Sharing for survival: The management of the River Nile

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 28 Jan 2020

A cooperative approach with an ecological focus and a new legal regime could make life easier for all the Nile Basin countries, argues a recent book on the management of the River Nile

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Youssef M Hamada, a professor of agricultural economy, is a member of the Centre for Agricultural Economics Research Institute in Cairo. He published The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, its Impact on Egyptian Agriculture and the Potential for Alleviating Water Scarcity with Springer Verlag two years ago, a book in 187 pages that says that Egypt cannot accept any long-term cuts in the Nile water reaching the country since this would be extremely harmful. 

But Egypt, Hamada argues, like other Nile Basin countries, could work on improving the productivity of its irrigation systems. It could also show flexibility on interpretations of what is “legal colonial” and what is simply “legal” to accommodate the complaints of Ethiopia, and some other Nile Basin countries, that Egypt’s current share of the Nile water is based on contractual agreements concluded in the colonial era.

Hamada dedicates a whole chapter, the last in his 10-chapter book, to the better management of water systems, especially irrigation systems. However, he stresses that when all is said and done, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will have a huge impact that downstream countries like Egypt and Sudan cannot accept, not just in water share, but also in the ecological sense, especially in relation to the quality of the water and the quality of the resulting agriculture soil.

The starting point of his book, as Hamada puts it, is that “the key decisions are not about dams as such, but about options for water and energy development. They relate directly to one of the greatest challenges facing the world in this new century — the need to rethink the management of freshwater resources.” 

With the amount of water being withdrawn from the world’s lakes, rivers, and ground aquifers as a result of human intervention having doubled over the past 50 years, Hamada argues that today’s world is faced with major quarrels not just between nations but also within nations over water resources. The concern that Egypt has had over the past five years regarding the impact of the GERD on Egypt’s water and irrigation security is one of many similar situations where countries will have to work on “resolving competing interests collectively,” he adds.

Hamada states that the objective of his book is “to expand on the knowledge of current debates between Egypt and the other 11 riparian states: Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Eritrea (observer status), the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, and the Ethiopia states of the River Nile on issues of water security, and equitable, sustainable usage and management of the River Nile waters. It examines the reasons behind Ethiopia’s bold approach in challenging asymmetric power relations and looks into Egypt’s unilateral approach to the usage of the Nile waters.”

Hamada adds that his book “also evaluates the role of new factors within and outside Ethiopia, considering the Nile water system for universal water resource development and management.”

Hamada has sympathy for the “growing concern” that Egypt and Sudan have been expressing over “Ethiopia’s move to divert some of the waters of the Blue Nile River for the purpose of hydroelectricity.” Throughout his book he explains the rationale for this concern. For them, especially for Egypt, it is a basic matter of “water security”. 

In doing so, however, the author does not dismiss the developmental ambitions of Ethiopia that are supposedly the reason for its construction of the GERD. But he argues that the demands of Ethiopia could have been met without putting Egypt and Sudan, especially the first, face to face with threats of serious water scarcity. 

There should have been “the emergence of regional economic cooperation and integration” instead.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, its Impact on Egyptian Agriculture and the Potential for Allevi
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, its Impact on Egyptian Agriculture and the Potential for Alleviating Water Scarcity

NO COOPERATION: But instead of pursuing a cooperative approach, Hamada writes, “Ethiopia is building the momentum to create a sense of urgency on the issue of unequal water usage distribution and management against Egypt and Sudan, using unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral strategies.” 

Ethiopia has decided that its choices will be pursued with or without a legal framework because even if Ethiopia is not willing to acknowledge that the treaties that were signed on the management of the Nile during the colonial era are binding, it will still need to work with Egypt and Sudan on providing a new legal regime.

Irrespective of the existing “and in fact binding regime” and in the absence of a new legal regime for the Nile, which would need time and consent to work out, Ethiopia simply went ahead with its project.

He adds that the Ethiopian pursuit of the GERD has also been executed in the absence of ecological studies that would secure the quality of the soil in the downstream states, given that all dams and barrages built in the upstream states have an inevitable impact on the quality of soil and that there should be a joint decision of the upstream and downstream states to decide on how to secure minimum ecological damage.

But the GERD comes across as simply “a unilateral Ethiopian decision” that overlooks the text of binding treaties and the spirit of international law. “Ethiopians now stand as a legal challenger, not only to the timely relevance of the traditional Egyptian policy that founded itself on the perceptions of Ethiopia’s capacity limitations to make use of the Nile waters, but also to the adequacy of international law to preempt interstate misunderstandings,” Hamada writes. 

Today, he adds, “Egyptians, in demonstrating their loyalty to their policy, have to wait patiently until practice proves whether the dam will actually harm or not harm their advantages.” The outcome, Hamada suggests, is not hard to expect, given that “any disruption or impairment to the River Nile from natural or anthropogenic threats can potentially have far-reaching economic and social implications.”

“The lower-Basin states of Sudan and Egypt are also primarily agricultural economies but, in contrast to the upper-basin states, their agriculture is largely irrigation based, [and] in Egypt, a desert agricultural country, the entire life of the nation is dependent on the River’s waters.”

While, all the Nile Basin states see the Nile as a principal feature of their economies, “Egypt is the most dependent country on the Nile. The Nile provides Egypt with an average of 55.5 billion m3 of water, or 86 per cent of the country’s usable water. The Aswan Dam alone produces a third of Egypt’s electricity. It is estimated that Egypt relies on the Nile for 95 per cent of its water needs.” These facts, he suggests, have simply been overlooked by Ethiopia.

Moreover, Ethiopia has acted on the assumption that it only, and not Egypt nor Sudan, is in need of economic development and thus for greater access to water resources. 

Hamada explains that it was not impossible, given modern technology, to have found compromises. But the pursuit of a compromise that would serve security and development interests was not on the agenda of Ethiopia.

The reasons behind this attitude on the Ethiopia side are not fully articulated. Hamada alludes to the “foreign” encouragement of some states, not necessarily with the intention of inflicting harm on Egypt, but certainly with the intention of making economic gains for these “foreign” players, including China, whose growing economic interest in Africa gets direct reference from Hamada.

Ultimately, he says, Egypt has to deal with the changing reality of its water resources that will influence its economy and the lifestyle of its people. And the problem over the GERD might not necessarily be the last problem over Nile water sharing.

Nile Basin countries
Nile Basin countries

WATER FOR DEVELOPMENT: Hamada’s book suggests that with the growing pursuit of economic development and the increasing population, the competition over water will grow around the Nile Basin as part of a worldwide competition over water resources, especially in view of pollution problems that eat up water resources in terms of quality and quantity.

The expected construction of more large dams like the GERD, Hamada argues, could aggravate the anticipated problems because “while dams have contributed to economic growth in the 20th century, the services they provide have come at a cost. 

“Growing threats to the ecological integrity of the world’s watersheds come from rising populations, water pollution, deforestation, withdrawals of water for irrigation and municipal water supply, and the regulation of water flows resulting from the construction of large dams,” Hamada writes. 

With the GERD in particular there will be no equity in sharing the negative outcome of this mega dam as the lower-Basin countries, especially Egypt, will have to put up with more consequences than Ethiopia, given the impact of the GERD on the Nile “River’s transport sediment from eroding uplands to depositional areas near sea level.”

“A sediment budget should be developed for present and historical conditions as a fundamental basis for the evaluation of these impacts, many of which are cumulative in nature,” Hamada insists. Ethiopia, he adds, to the great concern of Egypt, has not offered sufficient reassurances on this matter. Nor has it comprehensively addressed other ecological consequences of the project.

Issues like the impact of the GERD on flood peaks and possible coastal erosion are not properly addressed in the Ethiopia’s mega project. “The supply of sediment to beaches from rivers can be reduced by dams because dams trap sediment and because large dams typically reduce the magnitude of floods, which transport the majority of sediment,” he writes.

As such, the GERD is not just negatively influencing Egypt’s agriculture through the decline of water share, but it will also lead to the possible decline of water quality and soil quality in the longer run. In view of this, it is not right for Ethiopia to argue that the negative consequences of the GERD on Egypt could be resolved through the adoption of more technologically advanced irrigation systems because newer irrigation systems do not resolve the negative impacts of the sediment issues that could be caused by the GERD.

That said, Hamada does not deny that Egypt should opt for newer water policies and management initiatives. Again, he reminds the reader, this is not an easy challenge to be addressed under the acute pressure caused by the GERD. New policies for irrigation need the full cooperation of farmers, and this is never an easy task anywhere in the world, especially in more traditional agricultural contexts.

“Water rights and trading are highly contentious issues. Win-win situations occur for farmers when they trade a part of their water to replace lost income while at the same time being able to finance water use efficiency gains from their remaining water allocation,” he writes.

Enhancing rain or groundwater-based irrigation systems and pursuing water desalination and recycling, Hamada says, could all help with facing up to water shortages, but again the problem is complex. 

Egypt should receive significant international support to be able to introduce and adopt new systems promptly and efficiently. It also needs time that Ethiopia does not seem willing to give in a context of a wider “inter-riparian relationship that has been hallmarked with mutual distrust, aggressive unilateralism, and open threats.”

This situation, Hamada says, is not helpful in avoiding future water conflicts, especially in the disturbing context of severe climate change and growing economic bids from external players in the Nile Basin countries that are “among the poorest in the world”.

The only way forward, Hamada says, is to establish cooperation-based mechanisms. But this cannot be secured if Ethiopia thinks it has all the support it needs to decline Egypt’s concerns.

The Nile Basin countries must be “under an obligation” to work together not just to share water but also to share development objectives and information on possible climate-change impacts on the River Nile.

After all, Hamada concludes, the unilateral construction of a mega-dam on the Blue Nile that provides Egypt with over two-thirds of its water from the Nile, in the absence of thorough studies or coherent agreements between Ethiopia and Egypt and Sudan, is a massive problem for Egypt. It also opens the door to uncoordinated schemes by all the Nile Basin countries at a crucial moment of climate change, leading to more conflicts than cooperation.

The international community must promote a cooperative approach among the Nile Basin countries. The prompt management of the GERD situation before it is too late is the right beginning to this path, he writes.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Sharing for survival 

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