An economist on the Nile

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 2 Nov 2021

In his recent book on the River Nile, economist Ahmed Al-Sayed Al-Naggar shares ideas on Egypt’s water rights and resource development.

Nile River: Myths, Rights, and the Egyptian-Ethiopian Struggle
Nile River: Myths, Rights, and the Egyptian-Ethiopian Struggle

If there is a single message that the reader could come out with from reading Ahmed Al-Sayed Al-Naggar’s more than 300-page volume The Nile River: Myths, Rights, and the Egyptian-Ethiopian Struggle it would be the need for caution.

Al-Naggar, an economist with an interest in development issues, prescribes caution in managing Egypt’s increasingly scarce water resources, especially as they are getting scarcer.

He also calls for caution in managing the so far open-ended negotiations with Ethiopia on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the mega-dam that Addis Ababa is building on the Blue Nile that provides Egypt with the best part of its annual water quota.

Al-Naggar’s book was published in Cairo by Al-Maraya earlier this year, as the negotiations that Egypt and Sudan, the Nile’s two downstream countries, have been following were entering into deadlock.  

It contains few reasons for optimism over the negotiations on the dam, pointing out that they have got nowhere in the over five years since the three countries signed a Declaration of Principles in Khartoum in March 2015.

What Al-Naggar suggests in his book is in line with what several officials have been saying, either implicitly or explicitly, namely that Ethiopia does not seem likely to commit to an agreement with the downstream countries about the filling and operation of this mega-dam, whose operation is bound to have a negative impact on Egypt’s limited resources of freshwater.

This negative impact, he says, is not just a function of the amount of water needed to fill the dam’s reservoir, but is also the result of the inevitable waste that will come with evaporation from the surface of the reservoir and leakage from the body of the dam.

Al-Naggar explains at length his concerns regarding the Ethiopian position on the dam, especially in the third chapter of the book that discusses the GERD and Egypt’s options in managing its impact on its water resources.

He argues that Ethiopia’s style of crisis-management has been based on imposing its will on its neighbours, as it has done with Somalia. It has been trying to consolidate its regional alliances in case of a possible political showdown with the Nile’s downstream countries.

He also says that Ethiopia’s public position on the reason for building the GERD has changed repeatedly since the construction started in 2011. It is no longer talking just about a hydrological scheme or about one helping the country to overcome its energy shortage. Instead, it is now talking about agricultural schemes and more.

Egypt, Al-Naggar says, needs to revisit the attitude of accommodation it has shown to Ethiopia since the latter started to build the dam 10 years ago without an agreement with the downstream countries. Such an agreement should have been in place, he says, since Ethiopia is an upstream country on a transboundary river. Egypt should not now take options off the table, including the possible use of force, to protect its own survival, given the fact that its access to the Nile’s water is a matter of life and death.

 Egypt should also reconsider its future plans to manage its scarce water resources, first by upgrading rationalisation measures, especially on the agricultural front, given that most of Egypt’s freshwater resources are used for agricultural purposes. Reconsidering the choice of crops grown, expanding agriculture towards the north of the country where water loss as a result of evaporation is less, and upgrading irrigation methods are among the ideas that Al-Naggar offers in his book.

He also offers ideas for regional cooperation with the other countries along the Nile River, especially Uganda, Sudan, and South Sudan in order to maximise the volume of water available. Cutting down on water losses upstream, he says, should be a priority for Egypt. Another priority should be for Egypt to work with Nile partners on joint agricultural projects.

However, he warns against too ambitious and overly costly schemes, including one that proposes diverting some of the water from the Congo River into the Nile, given their highly complicated technical nature.

In sum, Al-Naggar’s book is not just the work of an informed economist. It also contains a wealth of facts and figures to support the arguments presented. The book sums up the concerns felt by many people in Egypt over the future of the country’s water security.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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