more than 3.5 million hectares, or one tenth the size of those of Ethiopia, while cultivated areas in Sudan cover no more than 12.5 million hectares.

The number of livestock in Ethiopia grazing on pasture watered by abundant rainfall is 100 million, or nearly 13 times more than Egypt’s eight million, while Sudan has 70 million livestock. Moreover, Egypt imports 65 per cent of its basic strategic food needs, and Sudan imports 35 per cent, while Ethiopia enjoys self-sufficiency in food and is a top exporter of organic coffee and the third-largest exporter of organic food in Africa.

These figures unmask the illusion that Ethiopia has been presenting to the world. It is a country that is abundant in water, and it receives the largest share of the Nile water resources that originate in its territory. Its greed for more water is unjustified, and it will increase the suffering of countries already experiencing water scarcity such as Egypt.

Ethiopia wants to control the water available to East African countries in order to control life in Egypt and Sudan, and it does not understand that water for these country is an essential part of national security and of life itself.

By holding back the water it does not need, Ethiopia is holding the water hostage. It should be released by all necessary means, as is stated in the texts of the Pharaonic age written on the walls of Egypt’s historic temples.

*The writer is a professor of water and land use at Cairo University.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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